by Sheila Connolly
I've been working happily on my new book, which my publisher wants July 1st. For you writers out there, you know how it goes when things are rolling smoothly. You're in the groove, the zone. The words are flowing, and plot twists are blossoming like daffodils (and falling over like daffodils, but that's a different problem). All's right with the world.
I had written about thirty-five thousand words and then looked at my rather casual outline. I was eight days into the story–and there was no weekend. Now, one could call my protagonist a workaholic, but still. The world expects breaks now and then, and my books are supposed to take place in the real world, or a reasonable facsimile thereof.
The problem is, I have no idea what Nell Pratt does over the weekend, or in any of her "off-screen" time. And worse, I have no idea how much my readers really want to know.
Nell commutes from her suburban home to her city job by train. That means I can put her on the train for a couple of hours a day, where she can read the newspaper or a book, or she can stare pensively out the window and think about the current murder on her plate, which presumably helps her solve it by page 278. Thinking is good–in moderation.
But that's not going to help out with the weekend, where there's still time to fill. Does anyone really care about what she eats for dinner, when she does the laundry, how often she cleans her house or pays the bills? We all live ordinary daily lives, and we don't want to spend time and money reading about someone else doing all that boring stuff.
Sometimes I can send her off to do something to "clear her head" (so she can get back to solving murders, fresh as a daisy, on Monday morning). I can make her take a hike in the country, go antiquing, see a movie. But someone–either my editor or a reader–is going to tell me that whatever mundane activity I choose doesn't contribute anything to the plot, which is true.
My poor heroine has no pets and apparently no hobbies. She's reasonably handy at home improvement, but how many times can she paint the bathroom? She lives in a small house with no yard, so gardening is out of the question.
And she has no friends. In my own defense, the original version of this story included a book club that met every few weeks. It was like a Greek chorus, made up of women ranging in age from teens to 70s, who would listen to my heroine's woes and provide sympathy and advice. I liked the group, but in the interest of shortening and tightening the book, it disappeared. Yes, it didn't advance the plot, but it filled in a few blanks–and gave Nell some additional human contact.
We know that as writers, or at least those of us who write traditional mysteries, we must create a protagonist with whom a reader can identify and empathize. We have to flesh out a character who is believable, with quirks and foibles, but with a strong and solid core. How do we do that? Does knowing that my heroine is a lousy housekeeper make her more endearing? Or do you say, when confronted with her stack of dirty dishes, "get on with the story already"?
On the other hand, do you feel cheated when a writer says something like, "She spent the weekend doing necessary chores" and stops there? Two days, gone in one sentence. That doesn't seem right either: given that a successful murder investigation usually takes only a week or two, throwing away two days feels wrong. If Nell were a cop she could work around the clock until the murderer was caught, but she's an amateur, on the sidelines, and she's stuck with those pesky weekends.
Still, a writer doesn't want to be compulsive, accounting for every minute of the day. One could write, for example, "She pushed her chair back from the desk, stood up, and walked around the desk to the door, which she opened with her right hand, simultaneously turning off the light switch with her left hand." Or, "she picked up her blue toothbrush and carefully spread a one-inch worm of shiny green toothpaste with sparkles in it over the bristles, noting as she did that she really ought to get out a new toothbrush, as her long-time dentist had recommended more than once." Are you asleep yet? No, just drowned in minutiae. You have put the book down and gone off to do something a bit more stimulating, like balancing your checkbook.
How do I find a balance? I have to leave some room for the reader to fill in the blanks from his or her own imagination. At the same time, I have to build enough of an outline so that the reader can color it in–and I can't just leave out big pieces. What's the best solution?
One final note: you might have noticed that the calendar at the top of the post has only six days in a week. Maybe that's the solution!