Dorothy Cannell here: In response to a request from publisher I spent the better part of last week slogging out an outline for the third book in my mystery series featuring Florence Norris, housekeeper at an ancestral home in the English village of Dovecote Hatch. Period – early nineteen-thirties. This was not a fifty-page requirement, just a couple of paragraphs giving the gist of the plot; but on sitting down at the keyboard – forget fingers – I became all thumbs and toes. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the plot in my head. Indeed, I have whiled away considerable time during the past few months telling myself the story of Peril in the Parish, until it developed the feel of a movie – clear in places, grainy in others that I’d watched many times over. But, herein lay the problem with the outline; the movie didn’t always open in the same place. I had three chapter ones. And choosing among them fluctuated on weighing the benefits of each.
My original intent was to immediately introduce twenty-three-year-old Sophie Dawson who has an unfortunate history of unwillingly attracting the attentions of married men. After one particularly unfortunate episode she feels compelled to leave her London lodgings and seek sanctuary with an aunt in Dovecote Hatch. There the possibility of true love awaits her upon meeting the handsome new vicar of St. Peter’s Church, if she can survive a murderer’s plans for her to share the same fate as another young woman many years ago.
My second idea was to start with the aforementioned vicar, Aiden Carr, being informed by the sexton that there was a skeleton in a churchyard grave where it did not belong. The discovery being made when it was redug in order for an elderly woman to rejoin her twenty-year deceased husband beneath the sod. The skeleton could not have been his because it was female. I liked this opening because it focused immediately on a long held secret, whose revelation could endanger present lives.
Third thought was that I could get to the heart of current situation quicker if I provided an early indication as to the identity of the skeleton. Finally I decided to go with this one:
On a January night in 1933 The Dog and Whistle is empty of customers due to inclement weather until a stranger enters and over the course of several drinks confides in the proprietor, George Bird, a story from his past. He begins by saying that twenty years ago to the day he buried a loved one. George takes this in the accepted sense, of having attended her funeral, but the man proceeds to make clear he is speaking literally. As a fifteen-year-old boy he had been awakened by his parents in the early hours of a morning with the news that his sister (aged twenty) had bled to death after slashing her wrists in a tin bath tub. Amidst the grief was the awareness that a suicide burial would not be permitted in the churchyard, but the father had come up with an idea to circumvent this prohibition. This was to place her body in grave of a man who had been buried a few days before. Accomplishing this had required the son’s help. An act he now said had haunted him ever since. George was left wondering why he had been made the confidante of this tale.
This event finds connection the following May when the handsome new vicar of St. Peter’s Church is informed by the sexton that upon digging a grave for an elderly woman he had discovered a skeleton. One that could not be that of her twenty-year deceased husband because it had been buried only three feet deep. Shortly afterwards the vicar’s new bride receives a series of vicious anonymous letters, and in seeking into their origin, Florence Norris and George discover a link to that long ago suicide. One that a murderer will put to use for his or her own advantage.
I wonder if other writers dither half as much as I do about where to begin. It’s silly because nothing is cast in stone. I had written Chapter Three of Dovecote Hatch – due out in a few months, before coming up with an entirely new idea, bringing in a previously un-thought of character leading to my changing the identity of the murderer. But to put paid to dithering in getting going with the actual writing of Peril in the Parish. I have typed the first sentence:
“On a March evening in 1933 a pronouncement by Jimmy Griggs that the dingy, bedraggled mist looked like to thicken into fog made for a rare occurrence at the Dog and Whistle. By eight o’clock the taproom had emptied of customers. George Bird stood wiping down the bar …. “
Oh, yes … that dreaded first chapter. I often revise my first chapter dozens of times … it’s critical, and sets the tone for the whole book. So it’s got to be right. Glad someone else has the same problem!
Oh my, yes. I use Scrivener for a writing program. Thankfully, that lets me swap and replace scenes as the story develops. I often find that I have written the first few chapter (and generally one in the middle) for my own edification and they are slashed with a red pen before the book goes to the editor.