Kate Flora: Last week, when a friend, Clea Simon, had to have surgery the week her book came out, eight of us got together to do a Zoom book launch for her. After we’d each read our assigned portion, we spent some time discussing the book. Not a difficult task, since Clea is a pro, even though a cozy about the Witch Cats of Cambridge wouldn’t normally be my cup of tea.
It was so interesting to get to talk about craft, and the many ways that a writer tells the reader about the book that’s coming. We talked about how the protagonist is introduced, through her own thoughts as well as through her observations about others. We talked about setting and how that is presented and how the author gives a sense of place through the details that are shared. It was fun to talk craft with seven other writers, some of whom I’d never met before. An hour of reading and fascinating conversation and To Conjure a Killer was launched.
I woke up the next day still thinking about first paragraphs and the job they have to do for a book, and that pondering sent me back to my first Joe Burgess police procedural, Playing God. The books opens this way:
The small black dog skittered into the street, shining eyes registering canine astonishment that a vehicle dared to be out at this hour. Burgess stomped on the brakes, the Explorer responding with orgasmic ABS shudders, stopping just short of the beast. Four-wheel drive beating out four-foot traction. With a look Burgess decided to take as gratitude, the dog turned and trotted away. A good result. The cops waiting with the body wouldn’t have taken kindly to freezing their nuts off while their detective worked a dead dog scene.
We may not always get it right, but that first paragraph, first page, first chapter has many jobs to do. Introduce the protagonist. Introduce the setting, Introduce the fact that the book is going to be about a murder. Perhaps share the time of year, the time of day, the narrator’s state of mind. Share something that will hook the reader on the story and compel them to read on to know what happens next or what the story is about.
Rereading that paragraph sent me to the bookshelf to see what I’d done in other books. Staring, of course, with my first published book, the first book in my Thea Kozak series, Chosen for Death. Here’s how that book opens:
New England weather can be very unpredictable in September. Mornings that start off crisp and cold can be steaming hot by noon. That was how I found myself sitting in the sweltering church slowly baking in a jacket that I couldn’t take off. I couldn’t take it off because the matching dress was sleeveless and I’d been raised by a mother who knew to the depths of her soul that you couldn’t wear a sleeveless dress in church. Everyone else in the Boston area was spending that glorious Saturday outside. Not that I would have been. With the private school year just getting started, the consulting business I worked for had worked stacked up like planes at Logan Airport at five p.m. But I wasn’t at the beach or at work. I was at my sister Carrie’s funeral.
First book. I didn’t know anything about the rules for a first paragraph or the importance of a hook, and yet there it was. Time of year, setting, the fact that the narrator has a demanding job, and the kicker: she’s at her sister’s funeral. Soon, she will find herself trying to solve her sister’s murder, and we will be following Thea Kozak as she does.
In my nonfiction books, I often have a lot of false starts before I find the right way to open, even though I know how the story will go. With Finding Amy, I jump right into the story:
It is every parent’s nightmare—your child goes out on Saturday night and vanishes off the face of the earth. It is also, sadly, something that happens far too often—a sensible and independent young woman who thinks she know how to take care of herself crosses paths with a predator. The bad guy doesn’t look evil. He is charming, charismatic, lively, and fun. It is only when he has his victim alone that his true self—his violent, explosive, self-indulgent, and remorseless side—emerges. Suddenly, a lifetime of striving toward maturity and self-awareness, of good decisions and generous acts, is changed by one bad choice. This is one of those stories.
If I’ve done the job right, a reader will now need to know what happened and who the characters are.
The opening of The Angel of Knowlton Park is probably the darkest and most graphic of any that I’ve written. It was so troubling that when I was writing the book, I cut it out and tried a different opening several times. In the end, as books often seem to have their own truths and their own way that they want to be written, I came back to this, troubling as it is”
The fat, blue-black fly circled lazily in the July heat before landing in the child’s open eye. Burgess stifled his instinctive impulse to brush it away. He’d just started working this scene, and he wasn’t letting anything muck up his chances of learning everything it had to say about what had happened to this small dead boy.
What do we know? That it’s July. It’s hot. A small boy had been killed, and the narrator is an experienced detective force to war between his protective instincts and his professional need to hold that back and observe the scene.
Part of a writer’s job, always, is to use all the available details to develop character and story, and here there’s an immediate insight into Joe Burgess—who he is and how he works—that will be developed throughout the story.
I could go on and on, of course, with so many books. And my small dive into some of them shows me that there are some I might open differently. But writing is a craft that is always learned and never mastered, and so I have more openings ahead where I will face the challenge of where and how the story begins.