Plotting fiction is like making rock candy. Left to itself, boiled sugar water just sits there. Nothing happens. Well, yes, things happen, but they take so long that it’s a rare soul who’ll just sit there and watch.
Not the stuff of plot.
Day-to-day life on Martha’s Vineyard is like boiled sugar water. Things happen, but most of them unfold s-l-o-w-l-y. Even when the results are noteworthy, the steps taken to get there are mundane, quotidian, dull. Follow the newspapers for a few months if you don’t believe me.
No surprise, then, that most novels written about Martha’s Vineyard are murder mysteries. Killing someone off is like dropping a string in the sugar water. Formless liquid crystallizes around the string. Murder shakes people out of their day-to-day routines. They say and do things they wouldn’t do otherwise.
Homicides are rare here. Fiction writers are all in the alternate-reality business, especially if we write about real places, but though I’m happy to read about alternate Martha’s Vineyards where murder happens several times a year, I don’t want to create one. As a plot device, murder makes me just a little bit queasy. My fictional alternate reality is a sort of psychic map of Martha’s Vineyard. I want it to mesh with the Vineyard I (think I) live on.
Dramatic events do happen, of course. Once in a while a quiet undercurrent will explode into a headline. This spring, a loose dog jumped a fence and chased down and killed a miniature horse. An on-leave police officer obstructed the firefighters who showed up to extinguish a fire at her home. Such incidents are like strings in the sugar water, good grist for plot, but they have their own challenges. Have you ever really listened to how we recount such incidents for someone who wasn’t there?
“So Jane parked in front of her sister’s house — you know her sister, right? You met her at Cynthia’s Groundhog Day party — no, that’s her older sister; this was the younger one, Margaret — no, you don’t want to call her Peggy, that’s their mother’s name and the two of them barely speak — Is that what happened? I hadn’t heard that — this sister lives in Edgartown, back behind the gas station — yeah, there’s been some trouble there, I’m getting to that — Jane just sat in the car because there was a young guy standing there with a wool cap on even though it’s August — isn’t this heat outrageous? Yeah, I know it’s how they dress, but Jane never saw him before and he had a skateboard under one arm — really, I almost hit one last year when he came shooting into Five Corners from the post office . . .”
Every little thing that happens has at least half a dozen stories feeding into it. Trying to prune and shape these into a plot that readers can follow is, to put it mildly, a challenge.
When I started Mud of the Place, I couldn’t plot my way out of a paper bag. I learned by trial and error, and with the help of a couple of books: Plot, pictured above, and Beginnings, Middles & Ends, by sf writer Nancy Kress.
I didn’t kill anyone off in Mud, but the string I dropped into the sugar water involved a shooting that could have got someone killed. All sorts of interesting stuff crystallized around that shooting.
In Squatters’ Speakeasy the string is two archers who shoot an arrow into a real estate sign. Arrows are potentially lethal weapons, but my archers don’t have homicide in mind. No one has died.