“A chef pulls at the edges of their menus to see what new tastes can be created, a photographer tries new mediums, combining old and new, an engineer, a teacher, a social worker, turn their efforts sideways to gain new perspectives and possibly see new solutions to existing problems.“
When I wrote the last word of the fourth Frank Nagler mystery, “The Red Hand,” I leaned back in my chair exhausted. It had taken eighteen months to complete the work, half again as long as the other three.
I needed a break.
All writers reach that point. It can be a combination of writing-centric concerns – a certain what-do-I-do-now-panic, too many ideas, no place to put them, or something outside of writing, something real-world, because writers do have real lives.
For me it was a combination. I had had shoulder surgery to correct painful tears and bone spurs which made even typing painful, but it was more… writing “The Red Hand” was harder than I anticipated.
I had written three Frank Nagler books over four years. The third one, “The Weight of Living” is an ever-changing story with many plot twists, and deep character emotions. The protagonist, Ironton, N.J. detective Frank Nagler is put through an emotional wringer and I leave him hanging off a cliff, so to speak.
For readers of the series, I knew I had to provide Frank a way off that cliff, and for me as the writer, I had to ask questions about how I would continue to tell Frank’s story.
So I started Book Five, the continuation of the series, and Book Four, the prequel to the whole thing. I finished Book Four, and have Book Five in various stages of construction.
But I was in a rut.
“The Red Hand” is good. It provides many answers to questions that I and readers had about Frank, his wife, Martha, his hometown, Ironton, N.J., and is a spooky thriller at the same time.
The writing problem was that I knew the story too well. I needed to know less about it, not more. That process of unlearning was time-consuming and exhausting.
So I sort of stopped writing.
I wrote a few things — it was not writer’s block, something I parodied in a piece called “Why writing a first draft is like performing stand-up with hecklers” – it can be found here: https://wp.me/p1mc2c-BM — but was an examination of what I wrote and how I wrote it.
Like most writers I have files with ideas and incomplete stories, and since I began writing when we all used typewriters I have a large plastic tub with manila folders and boxes of typewritten manuscripts. You never throw out an idea; everything can be a work in progress.
That does not mean that you pull out the manuscript and begin the story where you left off. You’re a different person, a different writer than you were when you began that work. You’ve aged, maybe had some success, moved, met new people, read more books, found friends, lost friends, wondered about the difference, gazed at different stars.
A chef pulls at the edges of their menus to see what new tastes can be created, a photographer tries new mediums, combining old and new, an engineer, a teacher, a social worker, turn their efforts sideways to gain new perspectives and possibly see new solutions to existing problems.
The works I pulled out were a story that years ago I had called “Oswald’s War,” about conflicts in a small Maine town. I had written some character scenes, and made notes on others.
The other piece was something called “Another Day of Here.” And it began: “Harry Demain didn’t make it to work on Tuesday.
And that night, he didn’t make it home for dinner.
A day later, when he hadn’t appeared either at work or his home, his wife Louise, after she checked his desk calendar for a possible business trip she had forgotten, and by then sufficiently worried, called the police.”
That’s all I had written. What could I do with that?
Is it Harry’s story or Louise’s?
I’ve made more progress, if that is the word, with the other tale, now entitled, “The year the world came to Mount Jensen, Maine.”
These stories are narrative fiction, at least in theory.
I’m not abandoning mystery writing.
Indeed, while pondering all of these other questions, I found a framework to use for the fifth Frank Nagler book: A copy cat not of crime methods, but of Frank’s investigative methods turned to crime. For good measure, reporter Jimmy Dawson’s news website has been hacked, and Lauren Fox, Nagler’s companion, may be running for mayor. I also have to resolve Leonard’s condition and his relationship with Calista Knox. So, a lot of stuff. Might be called “The Rhythm Method,” because that is what Frank tried to find, a rhythm to the crimes.
Taking on the other genres is this: Mystery writing is a highly manipulative. The reader is at times being led to the solution, and at other times, away from it.
What these new stories are is a challenge: They will require a different approach to character, setting, plotting. They are also a learning experience: How to tell the stories of the several characters. How to mine the changes that have occurred to me, the author? What things do I know that are different? What can I learn that I then can apply to the Frank Nagler mysteries?
The first book I wrote when I was in my early twenties was “Welcome to Gokey Manor,” a coming-of-age saga. The second one I wrote was an early version of a Frank Nagler mystery.
So here I am today, performing the same juggling act.