Dear Diary: I’m Dead.
Will Anyone Care?

By PJ Parrish

I’ve been having a tough time these days trying to raise the dead.

My work in progress is progressing in fits and starts and the other day I realized part of the problem:  I am not seeing dead people.

Here’s the case in a nutshell: My hero Louis Kincaid now works for an elite cold case squad attached to the Michigan State Police. He has discovered his mercurial boss, Captain Mark Steele, has been obsessed by an unidentified young woman who was brutally murdered ten years ago.  Louis decided to  look into the case at first just to find out what makes his boss tick.  But of course, the cold case — someone hit the woman on the head with a rock and left her to freeze to death in winter in the Michigan sand dunes — comes to obsess Louis as well.

I’ve been struggling to find the best entry point into the story. So for inspiration, I went back and re-read one of the passages from Margaret Atwood’s book Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing. She talks about how insistent the voices of the dead can be in the solving of a fictional crime and how writers must listen very carefully when the dead begin to talk:

“All writers learn from the dead…because the dead control the past, they control the stories, and also certain kinds of truth. So if you are going to indulge in narration, you’ll have to deal, sooner or later, with those from previous layers of time. The dead may guard the treasure, but it’s useless treasure unless it can be brought back to the land of the living and allowed to enter time once more — which means to enter the realm of the audience, the realm of the readers, the realm of change.”

Get that? The dead control the stories.

We talk here at TKZ often about how to make characters jump off the page, how to make the protagonist compelling, how to make the villain original. But how to you make the victims memorable? How do you make a dead person come alive?

I can hear your question – why bother? They’re dead and gone and they are only a catalyst for telling a story about the protagonist. But I disagree. The hero has to care about the victim or his job is meaningless. Might as well make him a burger flipper in a hairnet. The case has to work on him as he works the case. So if you, the writer, don’t care about the victim, how can you expect the hero to? Or worse, how can you expect the reader to care? You have to create sympathy for the bedeviled.

In our third book, Thicker Than Water, our hero Louis Kincaid is trying to solve the rape and murder of Kitty Jagger. She has been dead for 20 years but Louis talks to her boss, her best friend, the detective who worked her case, anyone who remembers her. He goes to her home and carefully examines everything in her room. What slowly emerges is a Rashamon portrait of Kitty that sends the case in a new direction even as it builds sympathy for the dead girl.

But I can’t do that with this new book because the victim remains unidentified almost to the end. She has no name and thus no past to reconstruct through friends, family or official record. So she has to speak for herself.

And the only way to do it is by using — ack! ack! — the hoary literary device of The Journal.

I fought the idea for a long time. Diaries, journals and letters in fiction can be big clichés. Because they jerk the reader out of the linear narrative, they can jarring. And because they are a brake on the forward motion of the plot, they can be annoying. The reader sees the type change to italics, or sees the tagline: Judith’s diary, April 1, 1943, and they think, “Oh for corn’s sake, just go back to the present!”

I mentioned in my last post here that I was reading an Edgar finalist book, Ragged Lake by Ron Corbett. It’s a juicy first novel about a laconic cop named Frank Yakabusti working the gruesome murder of a man, wife and daughter in a remote cabin in the Canadian wilderness. The cop, in search of suspects, has to find out something about the dead couple’s past but no one seems to know much about them in this Godforsaken place where the collapse of the saw mill industry has left ghost towns and ghost people who’ve been lost and forgotten.

Yak goes to talk to an old Cree woman who is the closest thing this place has to a town elder. The woman tells Yak a young woman came to her three days ago, alone and scared and said someone “had come back for her.” She asked the Cree woman to keep a book for her. It turns out to be a journal. So, of course, the chapter ends with, “Yakabuski turned the journal to the window for better light and began to read.

We then get several chapters of Lucy Whiteduck’s journal that tell us how this lovely lonely girl fell into a black abyss, and how she struggled to get out by sitting in the back of AA meetings and working at McDonald’s – all the while fearing the major creep that she ran away from would find her again.

The first line of the first diary entry is: “I have begun to think I should hide this journal.”

Corbett toggles between these journal entries and Yak working the case. Yak is learning about the victim and who was chasing her, and we are learning to mourn her.

I’ve decided to use this same device in my work in progress but with a slight twist. My opening chapter is written from my victim’s point of view on the last night of her life. She is alive, but she knows what is coming. Here is my opening:

These are my last words. Words are important. That’s why I have left so many for you. Words that I have written to you in the last ten years, so many words. I didn’t even know if you were alive or dead. But still, I had to get them out, all these words, all these things I never was able to say to you in real life.

I’m not writing these words. They are alive only in my head. Alive for as long as I am alive. And I know now that I will soon be dead.

She dies soon after this. But somewhere in the plot, Louis will find the journal and it will lead him to new suspects and a couple of red herrings. This journal will help buck up the murky middle, creating new obstacles, false starts, solid clues and costly detours. The journal will also, I hope, make the reader care about the victim.

But I have to be really careful in trying to pull this off. Because when it’s done badly, it’s deadly.

There are plenty of novels that use journals or diaries. Dracula begins with Jonathan Harker’s journal, goes to Dr. Seward’s diary and to Mina Harker’s journal and Lucy Westenra’s diary. In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Celie writes letters to God. Daniel Keyes became famous on the basis of one diary novella Flowers For Algernon. And then of course, there’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. The Diary of Adrian Mole et al.  But I couldn’t think of any novels wherein the diary writer is dead.

Unless you count the head-fake Gone Girl. Gillian Flynn uses diary entries from Amy to make her “come alive” after we assume she has been abducted and murdered. Chapter 1 is written from her husband Nick’s point of view and he lays out the break domestic landscape we are about to enter. Chapter 2 is titled AMY ELLIOT January 8, 2005. Diary Entry.  In it, Amy recounts in her florid style how she met and fell in love with Nick. The book toggles between Nick in present time and Amy’s diary until the time gap catches up and we then find out Amy is alive and we then get her POV in present time.

Does it work? Well, Gone Girl was a massive hit book. But I have to admit I didn’t like reading Amy’s diary. But I think this was because I found her voice so annoying, like nails-on the blackboard annoying. In contrast, I am fascinated by Lucy Whiteduck in Corbett’s book. Her diary entries are poignant, and make me feel her loss. She’s dead but comes alive on the page.

For my opening of my WIP, I was partially inspired by Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. It isn’t written in diary form — the dead girl speaks directly to the reader. It opens thusly:

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. In newspaper photos of missing girls from the seventies, most looked like me: white girls with mousy brown hair. This was before kids of all races and genders started appearing on milk cartons or in the daily mail. It was still back when people believed things like this didn’t happen.

The entire book is narrated by Susie in first person, as she recalls her horrible rape and murder, comments about how life on earth is going without her, and watches her murder case progress. I remember thinking, when I read it years ago, that its opening was dazzling and daring. But as compelling as Susie’s voice was, the book felt claustrophobic to me. That might just go to taste, however. I tend to like multiple points of view.

So, how about you guys? Do diaries and journals in novels work for you? Any advice as I go down this road? I’ve never tried this kind of structure before, but it feels like the right way to tell this young woman’s story. Maybe I do hear dead people after all.  I’ll let you know.

 

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

34 thoughts on “Dear Diary: I’m Dead.
Will Anyone Care?

  1. I firmly believe that the dead shouldn’t be plot devices to pick up the pace of a sagging middle or have them as only cardboard cutouts. They must have a face for the reader. Mine have haunted my investigators as they follow the last hours of the victim’s life or visit the places where the victim had lived. This gives insight into the detective and how the case gets under their skin.

    In the YA book, 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher, a girl commits suicide before the story starts. She makes sure that audio tapes get out to the 13 people who contributed to her making that decision. One central character, Clay, is the main voice. A nice kid that makes the reader wonder how he ever got on her list. The reader listens to her voice on tape as Clay stays up all night, following her footsteps and a map. The tape makes it intimate and the reader gets to know a whole cast of characters as Clay becomes obsessed with who else got tapes and who is distributing them. Mysteries within mysteries.

    Pure genius, but it all starts with giving a face to the dead. They’re a character too.

    • Huh…interesting! Leave it to “the kids” to come up with a modernization on the old diary device. :). I don’t read YA consistently, but I am amazed by some of the writing and plotting I see in the books today. These writers seem fearless about using new techniques and odd POVs. And their readers love them for it.

      • Teen readers aren’t hampered by “this is the way we do things” syndrome. They love new ways to tell a story and the best YA authors rise to that challenge.

        I love reading YA and many adult readers do too. YAs are big on cross genre, anything to tell an unexpected story. These books might combine Sci-fi with horror but on a foundation of romance. Young readers will devour anything if the premise rocks their minds.

  2. Check out Chevy Stevens “Never Knowing”.
    A Book written in first person using the device of psychiatrist sessions. The sessions however are thr first person journal-like entries of the protagonist directed towards her psychiatrist whom she had a previous ongoing therapeutic relationship.
    The book has very interesting premise. The device worked well for me.
    By fashioning it as communications to her psychiatrist it allowed revelation of the deepest and most significant aspects of the character’s life
    Perhaps a similar device could work for you and your deceased character. Such privileged/confidential communications could Reveal a distillate of your character.
    I enjoyed the book and would recommend it beyond its demonstration of an interesting technique.
    All the best to you as you grapple with your writing challenge.

    • Hey Tom,
      You reminded me of Steven’s first book, “Still Missing,” which I read when it came out years ago. It, too, uses the device of a patient recounting in psychiatric sessions what happened to her when she was abducted and impregnated. Good book!

  3. I agree that journal/diary entries have to be well done, but I don’t shun them, any more than prologues or any other technique that gets poo-pooed. And I’ve read my share of really good books that used those devices.

    I would also argue that as more people isolate themselves with technology, and we become less & less able to relate to other humans (at least in my observation), such means would be more likely to investigate a dead person.

    • That’s a good point, BK, about the social isolation. My story takes place in 1990, so my characters aren’t affected by such issues, but you’ve made me think of other tacks I can take with this. And yeah, as much as I rant about prologues, they can be very effective when done well.

  4. The diary entries in Gone Girl work because they’re written as actual scenes and not just narrative, and given immediacy by being in First Person present tense POV. I think I’d glaze over long entries that felt like narrative summary.

    Also, be careful about long, blocky paragraphs. I read a book recently that had a long letter as a chapter, and it was hard to get through.

    • Yeah, good points, Jim. You have to give thought to the actual typography and how the diary entry looks on the page. It has to be set off from the regular narrative physically but if you get too cutesy, it can be annoying. I started a book a while back that used letters between lovers, and the letter type face was semi-cursive. Ugh. Gave up on it. (Maybe if the story had been stronger, I would have gutted it out.)

    • The hugely popular YA book THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER (that was made into a movie) was completely written in journal entries that all began with Dear Friend. At first it seemed daunting to read, but it didn’t take long for me to become completely engrossed in the over-arching storylines. The movie was better than the book (which is unusual) but I was amazed at how well the book of journal entries triggered my imagination.

  5. In one series, Karen Slaughter opens with a scene from the victim’s POV on the day she dies, and it’s very effective. When the body is discovered the reader already mourns the character. Another option is to research a real-world cold case to find out how a Jane Doe weighed on the investigators. If you’re interested, here’s an overview of the 1983 Walker County Jane Doe case: http://crimefeed.com/2018/02/34906/ I hope I’m not sending you down a rabbit hole of research.

    • Love me them rabbit holes, Sue. I am a research nut. Often research is just time-suck-excuse-to-not-write. But more often, it leads you to sparks. Thanks for the link!

  6. Diary entries don’t faze me as a reader. The italics thing and the date/place header for the entry are jarring, but what a fun way to be able to play with voices. Supposedly diaries are super private, so the writer doesn’t hold back when he or she makes an entry. Could be a church lady cussing her head off. A dainty prom queen with hordes of suitors but is secretly a lesbian. Or maybe a suit-n-tie businessman who slips into his hillbilly upbringing dialogue.

    • That’s an interesting insight…that a person will let loose in a diary in a way they can’t in life. And what roads that opens for the writer.

  7. Kris, a well-executed diary/journal doesn’t put me off at all. It appeals to my voyeur instinct. I’m curious to read a character’s thoughts and feelings that s/he never intended anyone to know.

    Great first line: “I have begun to think I should hide this journal.”

    Looking forward to reading the finished work!

  8. It works for me as a reader so long as I am drawn into the story within the story, i.e., the diary. I just started reading A Game for All the Family by Sophie Hannah (she is amazing) and she uses it with a twist…the protagonist finds a school assignment written by her teenaged daughter that tells the fictional story of a murder that happens in a house that’s a lot like theirs by a girl who is the same age as the protag’s daughter. The chapters alternate between the story action and the daughter’s school assignment story, which the mother is reading with dread. Hannah does a great job and it is very suspenseful.

  9. For anyone writing in first person POV, using diaries, letters, emails, blog posts, instant messages, police/FBI reports, psychiatric examinations, and such are a possible way to introduce multiple voices into the story. Check out the book Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (https://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/07/books/whered-you-go-bernadette-a-maria-semple-novel.html) as a great example of how this is done. The book uses all the tricks mentioned above (and many more). It’s important to keep things easy on the eye, though. Paragraphs full of italics can be distracting. I love novels with these kinds of devices, if they are used well.

    Btw, for TKZers who have seen the movie Gone Girl, read the book as an example of craft. Good stuff.

    Your book sounds interesting, Kris. I’m sure the idea about how to do everything will come to you, probably in the middle of the night or while you’re doing something other than writing.

    • Thanks Joanne. You guys have given me a bunch of books to go look for. I’ve always found it inspiring to see how other authors have handled odd devices. It doesn’t bother me, in that it tempts me to steal. It sort of shines a light on the path ahead.

  10. In the classic movie, Laura, a detective (Dana Andrews) falls in love with a missing woman’s portrait. Excellent movie. You might get some ideas for your story.

    • Brian,
      Funny you should mention Laura. It was part of the inspiration for our new book — a detective (in our case Capt. Steele) who becomes obsessed with a dead woman. He doesn’t have her portrait, however, just a crime scene photo of her face.

  11. Journals: a great device. Will anyone care if you’re dead?

    Anne Frank.

  12. I also read Ragged Lake, and found the journal entries annoying. I couldn’t grasp the (to me) disparity between what I understood about the girl, who was uneducated, writing the prose of the entries. Sounded more like the author talking, not the character. (Can you tell I’m a Deep POV freak.)

    However, if done well, and as JSP pointed out, they’re not hard on the eyes, I will accept them. And isn’t that the case for everything. “If. Done. Well.”

  13. PJ,
    Still thinking about your dilemma. Maybe no diary is the answer. Maybe talking to friends and family during the investigation can take its place. You could focus on his personal reaction to the information as well as how it investigation proceeds. Double track.

    • Brian,
      That is the way I prefer reconstructing a victim’s life. But this woman remains unidentified until far into the book so they can’t trace her family and friends. But as some point, they get her name and that sets them on a new track.

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