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.