I’ve had reason to reflect on this existential question while emptying two houses, one week after the other. It took me away from my third psychological mystery in the Selkie Moon series, but in the middle of the many decisions about what to keep and what to send to the charity shop, it suddenly struck me that furniture moving is a lot like mystery writing.
With furniture moving there are small things and big things, old things and new things, important things and trivial things. They all need to be sorted with different amounts of energy for each decision. It’s the same with mystery writing. As you’re working through each draft you’ve got to sift through scenes and decide which details are important to move the unfolding mystery along and which things are minor clues or add colour to the story.
When you’re moving house you find things you’ve forgotten. You packed them away or they migrated to the back of a cupboard and disappeared. This also happens when you return to your notebook, or you find a napkin from a restaurant in your bag, where you scribbled an idea for the mystery and forgot about it. There’s a moment of exhilaration as the lost idea or object brings new energy to the project or begs to be included.
Some items of furniture don’t fit in the new house. That antique easel displaying a page from an illuminated manuscript drew the eye in the old conservatory, but in the apartment there isn’t space for it. It’s a leftover from an old life. You’ve moved on. This can happen in a mystery when the redraft exposes a scene that’s clunky and distracting. It seemed to work when you wrote it, but the story has evolved and it no longer fits. If you hang on it’s going to cause stress and when you finally take the plunge and drop it off at the charity shop or lose that scene from the manuscript, something magic happens. You’ve created a space and it’s amazing what will appear from that one act of courage.
Even though that vase was quirky when you bought it, there’s no place for it in the new house, but it brings back memories you don’t want to forget. You display the vase in the new place and it looks ridiculous but you don’t care. This can happen when you don’t want to give up a scene in your mystery even though the editor says it’s jarring, or worse, boring. But there it stays in the manuscript like a wart on a ring finger. You know it’s got to go but not without a fight.
Like the stamp collection from uncle Melvin that your mother insists you must treasure, there are some things you just have to keep, even if they come with baggage. It’s the same with mystery writing. Some characters turn up with backstories you weren’t expecting and try as you might to rewrite their history, they defy you. Then you’ve got to find space for them and make the situation work.
When moving to a new home spaces have to be found for the big things – the bed, the sofas, the dining table. This is more important than finding a wall for your favourite painting. Once the dominant things are in place, then the smaller pieces can be moved around until the arrangement is pleasing. In mystery writing, the dominant plot elements are rearranged so the critical events keep the reader on the edge of their seat. This happens in a structural edit. Then the supporting clues and descriptions find their place around them.
When unpacking pieces of furniture they’re first placed in a disorderly fashion creating unexpected connections. The lamp is standing in front of a painting stacked against the wall and the lampshade brings out the colours in the painting in a way you hadn’t noticed because they used to be in different rooms. You decide to place them together. In mystery writing, you’ll put an idea in the manuscript, not knowing what it means, and then suddenly in the middle of the night your brain will connect it to another element in the story, or a completely new idea will connect back to it in an unexpected way, adding a refreshing depth to the mystery.
Furniture moving is exhausting and you have to leave the house and go to a cafe. When you return you can see how a new arrangement will solve a space problem. It’s the same with mystery writing – getting away from the draft, often by sleeping on it, will bring a solution to whatever problem you were struggling with.
Moving house isn’t just about unpacking furniture, it’s about creating a home. There’s a deeper purpose to the actions. With a mystery it’s not just about creating a story, it’s about taking the reader on a journey, using the unfolding puzzle to throw new light on human nature and create an experience on multiple levels. This deeper meaning brings energy to both tasks.
If you’ve ever moved house using only family members, you’ll know that they don’t have the skills of an expert. The move happens but it’s a struggle and things get scratched and broken, relationships get frayed. With a manuscript, getting your best friend’s opinion rarely works. You need an editor at more than one stage of the writing process. Like professional removalists can make a house move easy, editors have independent opinions and special techniques that will transform your story with a professional touch.
Thank you for reading this blog post. If you’d like to comment please go to the Selkie Moon Mystery Facebook page.
You can receive occasional blog posts in your inbox here.