by Zoë Sharp
OK, I know that statement seems to make very little sense, and maybe it doesn't. As I keep discovering, there are as many different ways to write a book as there are writers out there. Maybe it's just me.
Inevitably, in any story that has a strong element of mystery or suspense, there will be a lot of misdirection going on. Either towards the reader, or towards the main characters themselves. You have your initial set-up – the discovery of the body, the crime, the precipitating event – which raises the first questions for your protagonist. What's going on?
At the start of one of the earlier Charlie Fox books, FIRST DROP, Charlie has been given the unenviable task of guarding the fifteen-year-old son of a wealthy computer programmer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. As the newbie on the team, she knows it's the rough end of the deal – a baby-sitting job. Nobody seriously expects that the boy, Trey, will be a target, and he's a major pain in the arse. But, someone does make a determined attempt to snatch Trey from the theme park where Charlie has reluctantly accompanied him and, from then on, nothing is straightforward. She recognises the guy who made a grab for the boy, realises she can't go to the cops, and when she ventures back to the house, she finds the place totally cleared out. Trey's father, Keith, and his entire close-protection team – including Charlie's lover, Sean – have disappeared. It's the start of the Spring Break weekend. She is alone and on the run with the kid, in a strange country.
That's the initial set-up for the book. I knew, at that point, what was really going on. I knew what had happened to Keith and Sean, and all the others. And when two men follow Charlie from the house, trying to get hold of Trey, I knew who they were, too.
Charlie, on the other hand, has no idea what's going on at this point. Trey, with the kind of overactive imagination of your average fifteen-year-old, is very little help. She doesn't know why he's so important and he appears not to know that, either. As the book progresses, more facts are revealed to Charlie, and she attempts to assemble them in a way that makes senses. Some of the facts are correct. Others are lies, told to her in an attempt to get her to give herself up and hand over the boy. The lies have as much effect as the truths in forming her opinions and the basis for her actions. Being human, and inexperienced in this line of work, she doesn't always interpret them correctly, and she makes mistakes. She is forced to take drastic action in order to preserve not only her own life, but that of her bratty principal.
My difficulty has always been that I know the truths from the lies. I know which pieces of information are vital, and which only seem important, but in reality are of little value and should be ignored. Sliding in the gold among the gravel is always a very tricky balance.
Because, as a reader, there's nothing worse than happening across giant leaps made by the characters with little or nothing to go on. Pouncing on a minor piece of information and giving it apparently unwarranted significance. As a writer, I think it's a very difficult thing to judge – avoiding that "Oh, come off it!" moment. At the other end of the scale, of course, are the protagonists who never seem to quite manage to put it together until the villain has his final monologue and is forced to spell it out for them. "You fools! Didn't you realise it was ME who …" Well, you get the idea. And bumbling heroes, although they have their place, have never quite appealed to me as a reader. I like my heroes … well, heroic, I suppose.
At the same time, there's little tension in reading about a character who never gets things wrong, who always follows the right clue, draws the right conclusion, wins every fist fight and shoots straight all the time. They have to misinterpret the signs at some point, don't they? Otherwise, where's the fun in that?
The current Charlie work-in-progress is set partly in a cult in Southern California. It starts with Charlie and Sean keeping a watching brief on the man they've been tasked to retrieve from the cult's clutches, Thomas Witney. They have been told that Witney originally joined in an attempt to prove that the cult was responsible for the death of his son, leaving instructions that he was to be extracted inside a year, by force if necessary. But time has gone past and he's still on the inside. Nobody knows why, or what he discovered that made him want to stay. Charlie and Sean's initial observations make them fear for Witney's safety, but nothing is as it seems.
I thought I'd approach my false trails and misdirections in a slightly different way for this book. I had my backbone outline, as usual, but when oddities cropped up in the early stages, I decided to let them run and see where they led me. Thus in one of the early chapters, when Charlie and Sean see a hysterical girl make a break for it from the cult compound, only to be run to ground and brought back weeping, I had no clear idea who she was or what role she had to play in the story. I knew the obvious conclusion couldn't be the right one, but at that stage I wasn't sure what was the truth. Of course, although this made it much easier to have Charlie pondering over possible scenarios, eventually I knew I had to either work out a convincing back story for the girl, or edit her out.
Fortunately, in the writing, I have found her story. And yes, it did turn out to be important.
So, my question is, as a reader do you want such deliberate missteps in a story? And do those occasional giant leaps of reasoning and deductive power bother you, or do you accept them as part of the storytelling process?
As writers, do you weave in misconceptions as you go, or add them afterwards? When you have your characters heading off in the wrong direction, following the wrong clues, is it deliberate misdirection on your part, or did you genuinely not know, at the time, if they were going the right way or not?
This week's Word of the Week is actually two words – conflagrate and deflagrate. Conflagrate means to burn up, with its archaic form, conflagrant – burning. Deflagrate, on the other hand, means to burn suddenly, generally with flame and crackling noise. In chemistry, one would use a deflagrating-spoon, which is a cup with a long vertical shank for handling chemicals that exhibit such properties. Only a small distinction, but such things tickle me …
I'm out and about a lot today, but I will get back in time to answer any comments so please bear with me!