September 2022: How the Novel Begins and Ends

A novel should have a beginning and an end—and what we call the pesky middle. More about those pesky middles later. This month Janet Dawson discusses beginnings, while D. Z. Church tackles endings.

Janet Dawson

A Very Good Place to Start

Take a Number quote“Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.”

According to Oscar Hammerstein II, anyway. He was writing the lyrics to a song. When I’m writing a book, figuring out where to start is a big decision. And it changes, depending on the book.

Do I start at the beginning of the story? A logical question. But where does the story begin? Is it when my protagonist gets involved in the narrative? Or does the story begin at some point in the past where one person’s actions, omissions, or decisions start the dominoes falling. And then we have chapter one. The scenario I just outlined seems to be the norm for my books. I start somewhere after the dominoes begin to fall, and then I fill in necessary information with backstory.

My first Jeri Howard novel, Kindred Crimes, has what I think is the classic private eye novel beginning—Jeri Howard in her Oakland office meeting with a prospective client. Is it cliched? Maybe. But I rewrote that first chapter multiple times, and this is the beginning that works for this book. The PI-and-client beginning also works for two other Jeri Howard novels, Nobody’s Child and Water Signs, while the beginning chapters of Don’t Turn Your Back on the Ocean and The Devil Close Behind start with Jeri on vacation, away from the office until someone asks her to investigate something.

In Take a Number, I start with Jeri meeting the murder victim, the only time we see him alive. That scene happens when Jeri is already working on the case, which involves delving into the man’s finances. The next chapters are a flashback, to show how and why Jeri was hired and the progression of her investigation, until we reach the point where the killer strikes. The investigation veers away from money and Jeri is now looking for a killer.

Cold Trail is one of Jeri’s personal cases. It begins with Jeri in the morgue looking at a body, all the while hoping the dead man is not her missing brother.

I use the protagonist-meets-client beginning for The Sacrificial Daughter, the first in a new series featuring geriatric care manager Kay Dexter. In that first chapter, Kay is meeting a prospective client in her office. As the woman describes the ongoing situation with her elderly mother, I give some background on the profession and the ways Kay can assist the family.

But I use a different approach for Death Rides the Zephyr, the first in my historical mystery series featuring Jill McLeod. This was a new series and I needed to introduce readers to Jill and her job as a Zephyrette, a hostess aboard the California Zephyr. I began with Jill’s arrival at the train, walking with her through the train before the passengers arrive and board the train for its journey from Oakland, California to Chicago, Illinois. I gave readers a feeling for the layout of the train as well as Jill’s duties.

There’s another other question the writer must consider—how much of that background info to put into the book. It’s rather like cooking and deciding what kind of spices to add to the stew, and in what quantity. It’s the cook’s decision, as well as the writer’s. We just hope the reader thinks it’s all good.

Of course, when I started writing Jill’s third adventure, I had a logical beginning. The book’s title is The Ghost in Roomette Four.

Start with the ghost!

I am not seeing this, Jill McLeod told herself. But she was.

Light shimmered at eye level, about ten feet in front of her. The apparition seemed to have no source. None, anyway, that Jill could discern. What’s more, she could see through it.

D.Z. Church

Endings, Oh My!

Perfidia quoteBeginnings are so easy – not! But endings …

A few years ago, everyone had a serial killer that stalked across books hoping readers would want to follow the protagonist’s journey as the stalker stalked friends, family, casual acquaintances … until as a reader I didn’t care what happened, because it didn’t, there was always a new killer stalking across books.

Now, I guess, it is putting the ending of the first book in the second, but no mystery or thriller writer would do that? Or would they? Talk about cheap, non-reader friendly tricks to increase sales.

The standalone ending.

The ending must be satisfying, tie up the loose ends and if there is a dash of romance, satisfy the reader’s romantic sensibilities. I had a reviewer comment that one of my books came to an abrupt, pat ending, leaving me hyper-sensitive about that sort of thing.

I fixed it by removing one line from the book. Now, while the romance isn’t wrapped up in a shiny ribbon, the possibility of it lets the reader fill in the blanks. It was that easy. One sentence. And a great learning experience that is always at the back of my mind.

In another book, there is a lingering presence, a death not dealt with by either party. Resolving that relationship was challenging, required many endings, until I realized it was baked in the text and all I needed to do was resolve the mystifying epigram on a tombstone to free the heroine from her loss.

The final scene should bring the story to a believable conclusion based on the personalities and actions of the characters. If the characters are rich enough, readers will give them life after the last page. I don’t need to define the romantic outcome. But I do need to wrap up the book, leaving no question unanswered, just possibilities.

The series an ending for each book and the arc

With the Cooper Vietnam Era Quartet, each book deals with the events affecting the Cooper family during a specific year in the Vietnam War, not a new crime. Each book is self-contained, with characters and story arcs developing across books, under the belief that if the characters are strong and intriguing enough, readers would follow them to the end of the Quartet. I did find myself in an unusual fix though, the Quartet was designed as a trio of books.

But when I finished Pay Back, it was l-o-n-g. I whacked a hundred pages off the end, read them, and realized that they began the conclusion of the arc. So, Don’t Tell was born, providing an ending full of possibilities to a family saga, told in four thrillers.

In my newest series, the protagonist isn’t looking for trouble when she finds a body, but she is for adventure. Writing the ending to the first book, Unbecoming a Lady, was easy because the characters were all new and getting to know each other. So, it’s ending is all about possibilities including romance, adventure, and discovery.

But the ending for the second book has been a struggle. The subject matter is intense and drives the narrative, with every character affected by it, none more so than the male protagonist. The first ending I wrote didn’t sit well with me. I know the hero; he wouldn’t have done what I had him doing. And I couldn’t get him to be himself, until I realized I had fluffed an essential scene well toward the end of the book. I wrote a second ending, a third, then a fourth.

Finally, I rewrote that scene, brought in the undertaker, and some humor, unburied the message which then drove the ending to a wry, delightful, in-character set of possibilities. It took forever and meant divorcing myself from my planned ending. Thank the undertaker.

And — only the characters, with all their character, live on waiting for their next adventure.

Janet Dawson

A Wonderful Place to Die: Arrested Decay in Bodie

BodieBodie, California is located on a treeless plateau in the Big Basin, in the eastern Sierra Nevada, north of Mono Lake and the town of Lee Vining, more than 8300 feet above sea level. The town is located some 13 miles off US 395. That road starts out paved, then becomes gravel and dirt.

The first time I visited the place, my Toyota rocking through the ruts, my traveling companion said, you sure must want to see this place.

I did. This ghost town became a California state park back in 1962. It’s in a state of arrested decay. That means the buildings are maintained as they were found that year. No restoration—just preserved in their aged, weathered appearance.

Gold was discovered on Bodie Bluff in 1859, by a man named William Bodey. Miners poured in. By 1880, the town’s population was estimated at 10,000 and the stamp mills that processed ore ran continuously. Some estimates put the number of saloons at 65. The red light district had everything from brothels to opium dens and the population included families, miners, outlaws, prostitutes, and everything in between. Over the years, Bodie’s mines produced millions in gold.

Like books, Bodie had a beginning, and then an end. A long slow decline, a population that moved on. The post office closed in 1942. The town was designated a historical landmark in 1961, then came state park status.

The park is snowed in during the winter months, though there are park rangers in residence. It’s windy and the nights can be cold during the summer, because of the elevation. It’s worth a visit just to see the eerie isolation of the place and to imagine a time when the stamp mills pounded the ore and the saloons rang with laughter and gunfire.

Why, yes, I do feel a historical novel coming on!

Aside: I do have a cat named Bodie. I acquired him not long after a trip to Bodie.

Bodie the cat