“Another opening, another show.”
That first line is from a song in the musical Kiss Me, Kate. It can also apply to novels. The opening of a book is where the writer sets the hook to draw in readers and keep them turning those pages, setting the stage for the story to come.
The opening introduces the protagonist and tells the reader who this person is—someone with attitude, or a dark past. Maybe both. These paragraphs may also hint at other characters and relationships to be revealed later.
Here the writer sets the period. Present or past, and if the latter, how far back in the past. The opening hints at the book’s pacing. It also reveals whether the book will be in first or third person and tells the reader which tense to expect, past or present. There might be a prologue that sets the stage for that all important chapter one.
Will this be a traditional mystery? Is it light-hearted, with a sense of humor? Or is the story to come dark, tinged with danger and drama, the protagonist confronted with ever-increasing obstacles. Or it could be both.
Where to open the book and what to put in those vital paragraphs is one of the most important choices a writer makes.
“Another Opening, Another Show”
I’ve published 19 books, so it’s hard to pick a favorite opening. It’s like picking my favorite cat!
The Jeri Howard series features a medium-boiled private investigator in Oakland and are told in the first person. In each book, Jeri takes on a case, dealing with various obstacles as she sleuths her way to the solution.
The first book in the series, Kindred Crimes, has what I think of as the classic private eye opening, with the detective in her office, meeting with a client for the first time. It definitely sets the tone for the book, introduces Jeri and her client, hinting at problems to come.
The books in my Jill McLeod series are different. They’re set in the past, the early 1950s, and told in the third person. Jill is an amateur sleuth, a Zephyrette, a train hostess aboard the passenger train called the California Zephyr. She rides the rails between the Bay Area and Chicago, and her encounters with people on the trains lead to the situations that form the plots. The opening paragraphs of the first book, Death Rides the Zephyr, introduce the train as well as Jill, because that location is so important to the story.
For this essay, though, let’s look at the first three paragraphs of Cold Trail, the 11th book in the Jeri Howard series:
I felt cold, and it wasn’t only because of the morgue’s temperature. The pathologist, a middle-aged woman in green scrubs, walked to the oversized stainless steel refrigerator and opened the door. She pulled out the drawer that held a covered body.
“You know there was a fire,” the pathologist said, by way of warning.
I nodded, glancing at Griffin and Harris. They were detectives with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office Coroner Unit. They’d met me here on this sunny Tuesday in August and they had prepared me for the condition of the corpse I was about to view.
What do these opening paragraphs convey? Someone is dead. Jeri’s there, accompanied by two law enforcement officers, to view the body. She is dreading what she might see when the medical examiner raises the sheet.
What can the reader infer from this information? Jeri might be able to identify the body. Her disquiet comes not because of the injuries but because of who might be under that sheet. The detectives’ presence indicates this probably isn’t a natural death. The pathologist mentions a fire, so we can guess the body has been damaged.
Subsequent paragraphs reveal that it’s possible the body is that of Jeri’s brother Brian, who has been missing for several days. The ME hasn’t been able to get fingerprints because of the corpse’s condition. When the sheet is lifted, Jeri—and readers—learn that the dead man was shot. And it’s not Brian.
Jeri’s feelings of relief are tempered by the fact that Brian is still missing and she is no closer to finding him. Then we learn that Brian has a MedicAlert bracelet and it was found near the body. As the chapter ends, Jeri tells the detectives she doesn’t have any idea how Brian’s MedicAlert wound up with a corpse on a burned-out boat in a local marina. What’s unstated, but present in Jeri’s mind, is that her brother is now a person of interest in a homicide.
Jeri Howard—private eye and older sister—is determined to find out what’s going on. She walks out of the morgue to join her waiting family—her father and mother, her aunt, and her sister-in-law Sheila. They are all greatly relieved to learn that the dead man is not Brian. But Sheila’s reaction is telling as well, revealing cracks in the marriage that Jeri thought was solid. Jeri must explore all these aspects to find out what happened and why, hoping that this will lead her to Brian, or at least find out what happened to him.
I like this opening for several reasons. It’s immediate, urgent, and easy to visualize Jeri standing there in the morgue, surrounded by white and stainless steel surfaces, ready to do something that she has to do, full of foreboding.
What’s your favorite opening from one of my books? Tell me why. I’d enjoy hearing from you.
D. Z. Church
An Invitation to Thrills…
I feel like I am writing an essay for school titled My Favorite Opening. I like the opening of all my books because each was designed to set the pace, the characters, the period, and the mood and I think they accomplish that. I write mystery thrillers, no PI, no detached observer, just some apparent innocent stuck in the middle of the middle who must find their way out or… My three standalones, all have a female protagonist. Though one does get an extra heap of help from the last male on earth she would wish. The Cooper Quartet is a special case, with protagonists switching lead roles between books, they are historical fiction as well as thrillers. Do I like their openings? Yes, I do.
For the purposes of this essay, I am going to pick Perfidia because … well just because. In writing the opening paragraphs, I had four goals: 1) to set the tone of the book, 2) introduce the protagonist, her voice and spunk, 3) and her relationship with her father 4) and set the hook. Perfidia is a historical fiction that unwinds in 1972, nothing big about the year except regarding the ultimate destination: Barbados. It starts though in Bakersfield, CA.
Here are the first three paragraphs:
My father, Del Lassiter, is a handsome man in his early fifties. Dark hair shot through with gray, blue eyes coupled with a nice easy smile that makes him the darling of all his female acquaintances whom he dates prodigiously but never marries. My girlfriends all adore him, especially my best friend, Gail. When he pours his honeyed-peanut voice over them, they swoon.
A week ago on Saturday, his home office phone rang long after midnight. He padded on bare feet to answer his 1950s vintage telephone. I listened to the soft drone of his voice for ten minutes by the clock on my nightstand. He hung up and dialed again. I realized by the tenor of his voice, he was talking to a woman. I drifted off. He was gone when I woke, leaving behind only a Del like note: Family business, see you soon.
I was used to Del’s notes. He disappeared semi-frequently. When he was gone, I missed his sunny side-up-ness. But in all those notes, he had never mentioned family. If you had asked me, I would have sworn I had none. Twenty-seven strikes me as late in life to spring family on your daughter.
The protagonist, Olivia Lassiter, is an unmarried third grade teacher. We don’t discover her name until about the 18th paragraph when the DEA shows up at her door. Why? Because this is her story to tell, which she does, believing herself ordinary in every way. But in those first three paragraphs, we learn she lives with her father, implying a close relationship, that he is handsome, slick, from the South, and is off on family business. Which is a surprise for Olivia. Why doesn’t she know she has family? What has he been hiding all these years? Who are they? Where are they?
“Twenty-seven strikes me as late in life to spring family on your daughter.” That surprise is the hook, and the first of many surprises to come.
If this hook is successful, the reader will discover that from the moment the DEA leaves, and Olivia runs to her father’s safety deposit box, the romp is on. Discovery after discovery sets Olivia on a trajectory to uncover how extraordinary she is, that she indeed has a family, one she never would have conjured, and whose quest will change everything in her life. Forever. All she has to do is stay alive.
D. Z. Church
A Wonderful Place to Haunt: The Mizpah Hotel, Tonopah, NV
The five-story Mizpah Hotel in Tonopah, Nevada is a treat, or trick or treat depending. Named after the Mizpah Mine, it has been voted the most haunted hotel in the country twice and is on the National Trust’s list of historic hotels. It opened in 1907 and served as a social hub for the mining community, dubbed “the finest hotel on the desert” by the local press.
Tonopah has an origin story of its own, that begins circa 1900. The legend of discovery claims that a prospector, Jim Butler, went looking for a burro that had wandered off during the night seeking shelter near a rock outcropping. When Butler found the animal the next morning, he selected an unusually heavy rock to throw at it and stumbled on the second-richest silver strike in Nevada history.
Now Tonopah is at the end of the Alien Highway, mysteriously passing a road named the Crystal (?) Gate, which wanders off to the south and brings whole episodes of The X Files to mind. The highway ends at US 6 then continued to a dusty town built on a main drag and the Tonopah Historic Mining Park.
There you will find the Mizpah Hotel, complete with a logbook in the lobby where you can write down any haunted encounters you may have, some include strange sounds, eerie whispers, and pearls appearing on pillows. When the chandelier in our small, period appointed, comfy room started to tinkle, we wondered, then felt the draft from our air conditioner.
It is haunted, they say by the famous Lady in Red, who roams the hotel. According to legend, she is either the ghost of a prostitute who was beaten and murdered on the fifth floor by a jealous customer after learning he was one of many. Or a woman caught cheating and killed in a jealous rage by her husband after he missed his train. Either way, people reserve the room in which it occurred for a stay.
The hotel is a surprise, with a popular bar, a restaurant, and, of course, the chance to meet the undead. A portrait of the Lady in Red hangs in the hotel’s sitting room.
If you want to know more, the Lady in Red haunting of the Mizpah was featured in season 5, episode 2 of Ghost Adventures on the Travel Channel.