This blog series is a chronicle, in real time, of the act of developing a story and writing a novel. Consequently, it will contain spoilers. If you want to come to the finished novel with a clean slate, you should read it first (when it finally gets published) and then come back to see how the sausage is made.
After The Reluctant Saint came out, I pondered my next writing project. A coterie of fans have been clamoring for a sequel, and that is high on my list. Of course, somebody always wants another Fred book.
But I wanted to try something completely different. A bonafide whodunit. A few of my novels have some elements of a whodunit, especially Muffin Man and Endless Vacation, but I wanted to do an actual, legit, hit it right down the middle detective book.
There was just one snag: every detective must have his thing. His quirk.
- Holmes is the seemingly cold-blooded thinking machine. He has the pipe, the violin, the disguises. even a seven-percent solution of cocaine.
- Poirot has the little grey cells, the finicky obsession with style and personal appearance, and the visceral, almost manic obsession with justice.
- Wolfe has his orchids and agoraphobia.
- Morse has his Jaguar, opera, and Masonic conspiracy theories
- Bosch has his Vietnam vet tunnel rat thing, his love of jazz, and poor impulse control.
I spent months coming up with a thing. And that thing was: my detective is homeless.
After considerable brainstorming with my comrades, I settled on a guy who is homeless not because he is down on his luck, but by choice, a man who has rejected the system and chooses to live off the grid.
And this is the point where I broke from my usual habit of working through things at the keyboard, or at the very least, with a lab book and a pen. Instead, I went out on the deck with a scotch and a cigar and a digital recorder, hit record, and asked my detective to tell me about himself. For the next 15 minutes, I channeled my detective, writing down everything I/he said.
I was astounded at what came out, and it gave me a starting point for weeks of research. I read The Art of Zen and Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. I read Travels with Lizbeth: Three Years on the Road and on the Streets by Lars Eighner. I subscribed to the Steve1989MREInfo YouTube channel, listening to hours of reviews of vintage and current MREs. (I’m still subscribed 4 years later.) I called a guy I know who was homeless for several years and who now works with the very organization that helped him get off the streets.
Then I ran smack dab into reality. I bought my current house to renovate the 900 sq ft workshop into a one-bedroom apartment for my mother. However, to make that happen, I had to re-purpose the time I spend writing fiction toward getting new clients for the day job. My New Year’s resolution was to not write another novel until the apartment was finished.
But I couldn’t let the detective novel go. After several months, like a good Pharisee, I found a loophole. I had vowed to not write another novel, but I didn’t say anything about short stories. I would write a series of short stories that I could later stitch together into a novel.
Because the channeling session worked out so well, I decided to dictate my first draft.
To understand the shocking nature of this turn of events, consider that my first draft process involves long periods of staring at the wall, followed by a few frantic minutes of wildly typing before returning to wall staring.
As you may surmise, a process that features long periods of silence isn’t compatible with talking into a recorder. But I chose to double down on shaking things up.
Because this blog series is an exercise in complete transparency of process, I present to you the first session recording, followed by the first draft edit, which is four paragraphs. I recommend you compare the recording to the the manuscript as you listen.
Detective Novel: Session 1
Dictation recording (4 min)