Friday, February 02, 2007

First Chapter

I'm working on the plot of the mystery I've decided I need to write. Why do I need to write this? Because it's a good exercise in plotting, and it's outside my comfort zone. My comfort zone being: know where the story starts, and know where it ends, and start at the beginning and write toward the end. This is how I wrote the first manuscript I completed. The result was a year of writing and a year and a half of revision. Genre-wise, the first one was a thriller, and I guess that method was okay for that kind of story, it just sort of evolved on its own. But, I've decided to write a genre mystery, and the plotting has to lead the writing. So, I'm stumbling along in unknown territory, researching and learning as I go. Here's the first chapter:



Chapter One


Up to my ass in alligators. I’ve said it before but never have I meant it so literally. Waist deep in the swamp, wading through the brackish water as pale beams of moonlight cut through the trees, I knew there were alligators.
I held my Glock at shoulder level as I moved toward the dim yellow light of the cabin, sliding from tree to tree and trying not to stumble on the roots in the water.
My eyes caught movement to the right, an indistinct shape shifted in my peripheral vision. When I tried to focus, I saw only varying degrees of darkness, layers of shadows. All was motionless under the low-hanging Spanish moss, and I wondered if I’d seen any movement at all.
The swamp was noisy. Fifteen different species of frogs thrived in this tide-controlled bog, and it sounded like every one of them was starting a riot. This would work to my advantage, masking any sound I might make on my approach. I would try not to disturb the frogs. Or the alligators.
The cabin was a wooden shack with a tin roof, built on stilts and sitting four feet above the water. A deck was built around the outside, the front portion of which was covered, and from there a short set of wooden steps led down to a dock-like walkway, running fifteen feet and connecting to solid ground. The moon provided ample illumination to see a dark Chevy Silverado parked in the drive at the end of the walkway.
Amber light glowed weakly from an open window in the back of the shack. I listened for voices as I advanced, but I could hear nothing over the frogs. From the back deck a small dock floated with the rise and fall of the tide. This was my destination.
I stopped to take inventory of my surroundings and noticed two dark bumps on the surface of the water about twenty feet to my left. When I looked more closely I recognized them as the eyes of an alligator and, judging by the length of its snout, I gauged it to be a rather large one. It was pointed in my direction but it wasn’t moving. I stood still and held my breath, waiting to see if the creature was going to stir. It seemed that the monster was sizing me up.
Just as I decided I should breathe again, the gator dropped beneath the surface and vanished. Now I was a statue. A frog could have hopped onto my gun and spit in my eye and I wouldn’t have blinked. Time hung like a crooked picture.
A mosquito buzzed by my ear and a moment later I felt the familiar tingle on my neck. I could almost hear it sucking my blood but I resisted the urge to slap it. A couple of seasons came and went with no sign of the gator. The mosquito was still draining me. I couldn’t stand there all night, I decided to take my chances. But first I had my revenge on the insect, ending its life in a liquid splatter on my neck.
I covered the last thirty yards to the dock quickly. A canoe was tied to the corner, and from the dock a wooden ladder lead up a couple of feet to the deck. I stood in the water below, listening for sounds of movement in the house, but I couldn’t detect any noise coming from inside. From my position I could see the Chevy truck alone in the drive, and it looked like the one owned by my current employer, the man who had hired me to find out what happened to his wife. I wasn’t able to make a positive ID, there are thousands of dark Chevrolet trucks on the road, and I couldn’t imagine why Richard Golden would be here. I couldn’t think of any good reason.
I removed my small backpack and placed it on the dock, floating just above waist level. I unzipped it and took out a hunting knife in a leather sheath and laid it down, and moved the pack to the back edge of the dock.
I pulled myself quietly up onto the wooden planks and crouched there, listening for any human sound. I saw a disturbance in the water to the left, and through a pool of shimmering moonlight the gator was gliding away. The swirl from its tail was at least twelve feet behind the snout as it faded like a ghost into the cypresses.
I picked up the knife and put it in the waistband of my jeans, around by the small of my back. I hoped there would be no circumstance to defend myself, but the feeling wasn’t optimistic. My instincts were humming, something felt wrong with the whole scene.
The frogs, in concert, went silent, leaving a conspicuous void in the air. The crescent moon held its breath, and the stars twinkled without a sound. A lonely cricket threw out a wager, but no one would take the bet and he soon gave up trying.
I clicked the safety off the Glock and climbed up the ladder to the deck. Keeping low, I moved to the back door and peered through the window into a dark, rustic kitchen, which was open to the living area, forming one large room. I tried the door; it was locked. There was light streaming through a doorway in the wall of the living area, coming from the room with the open window to my left. I saw no shadows, but I knew someone had to be in that room.
I stayed low and moved along the wall, creeping to the window. From this angle, the head of a bunk bed was visible against the wall on the far side. I leaned around, widening my view into the room. I stopped when I saw movement.
A shadow up on the wall was swinging slowly to and fro. A silhouette, with the head cocked at an unnatural angle, and a thin shadow leading up from the neck. My scalp tightened. I leaned back against the wall and took a couple of deep breaths.
I cocked the hammer and spun quickly, bringing the gun up and into the window, panning the room before I looked at the hanging man. He was alone.
It was Richard Golden.
What fresh hell is this?
I ducked back down and tried to gather my senses. I moved quickly around the deck, performing a search of the perimeter but there was no one lurking outside the house. I tried the front door. It swung open, creaking mournfully as I slipped inside.
Entering the bedroom, I saw that the rope was tied to an exposed beam in the ceiling. Below was a chair lying on its side, and the toes of his Nikes swung inches above, twisting slowly. He was clad in faded jeans and a green tee shirt. His right arm was crooked at the elbow and two fingers of his hand were wedged between his neck and the rope, like tugging at his collar. His collar was definitely too tight.
The light was coming from a lamp sitting on a nightstand, next to the bathroom door. I reached into the bathroom and flicked on the light, spun back and waited, but no one came flying out or took a shot at me. I looked in and it was vacant.
I checked the man’s left wrist for a pulse, but there was no life left in him. His hand was cool to the touch. I looked at his swollen face, just long enough to confirm my earlier identification, and turned away. The face of a hanging man is a dreadful thing to see, and the image of his bulging eyes and protruding tongue would be hard to forget.
Obvious questions blasted through my mind. Why is Richard Golden here? And why is he hanging by his neck? Is this suicide or murder?
His presence was so completely unexpected that I decided it must somehow be tied to my reason for being here, and the sinister implications of this sent a hard chill through my system.
I turned off the bathroom light and unplugged the lamp, went out to the deck to retrieve my pack. I inspected the dock area in the light of the moon. It was bare and dry, with the exception of my own wet markings. The canoe tied there was old and weathered, and held a small pool of rainwater and leaves in the bottom.
There was a length of rope lying by the other corner of the dock, tied to a cleat. I picked up the loose end and it felt damp. I felt the rope that secured the canoe, and it didn’t feel quite as moist. I had an urge to use my flashlight for a look into the swamp but I didn’t want to make myself an easy target, if anyone happened to be lurking out there. I listened for any unusual sounds, but all I heard were a few frogs working to get the chorus started again.
I skulked out to the driveway and felt the hood of the truck. It wasn’t hot, but in the heat of the swamp it was hard to tell how long it might have been sitting.
I looked around the clearing, wondering what the hell was going on here.
I’d had an instinct that I was being set up, which is why I came to the cabin through the swamp. I was suspicious about the caller who’d requested the meeting and given me directions to this place.
The caller had been vague, promising information on “the case you’re working on.”
“Which case? I have several,” I lied.
“The lady.”
“What kind of information?”
“Information you’ll be glad to have.” He gave me directions to the shack.
“When?”
“As soon as you can get there.”
“Why do we have to meet eight miles from nowhere?”
“You’ll understand when you get there.”
“I need a better reason than that.”
“No, you don’t.”
How could I not come out here? Sure, it might have been a bullshit lead, someone playing a sick joke, but I couldn’t take the chance. My curiosity wouldn’t stand for it.
Could it have been Richard who called, disguising his voice? That’s a possibility, but not much of one. I have a God given knack for hearing dialect. Richard has – had – a distinct South Georgia drawl, thick as molasses. I identified the caller’s voice as having hints of a Philly accent. Even if Richard could disguise his voice, his best effort couldn’t pull that off.
And if he could, what’s the point? He could have iced himself at his house and saved me a trip through the swamp.
I shined my light through the window of the truck and saw some papers on the passenger seat, a cell phone lying on top, and an empty whisky bottle on the floorboard. Both doors were locked.
The shell and gravel driveway wasn’t a surface from which tire tracks could be lifted. I saw other markings, but there was no way to tell how fresh they were.
I wanted to take a quick look around inside the shack before I called the police, just to satisfy my own curiosity. It wasn’t any of my business, really, this was a case for the local detectives. Murder or suicide, it wasn’t my job to decide, but I saw no reason not to access whatever information I could gather. I’d earned that much slogging through the swamp.
I went back inside and looked around in the dark. I felt safer with the lights out. There was nothing remarkable about the room. It was the bedroom of a backwoods fish camp. Two sets of bunk beds against the walls and a worn out rug lying in the middle of the floor. An ancient chest of drawers between the windows on the front wall, the small table and lamp next to the bathroom door.
The room was neat, the beds were made and nothing was out of place, except Richard. I put on my gloves and opened the drawers on the dresser, they were all empty. Nothing in the nightstand, either. The bathroom held no clues.
The detectives would know I snooped around; my soggy trail wouldn’t be hard to follow. I wouldn’t try to lie about it, but I was careful not to disturb the scene in a way that would be disruptive to their investigation.
I decided not to press my luck by searching Richard for the keys to his truck and having a look inside, as much as I wanted to. Poking around the scene is one thing, frisking a dead man is quite another.
I left the shack and walked up the drive to the dirt road running east and west. I’d left my truck about a half mile up the road. I drove back toward civilization until my cell phone showed reception. I called the police, told them what I’d found, and then I waited.


So ends chapter one. Not too many people read this blog, but anyone that happens to stumble across it, comments are welcome. Peace and God Bless.

22 Comments:

At 3:19 PM , Blogger Dave said...

If you read me on the other blogs (EE and Miss Snark) you'll know what I'm going to say next.

Cut half of the words. It's 2100 words and it would be great at half that.

The action and tension atart when the body is discovered. Cut everything before that and then rewrite the last half to include the swamp.

I know how ruthless that sounds. I know what trauma that will cause you. But, I think your story will have a better opening.

It's not that I don't like the swamp stuff, but it doesn't set the scene in the cabin - the murder scene. It's a meditation on the narrator. TRy revealing the narrator as he discovers the body and examines the murder scene. Surely a murder scene has intersting details that will help solve the murder. If the outside of the cabin is important to the solution of the mystery, reveal it after the body is found.

Dave

 
At 5:30 PM , Blogger Wonderwood said...

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment Dave. I do read your comments on the other blogs, so I'm not surprised by what you've said. I don't always agree with you, but your comments always give food for thought. Thanks again!

 
At 5:34 PM , Blogger Brenda Bradshaw said...

Hi there! Thanks for inviting us to read your first chapter. Way more guts than me, that's for sure.

As usual, I agree with Dave. (I swear, I do have my own opinions, but I seem to always post after Dave!)

Bottom line: I started scanning. Scanning is bad. You don't want scanners. Open with the action. (I say that all the time, I know). The action isn't in the swamp. I think you could keep the swamp set up, the mention of the frogs and fear of alligators, etc., and still have only one paragraph then GET TO THAT BODY.

I hope you post if/when you change/update or if you post more. I'm very interested in reading more. I like to watch things "in progress" and note the changes made.

 
At 6:10 PM , Blogger Wonderwood said...

Thanks for your comments Brenda, I do appreciate your taking the time to read and comment. I don't really subscribe to the theory that you have to drop the body in the first paragraph or two, I believe in building tension and drama. I guess I'm old school that way. The authors I read the most, and try somewhat to emulate, usually spend at least a few paragraphs building tension. Raymond Chandler is my hero, and his stories rarely open with the body, but rather build up to it. Maybe I'm not accomplishing that, but that's my intent, anyway. Everyone has their opinion, and I like to hear different views, that's why I invited comments, and I do appreciate yours and Dave's and anyone else that cares to comment. It makes me take a hard look at my writing, and usually results in revisions and improvements. Thanks again!

 
At 4:32 AM , Blogger Kaycee said...

HI WW -- I found you from surfing out of Southern writer's blog. Since she is on hiatus, I had to find other entertainment, and my search found YOU. Isn't that kewl?

I have to agree with the second poster up there, in a way. I sort of started scanning too, but only because after the gator swam away,I wasn't worried about the character's safety.

I am writing a mystery too, my sequel and actually book five of my writing life. The death in my book doesn't happen until around page fifteen.

I tend to like to read cozies not thrillers and truly the body does show up much later, even though a mention of one soon to appear might be sooner as a hook.

Thanks for the blog post, I will be a regular visitor now.

Feel free to find me too, I am writing space on SW's blogroll.

 
At 5:35 AM , Blogger Wonderwood said...

Hi Kaycee! Thanks for your comments. Well, that's three out of three that don't get hooked quickly enough, or else I get there attention but then lose it. What I find helpful about your comment is WHEN you started scanning - after the gator swam away. Perhaps the short piece of dialogue should be rearranged to come in right there, or the body appears almost immediately following the gator's exit. Whatever I decide to do, that piece of information is extremely helpful. Thanks very much for reading and commenting. I'm going to re-examine this chapter and see what I can do to keep the reader's attention and pick up the pace. Thanks!

 
At 8:18 AM , Blogger Wonderwood said...

OR, maybe the gator just vanishes beneath the surface but isn't seen swimming away? This would ratchet the tension level up a notch perhaps? Hmmm, I like that idea. Kaycee, you might not have even realized that your comment about when and why you started scanning might have captured the exact nature of the problem. I hope you drop in again!

 
At 5:38 PM , Anonymous pubd2b@yahoo.com said...

Hey WW... like the new version a WHOLE lot better. Didn't find myself scanning, but rather the opposite, dying to know what happens next.

have a few q's-- which I will ask here, hope you do not mind.

I am totally unfamiliar with your story, characters etc. which makes me a good sounding board cuz I only have my interest and curiosity to carry me forward.

Who is our main man? Employment-wise I mean. I do not think you mentioned his observations on any particular thing that wouldn't be a common thought. Such as, the fact that lifting track prints would be hard to do on the road surface, etc. Those are things anyone might suspect.

This makes me think he is 1. not a detective, and 2. not a cop.

Hope I am right !

good story, keep going! KC

 
At 9:13 PM , Blogger Wonderwood said...

Hiya pubd2b! Thanks for dropping in and reading, and thanks for the positive comments! I was starting to wonder if there was anything positive to say about it. I don't know if you read the first version before I posted the revision, but the changes weren't drastic. I think they were significant in the sense that I don't drop the tension level by having the gator swim away while the MC is still in the water.

With regard to the MC, he is in fact a private detective. I allude to it twice: once when I mention that he's been hired to find the dead man's wife, and then again when the caller says he has information related to the "case" the MC is working on. I actually come right out and say it in the next chapter. There didn't seem to be an appropriate place to mention it in the first chapter without it seeming forced, somehow.

Anyway, I'm very grateful to have some positive feedback. I like the constructive criticism also, it's needed and appreciated, but it's also nice when something positive is mentioned as well, so thanks again. I hope you come back again. I'll probably post the second chapter pretty soon. It's written, but not polished yet. Peace and God Bless.

 
At 9:25 PM , Blogger Wonderwood said...

Doh! I'm an idiot. Just saw the KC at the end of your comment and realized you must be the first Kaycee that commented. I didn't recognize you with the different login. My apologies, and thanks again!

 
At 4:44 AM , Blogger Kaycee said...

well see? I missed those obvious points! I guess you get the subtlety award :)

KC

 
At 12:24 PM , Blogger Wonderwood said...

I really appreciate your comments. If the revision is truly an improvement, I have you to thank for pointing out the weaknesses in the original version :-)

 
At 2:27 PM , Blogger Brenda Bradshaw said...

I don't do the "dead body in the first paragraph" either, unless there's a dead body that should be there fairly quickly, which is why I hadn't sent in my own beginning to EE (note "hadn't". I now have - ugh!)

My thing is to get to the action, and for your story, it happens to be in the same spot as a body. I write romantic comedy, so there's rarely a dead body, but I still have to whack the crap out of my stuff to get to the action for my own stories. (Again, note "rarely". I do have a rom com and guess what? Dead body on the first page! Cliches are cliche because they're truths - remember that! *grin* )

 
At 3:03 PM , Blogger Wonderwood said...

Brenda, thanks for bringing that up, the action aspect. I think the "action" loses impact if there is no tension build-up, or drama, or lead-in, whatever you want to call it. Action for the sake of action is fine for comic books and such, and maybe some types of novels, but that's not the kind of story I usually read or want to write. I frequently disagree with Dave and his word count comments. It's a novel, not a technical manual. If I'm doing a good job of placing you in the swamp with an alligator in the water, I think there is certainly tension there. The swamp plays a role in the story, and certainly in this chapter. It's like a haunted house. Finding a dead body is a little spookier if you have to walk through a couple of rooms before you get there. I'm writing a mystery, and there has to be room for build-up. Different strokes for different folks, I guess. I just don't buy into the theory that you can't let the reader savor the writing and enjoy the experience. Maybe my writing isn't worth savoring, but I'm trying to lay down some good prose. You haven't commented on it, so I guess you haven't been impressed, but I'm trying. Thanks again for dropping in. I'm looking forward to seeing your stuff, I'm sure it's well written and fun.

 
At 5:59 AM , Blogger Southern Writer said...

Damn. I just don't have time right now, but I'll get back to it. Sorry. Happy Valentine's Day.

 
At 9:30 PM , Blogger Southern Writer said...

I almost always disagree with Dave - sorry, Dave. I liked this a lot. I personally think a novel needs some description to tell me where I am. Without the swamp and the stilt house, I could have been in the mountains, or a Swiss chalet, so I say it works. Besides, I used a very similar setting in part of my novel - the house, the frogs, the shell driveway, even the cricket! So I love it.

I especially liked the phrase "Time hung like a crooked picture." That's brilliant.

A couple little nits - where something led up a couple feet - it's led, not lead. And there were a couple "I could see or do," something or other I'd change to leave out the "could," and one something or other "was," where I'd get rid of the "was." But you know how damn picky I am, you should expect me to say that. The one thing I was really curious about was shy he unplugged the lamp? Is that going to be important later? And what's his name? We need to know his name a.s.a.p.

All in all, I liked it a lot. Good work, and I'll get back to chapter 2 soon as I can!

 
At 6:15 AM , Blogger Wonderwood said...

SW, thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment! I do appreciate it, and of course, you've identified some weaknesses that I need to correct. I wouldn't consider this chapter rough, but I agree it isn't perfect yet. With the help of people like you, hopefully I'll get it there eventually. Thanks for the props on the line about time hanging. I spent some time on that one. I wanted something original about time feeling out of whack and uncomfortable, glad you liked it. Thanks again for taking the time and giving me your thoughts. You da diggity!

 
At 8:04 PM , Blogger Southern Writer said...

The time hanging worked perfectly! That's exactly what I thought - that it was out of whack and needed tending to; that it was an annoying niggle that would have to be straightened out. Wish I had thought of it first! Okay, wish I had thought of it, period. I have to struggle for every analogy.

 
At 7:50 PM , Blogger GutterBall said...

Time hung like a crooked picture.

I would keep reading for this line alone. Gimme similes. The weirder, the better!

Now, a few sentences started with "There were" or "There was", which I usually ruthlessly pluck from my own work, but that might be just a personal gripe. Those sentences can usually be reworked to become more active (and I swear I'm not one of those passive voice nazis!).

However, the tension was great. I love a man with a gun in a swamp. Add a knife, and he's my hero for life!

Now, for Chapter Two.

 
At 10:21 PM , Blogger Wonderwood said...

Hey Gutterball! Thanks for dropping by! I appreciate you taking the time to read and offer thoughtful comments. I need all the help I can get. I've seen your comments on EE's blog and you always seem to offer something constructive and insightful, which is what I look for and appreciate. I look forward to your comments on the next chapter. Thanks again!

 
At 4:12 PM , Blogger GutterBall said...

...you always seem to offer something constructive and insightful....

Hey, thanks for that. I know that I need all the help I can get, so I figure the least I can do is offer back. And we author-type folks need feedback, I tell you!

And I'm very much looking forward to the next chapter. I'd say "I can't wait!", but I don't wanna hex you or anything!

 
At 6:30 PM , Blogger Wonderwood said...

Hey Gutterball! I've gone back and taken a look at this chapter, and you're right, some of the "There was" type sentences slipped by me. I've made some changes based on your observations, and I believe they are definite improvements. I'll be more aware of these since you've brought them to my attention. Thanks again!

 

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