About Caroline Taylor: She is the author of What Are Friends For? (Five Star Mysteries, 2011) and Jewelry from a Grave (Five Star Mysteries, 2013). Her stories and essays have appeared in several online and print publications, including The Corner Club Press, The Dan River Anthology, The First Line, The Green Silk Journal, Notes Magazine, The Storyteller, Wild Violet Literary Magazine, and Work Literary Magazine. She is a member of the North Carolina Writers' Network, Sisters in Crime, and Mystery Writers of America.
My writing group has embarked on a bold adventure: writing a novella. We agreed that the novel would be a mystery and that we would critique each chapter, just as we do the stories we’re usually working on. We drew numbers to see who would write the first chapter. I was number one.
Piece of cake, I thought—and a yummy one at that. After all, I share the opinion of many writers that the best part of being involved in publishing is the actual writing. I decided that the first chapter had to be open-ended enough to allow the next writer to take the story in any direction he or she wished. However, I discovered certain limitations: Because the first chapter introduces the main characters and establishes the setting, I would be restricting the options of what others could write about.
Some writers work better if given a prompt—as in a prescribed theme or first line. Others prefer to let their imaginations take them to exciting realms where amazing things can happen, and a story emerges to describe the journey. Either approach works, but the first one works better if you are suffering, as I was, from writer’s block. Other than launching a story that fit the mystery genre, I had the whole world to choose from. That piece of cake was tasting more and more like a crust of stale bread.
Luckily, the idea for the novella’s first chapter finally came to me in a dream. (Ah, muse! Thy name is Thalia.) It involved the death of a belted cow, many of which can be found in the fields surrounding the village where I live. I love those belted cows, but, as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once said about writing: “Murder your darlings.”
I’ve sprinkled the chapter with enough characters to allow for numerous red herrings. But, in full recognition that our novella can’t just be about the murder of a beloved beltie, I’m leaving the real crime—and the real villain—up to the next writer. Any new characters who are introduced will have to have some connection to the ones mentioned in the first chapter, or the novella will become incomprehensible. As for whodunit, that’s going to be the fun part. I’m betting there will be fierce disagreements over who that person will be and what motivated him (or her) to commit the crime.
With ten writers in the group, meeting once a month, we should have the first ten chapters written by October. Then we’ll have to decide if we’ve got the makings of a plausible and coherent (not to mention entertaining) novella on our hands—a blockbuster of epic proportions!—or whether we’ve bitten off more of that piece of cake than any of us can swallow, let alone chew.
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