Thursday, April 29, 2021

Whose Life is it, Anyway?

© by Gerald So | 6:30 AM

Hemingway claimed, "If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows," his iceberg theory. I've said my Every Day Fiction piece "Say Cheese" began in 1995, my senior year of college, in a mystery novel workshop. Here's more about the 'berg below the surface.

I'd been a reader of mysteries for two years when I started the novel with John Falco as narrating protagonist, an Italian restaurateur whose college crush talks him into catering their tenth-year reunion. There, John becomes suspected of poisoning her husband. I stalled out trying to complete the novel the next two years.

A 2016 food-themed noir anthology inspired me to turn the novel idea into a short story. Among the aspects I had to change with the times were the crush's name, Kim, and her husband's last name, Jenner. Originally Jenner's killer was a veteran phys. ed. teacher who, years before, carved a heart in a fabled tree on campus, a tree threatened by plans to build a new gym with Jenner's name on it. For the 2016 reboot, I made John an ex-cop and his crush the killer.

When that version was rejected, I tried outlining the story with Ronald B. Tobias' 20 Master Plots and Chuck Wendig's Damn Fine Story. That helped me see the characters and story less biographically, but instead I became attached to plots I outlined: John fails to suspect his crush; she confesses to him and he convinces her to turn herself in; she confesses to him and they run off together...Several rejections later, I revised John to never being a cop at all. I didn't want to perpetuate the fictional good cop stereotype in the face of real police misconduct.

With John no longer the good cop, his crush didn't have to be a killer. I'd had enough trouble casting them in those roles. They didn't fit. Ultimately I accepted the better story wasn't John's, but his crush's. She deals directly with her husband. John only hears what she's done and doesn't know her husband like she does. Once I decided to change protagonists, I was still intimidated about getting deeper than ever into character of John's/my crush. One vote of confidence was that a previous female-led story of mine, "Fred", turned out well. Sure enough what I learned from "Fred" helped immensely in reframing "Say Cheese". Like "Fred", "Say Cheese" stops short of first-person narration, yet uses a very close third. I wanted to pull off an effect very much like the I of first person, readers identifying so deeply with the protagonist, I didn't need to name her.

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