I’ve spent my life writing non-fiction almost exclusively, and I thought it was time to walk down a mean mystery street. I could have sat down at the computer and just started typing to see what came out. But I thought of Ernest Hemingway. He once told George Plimpton in The Paris Review that he had re-written the final page of A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times. Eventually, the endings were discovered in the Ernest Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. Only Hemingway was incorrect. There are in fact forty-seven different endings.
I didn’t have Hemingway’s talent or doggedness, so I figured that maybe before I started writing I should do a whole lot of planning. I knew I wanted to write a mystery. I wanted to make it in the 30,000 word range (it ended up being 32,000), and I wanted for several reasons to publish it as an ebook. That still left about 125 empty pages.
I knew that any planning was tentative. I knew that as I wrote new ideas would arise. New characters would pop out of nowhere. Elie Wiesel once told the story of taking a character out of a story only to have the character appear in a dream that night and beg to be put back in the novel. Wiesel obliged, and the character returned. My characters were not so bold or lively, but I expected some would by force of personality need to be included.
I wanted to have a protagonist who was struggling to be moral and live at an interesting time in an interesting place. If there were a literary genre titled “Ethical Novels,” then I wanted to try to write a book that would have found a home in that genre. I considered various options and recalled how much I had enjoyed researching my book At the Edge of a Dream about Jewish immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side. So I had a location. I picked the year 1914, just as World War I was beginning and therefore just as the world that existed was ending.
Having a setting, I sat down to consider the other elements of fiction, plot (including point of view), characters, theme, and language. All the guidebooks say to start with characters, but after I had the setting, I looked at the themes I wanted to develop. That led me to characters. I was partially constrained in choosing characters because in a mystery there are specific sorts of characters to develop.
As with a thriller, the mystery story really begins with the villain’s plans. A killer had to choose a victim. Then I had to find a hero to confront the villain. There needed to be suspects, red herrings, and carefully planted clues.
My book is titled The Gallery of Missing Husbands. As I write on my website, the title refers to a weekly section of the newspaper Jewish Daily Forward. The Gallery consisted of mostly grainy pictures of men who had abandoned their families. The novel opens as the protagonist, Daniel Levin, witnesses the death of the area’s greatest psychic. Asked by the victim’s attractive sister-in-law to investigate, Levin uncovers a web of romantic deceits, blackmail, and murder. His investigation leads him to a midnight break-in at the city morgue at Bellevue Hospital, an anarchist determined to avoid being forced back to Russia, a corrupt police officer filled with hate, and a friendship with a crime reporter. Eventually, Daniel understands the complexity of missing husbands and fragile families.
If you would like a free PDF of my mystery, it is available at http://www.lawrencejepstein.com/the-gallery-of-missing-husbands/.
You can also get an ebook for 99 cents at any of the normal places. Here’s a link to the Amazon site for the Kindle version: https://amzn.com/B01GQFFCUA