Monday, August 22, 2011

Meg Mims: Unusual Settings – with the Usual Suspects

When I started writing Double Crossing, I had no idea I’d created a big problem. I wanted to use the premise of True Grit – which has had two movies based on the Charles Portis’ novel – but planned my inciting incident to take place in Evanston, Illinois. After  my heroine’s father is murdered, she vows to track down the killer. But the similarity to Mattie Ross ends there. Lily Granville realizes she must take the newly opened transcontinental railroad, the Iron Horse, to California. And what begins as an adventure soon turns perilous.

The problem didn’t pop up until halfway through writing the book. I was happily tapping away at the keyboard, content in following my revised outline, as Lily met new friends on the first leg of her journey to Omaha, Nebraska. I had no problem coming up with dialogue between the characters who discussed their background history—what they shared with Lily anyway. And I wove in plenty of historical details of the train when they boarded the Union Pacific. Then I realized things just might get stale.

How was I going to keep my characters, and readers, from getting bored in such a confining space? The characters could only exchange so much information. The suspense in my outline had high points, of course, but a writer can’t just jump from point C to point J. Something has to happen in between.

In order to avoid losing readers, I added a minor subplot but that only stretched so far. I turned to some handy tricks I’d learned while writing in the mystery/suspense genre. And that’s where “the usual suspects” came in. Building tension between characters, minor as well as main ones, seemed to come easier when I ratcheted up the stakes and manipulated the circumstances a bit. And one thing I learned from a good friend came in handy—when all else fails, throw in another dead body.

 From DOUBLE CROSSING, Meg Mims, Astraea Press, August 2011:
I clamped a handkerchief over my mouth but Omaha’s black dirt still choked me. My hard sneeze left a ringing in my ears. There had to be a general store somewhere with needles and thread. Stray sparks from the Chicago and Western’s smokestack had burned tiny holes in my split skirt and jacket, and I was desperate to repair them both.
At last I found a shop. A bell jangled above my head when I entered. The bulky proprietor laughed and joked with several customers while he filled orders at the polished walnut counter. I meandered down each crowded aisle. Scents of dill, chives and cinnamon tickled my nose. Potatoes with earthy skins and papery onions filled open barrels. Small jars of pickled beets and corn relish, tins of fruit and baked beans lined the shelves. Huge burlap sacks of flour, sugar, salt, coffee and beans lay near the door, and wheels of cheese had been stacked above crates of smoked fish and salt pork.
Seeing the flatirons, hoes, plows and other tools all around brought a sense of normalcy back to my life. I realized I’d been wandering in a haze since Father’s funeral.
I soon found the rack of notions. “Closing in half an hour, miss,” Mr. Porter said with a friendly smile. “Like to see my bolts of silk? I got pattern paper too.”
“I need a travel sewing kit, if you have one.”
Armed with a clever box crammed with thread, needles and a tiny pair of silver folding scissors, I wandered the back aisles. A leather money belt caught my eye, with firm stitching and eight compartments. Dodging a row of sturdy butter churns and stacked washboards, I placed the belt on the counter along with an oilcloth cape and several green apples.
“Two dozen peppermints also, please.”
“Certainly, miss.”
Once I paid the bill, I scurried to a quiet corner away from the few remaining shoppers. Shiny snaps on the wide belt secured each compartment. I adjusted it around my waist and tugged my suit jacket to hide its bulk. Perfect!
I glanced around for a mirror and then froze, staring at my feet and then behind me. My pocketbook was nowhere in sight. I thought I’d wedged the leather two-handled bag between the crates of saltines at my elbow. Frantic, I searched the entire corner and each aisle of the shop in vain. Fear gripped me in a stranglehold. My expensive Pullman ticket, stolen! My hands shook and I had trouble thinking straight for a full minute.
I raced back to the counter. I waited until Mr. Porter finished a customer’s transaction. “Sir, did I leave my pocketbook here? I paid my bill not five minutes ago. The money belt, sewing kit, peppermints—”
“Sure I remember, miss.” Mr. Porter reached beneath the polished wood and planted my bag on top. “A gent brought this to me. Said he found it on a barrel.”
I stared at him. “What did he look like?”
The storekeeper shrugged. “Wore a suit and derby hat, like every other man passing through town.”
I opened the pocketbook’s clasp and glanced inside. Everything was intact, even my precious Pullman ticket and all my money. I murmured a prayer of thanks until realizing that my sketchbook was wedged upside down, on the wrong side. My black-edged handkerchiefs were crumpled on the bottom as well. Someone had searched the contents.
Someone who followed me from the hotel. Some stranger from the train, or Emil Todaro himself? A shiver raced up my spine. It couldn’t be possible. Or could it? Had I underestimated him again? Instead of being the hunter, was I now the prey?
 That thought infuriated me.

Meg Mims is an author, artist and amateur photographer. She writes historical mysteries and romantic suspense, and is a staff writer for RE/MAX Platinum in Michigan – writing articles about the real estate market, community events and Realtors – and for Lake Effect Living, a West Coast of Michigan tourist on-line magazine. Meg’s article about the one-legged Civil War veteran and lighthouse keeper of South Haven, James S. Donahue, appeared in Vol. 34, No. 2 Summer 2011 issue of The Chronicle, the Historical Society of Michigan magazine.

1 comment:

  1. Glad you're visiting today, Meg! Thank you for letting me know you'd continued work on this story and that it's being released. I enjoy your voice so much.

    Cher :-)