Warren C. Easley is the author of the Cal Claxton Oregon Mysteries. Learn more about him and his books at his website.
Plotting My Next Plot
To paraphrase one of Shakespeare’s kings—you know, the one who wound up under a parking lot—my kingdom for a plot! I love to write, always have. Give me a scene, any scene, and I’ll flesh it out for you. Give me two people caught in a face-to-face encounter and I’ll capture their dialogue. Show me a setting and I’ll bring it alive, replete with sights, sounds, smells and touch. But put all the elements of a novel together in a coherent, believable plot? That’s a task that gives me pause.
Plotting a mystery, you might argue, is easier than plotting, say, literary fiction. After all, there are some pretty clear rules in the mystery genre. For example, unless you’re a Patricia Cornwell or James Lee Burke, you had better kill someone off in the first fifty pages of your book since the patience of your readers (and publisher) is notoriously short. And you also need to build in an event that signals the approaching climax, and ensure that, in fact, you end with a bang, not a whimper. This leaves the “slushy middle”, which must never be slushy, so all manner of clever devices should be inserted to not only drive the plot but keep the pace brisk, the tone engaging.
Easy, you say?
One school of thought says outlining is the answer. Achtung! What we have here is a need for discipline, we’re told. Put your mind to it, and the plot will seamlessly unfold in an orderly sequence. I tried this in my early scratchings without much success. The experience was a little like driving in a dense fog. I could see a small distance ahead and very little from side to side. Sure, I could get something down on paper, but after a short burst of writing, the outline would become obsolete. Those pesky, unruly characters of mine kept asserting themselves in ways I hadn’t anticipated.
The other school of thought says that the plot is an organic element that must be allowed to evolve as the story progresses. In other words, the plot builds outwardly, informed primarily by what has already been written. This may sound appealing, especially to those like me who hate planning ahead. But the other side of that coin is that the story can easily bob and weave itself into chaos, a kind of literary proof of the law of entropy. And I can tell you from experience, there is nothing more painful than backing out of a corner into which you have written yourself. It invariably involves trashing a lot of good work.
Of course, authors should adopt a strategy for plotting a novel that works best for them. I land somewhere between the extremes of rigid outlining and unfettered evolution, mainly in unfettered territory. I didn’t plan on using a hybrid strategy. It turned out that was the only way I could get a book written and keep my sanity.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to figure out how the book I’m working on now is going to end…
Not Dead Enough
The first closing of the floodgates of the mammoth Dalles Dam on the Columbia River inundated the sacred falls and the Native American village at Celilo, which depended on the river’s magnificent fish. Nelson Queah, Wasco Indian, war hero, and passionate opponent of the dam, watched helplessly as 10,000 years of tribal history and fishing tradition disappeared. That 1957 night, Nelson Queah vanished without a trace.
Fifty years later, attorney Cal Claxton, new to Portland after a career as a prosecutor in Los Angeles, attends a commemoration of the flooding of the falls at the behest of his friend, Philip Lone Deer, who introduces Cal to his cousin, Winona Cloud. Winona is Nelson Queah’s granddaughter. Spurning the story of a witness at the time, who claimed to have seen Queah drunk by the river, she reveals she’s found a cache of letters at her grandmother’s home, letters Queah wrote to his wife before he vanished. They suggest foul play, not an accidental drowning.
Cal, still grieving over his own wife’s suicide, agrees to check out the cold case. He locates the man who put out the drunk story and sets up an interview. When he arrives, he finds the man shot by a sniper. Cal gets a glimpse of the shooter and becomes a target himself.
Struggling to stay one step ahead of a relentless killer, Cal must navigate between Native American and white cultures, and feuding police jurisdictions. Oregon politics are also in play; various men involved with the dam’s construction are still alive, some of them powerbrokers. Plus activists are questioning the value of dams in light of new energy sources and the dwindling spawning salmon. And then there’s Cal’s growing interest in the beautiful, headstrong Winona.