by Robert Lopresti
If you haven't read B.K. Stevens' most recent blog I recommend you do so now. This is partly because it is very interesting and also because it inspired today's wisdom-dump. I am referring specifically to the unfortunate remark the older policeman makes to the returning homeowner.
It reminded me of this scene from the classic police sitcom Barney Miller. You want the bit that begins around 2:20.
I think it was after seeing that show that my wife and I formulated what I think of as the First Words Rule. It states when you have to tell a friend or loved one about a bad situation that has just occurred (a car accident, a house fire, the atomic defibulator crushing the emoluments boot) the first words out of your mouth should be: Everybody's okay. Assuming that is true, of course
Now, how does that relate to writing? (This is a blog about writing and reading and crime, remember?)
Glad you asked. We are looking at the difference between telling a story and telling the news. It is natural for a storyteller to want to build up suspense, or to tell things in chronological order. But the journalist knows that it is bad form to "bury the lede." If you are reporting on a city council meeting and one of the members accidentally drops a bloody axe out of her purse, that's probably where you begin your piece, even if it didn't happen until New Business, way at the end of the evening.
Of course, years later when you are telling your grandchildren about your career you might want to build slowly up to the axe-drop. But that's story-telling, not journalism.
These days fiction writers usually begin in the middle of the story, not with the journalistic lede, but as far in as they think they can go without baffling the reader. To pick one favorite at random, here is how Earl Emerson opened Fat Tuesday:
I was trapped in a house with a lawyer, a bare-breasted woman, and a dead man. The rattlesnake in the paper sack only complicated matters.
Not the beginning of events, but not the climax either.
You can start your story or novel wherever you see fit. But when you're telling somebody the news, start with the most important part.
21 June 2017
03 May 2017
Family Fortnight + Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the fifth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by Robert Lopresti
This appeared on Criminal Brief in 2009. Seemed appropriate for our family celebration.
I just got back from a week of visiting family on the east coast. I spent a few days with all three of my siblings for the first time in a decade – although we’ve all seen each other more often than that.
There were nine family members, plus a couple of other special guests who were there part of the time. Almost sixty years of age separated the oldest from the youngest. So, what did we do when we got together?
Well, we ate. Mmm, lasagna! But mostly we told stories.
First we talked about travel. Miserable plane trips. Who we saw before arriving. Where we toured the day before.
Next came news briefs: job changes, school stuff, future plans.
Then came health issues. Plenty there to discuss as most of us travel through (or past) middle age.
But finally we got to what you might call Deep Story: family memories, some of them dating back before my birth. Do you remember the time the tree fell on the house? When did we sell the bungalow down the shore? Did you hear that Grandma worked for Thomas Edison?
Sometimes it turns out we heard the stories differently, or even remember the same events differently. But that just made the discussion more interesting. (The youngest of the clan politely ignored the chatter of her elders, while offering her own salute to story-telling: she was rereading Harry Potter.)
At one point I held the floor for several minutes (probably too long), telling everyone about one of my adventures. And as all eyes were turned in my direction I starting thinking about the narrative urge. The desire to tell and listen to stories, which keeps us writers of fiction in business, seems to be built into the family heritage. And I don’t mean just the Lopresti family.
A very old story
Once upon a time, a very long time ago, two sisters were born. Since language had recently been invented, the proud parents were able to name their children, and they called them Og and Zog. The girls resembled each other in looks and personalities, but there was one tiny difference between them.
Og was fascinated with stories. She liked to hear them and to tell them. Zog, on the other hand, didn’t care for them.
It turned out that Og’s children inherited her fondness for stories. And that’s where things get interesting.
When gatherers came back and reported where they had found the most honey, Og’s children paid close attention. When a hunter came back, frightened and bleeding, and explained why you should never, ever cross a meadow if animals are behaving in a certain way, the sons and daughters of Og took in every word. And when the wild-thinker in the tribe explained that these berries were sacred to the gods and must never be eaten, guess who took this rule to heart.
Which meant Og’s children were slightly more likely than Zog’s to find the honey, avoid the lion, and ignore the poisonous berries. Which gave them a tiny advantage in survival.
And so, while Og and Zog had the same number of children, Og had more grandchildren, and even more great-grandchildren. Give or take a few thousand generations and most of us have some of Og’s blood in our veins. That’s evolution, baby.
I feel like I need to pay this off with a family story, so here’s one I heard the last time I visited my father, a few months before he passed.
Dad told me that his father came to the United States from Sicily early in the twentieth century. John remembered a family from his village who had come to New Jersey earlier. Mostly he remembered a girl named Mamie.
He went to the Garden State and found the family, but alas, Mamie had made up her mind to become a nun. This, of course, was not what John had in mind.
Now it happened that Mamie’s father ran an ice cream parlor in Plainfield, New Jersey. He wasn’t very good at it. The ice cream was fine. The problem was when customers came in he had a habit of telling them “I’m busy. Go away.” Experts in retail tend to frown on this as a sales technique.
It occurred to him that if John married his daughter they could take the shop off his hands. So, with a little paternal persuasion, Mamie agreed to give up her hopes for the nunnery and instead become a wife and eventually the mother of four children.
Her husband John turned the ice cream parlor into a grocery store, which is what you see in the picture above. (Alas, the people in sight are not my relatives.)
“So what happened to Great-grampa?” I asked my father. “Did he find a business where he didn’t have to deal with the public?”
“Not exactly,” said Dad. “He became a bootlegger.”
Do you have relatives your own age or older? Have you asked what they remember about your family’s history? Is anyone writing these stories down?
Because if not, they will soon be as lost as the stories Og told her children.