Alright, so I’ve got my characters under control and I’ve flogged them a bit. As the story goes along, they slowly become less like the characters from a book and more like people. People have flaws, people have unfulfilled desires, people often do things that they know will hurt themselves. People aren’t perfect. Lesson learned. But what now? Now I have to learn the next lesson and that lesson is the answer to a question: Why are my characters important? They’ve got an entire book devoted to them, so they must have done something that matters. Are my characters just goofing around doing nothing worth thinking about or are they the central figures in an intergalactic war? I had to find the aspect of the story that made my characters worthy of being the main characters of their own story. Perhaps it’s a story about personal growth, with no far-reaching implications. Perhaps it’s a story about how two kids from Earth end a war that’s put the entire galaxy at risk. Why is anyone reading their story?
At last I find the answer to that question. My characters are important because they do something important. They get sucked into a brewing war and must somehow come through all these trials alive. So, not only did I learn that my characters needed a few flaws and a few trials along the way, they also needed to do something worth taking note of. Now my characters have personality, now my characters have purpose. The story I’m writing expands beyond a simple adventure and becomes something more. The original idea was for a book that might have been, at most, 30k words. About 120 pages. The first book in the series clocked in at 75k words.
Suddenly I had something real in my hands, not just a little piece of fluff that I could pat myself on the back for having written, but an actual novel with a story, twists and turns along the way, that was building towards something even bigger. It was in that moment that my limitations began to fall away and my horizons expanded. It didn’t just have to be for me, it didn’t just have to be a pastime to fiddle with when there wasn’t anything else to do. I was working on my future.
But there was still one more lesson to learn and it was going to be the toughest so far.
I would very much like to write a cyberpunk novel sometime. To date, I haven’t. Thus far I haven’t yet hit upon a story that I feel would work for a full-length novel, at least one that wouldn’t be total garbage. The problem is that this is a narrow genre and so much has already been done in it. William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy [Neuromancer and its sequels], Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Blade Runner, and the Ghost in the Shell franchise from Japan. It’s all been done before, and much better than I could ever do it.
You can blame Blade Runner for my obsession with the genre, I’ve probably watched it at least ten times and could watch it ten more without getting bored. I even went all the way to Dallas just to see the Final Cut in theater. There’s just something about those bleak urban landscapes that sucks me in, glowing with neon and filled with structures too massive to be real. The dark skies, the constant rain, the dichotomy between soaring skycrapers that reach closer and closer to the sky and the abject poverty in the streets. The steady march of technology as it slowly consumes every aspect of our lives, to the point of total dependence. I find it all so absolutely compelling.
I’ve been searching for a good story for some time. A few have come and gone, like a detective who gets a job to find someone who wants to “kill” a cyborg or a police investigator who has to uncover information about a “net bomb” which will destroy every electronic device in the world. On the surface, they don’t seem so bad. But those short lines are literally all there is to those stories and I don’t feel too confident that I can make them anything more than that. But I’ll keep looking for that story that stands out from all the rest, the one that forces me to write it.
Murder at the End of the World was born from a single idea: “I want to write a British-style mystery like the kinds that Agatha Christie wrote.” Shortly before I started writing the story, I got caught up in a phase of watching BBC’s adaptation of the Hercule Poirot series. I’d also watched a bit of Granada’s excellent Sherlock Holmes series from the 80’s and 90’s. They reminded me all over again of just why I so enjoyed watching a good mystery. I like the way all the clues and evidence are built up, the way things are complicated by red herrings and witnesses that have their own agendas, and then watching as the skilled detective slowly fits everything together and exposes the murder. So I decided to write my own.
Part of what makes a great setting is how it feeds into the mystery. I knew from the start that I wanted the setting to play a huge role in the mystery and to almost be a character of its own. I’ve always enjoyed the works of HP Lovecraft, so I borrowed a few bits of inspiration from his work and went with an isolated city by the sea. The town itself is awash in mystery, as few people know very much about it. The city’s nature also leads its people to be very insular and suspicious, almost to the point of being openly hostile to outsiders. They’re not evil people, but their view of the outside worlds has led them to view the appearance of outsiders in their streets as invaders into their private world. Like if you woke one night to find a stranger standing in your living room. You’d want that person gone as soon as possible, even if their intentions weren’t bad.
Of course, without characters there’s really not much of a story. With Allison Newberry, I didn’t want a character who was basically a skilled super-genius that was going to swoop in and solve the mystery in a flash. Allison is young and inexperienced, this is her first real case and she’s not entirely confident that things are going to turn out well. Even so, she’s got a good head on her shoulders, good instincts, and determination. A murder has been committed, that means someone has to be brought in to answer for the crime. A lot of this comes from her experience with her father, as the story eventually reveals. Though he doesn’t not appear in the story itself, his influence on her is clear. Allison does what needs to be done, even when no one else cares.
This leads us to the mystery itself. This is the most difficult part of the whole affair, because you need something that’s not immediately obvious and interesting enough to hold your reader’s interest until the very end. It would have been easy to go with a straight-forward murder mystery with a set of clues that led to the killer, but I was determined to avoid something that simple. Obviously I don’t want to give anything away here, but my goal from the start was to use a mystery that becomes deeper and more complex the further along Allison’s investigation goes. Nothing is simple in Illdara, as one of the characters says. How very true that is.