Well, I’ve done it. I’ve finished the first draft of A Green Place for Dying, the next Meg Harris mystery. And what a tremendous feeling of satisfaction it gives me, particularly when all those balls and the grenade or two I tossed into the story have landed. I won’t say they landed as planned, because when I toss these balls and grenades, I have no idea where or how they will land.
I’m one of those writers who doesn’t outline. Like they teach in Creative Writing 101, I tried to develop plot and character outlines for the first couple of Meg Harris mysteries, but I found that within a couple of chapters Meg was leading me way off course and into much more exciting places than I had thought possible and characters were leaping out of the pages just daring me to include them. So I tossed all thought of outlining out the window and now let Meg tell her story.
I do, however, usually give her some direction, like starting with an overarching theme. For A Green Place for Dying the theme I chose is one that is fast becoming a growing and alarming issue in Canada, the high rate of missing aboriginal women, over 500, and the fact that little is being done about it. I felt it was an issue that Meg could tackle as she searches for the missing daughter of a friend from the Migiskan Reserve and quickly runs up against the brick wall of police indifference.
Of course, I already have my main character, Meg, which is the fun part of writing a series. With each new book in the series, I get to know Meg better as I watch her grow and deepen as a person. I can also lob balls related to something in her life, past and present, that may not land until a later book in the series. In A Green Place for Dying, two balls, one perhaps more a grenade, that were tossed into the stories of previous books, now finally land back into Meg’s life.
I generally identify a few key supporting characters, although most will make themselves known as the story progresses. In this fifth book, one such character is Marie-Claude, her friend who struggles to deal with her guilt over the disappearance of her daughter, and another is Summer Grass Woman, an elder who helps Meg face her demons.
Finally I look for a starting place, a riveting scene that will launch the story, one that will draw the reader in and one that will provide me with enough fodder to expand and grow the story. This latest book starts off with Meg, along with women from the reserve, attending a Grandmother Moon Ceremony to seek spiritual guidance in dealing with the disappearance of Marie-Claude’s daughter. Partway through the ceremony, a policewoman arrives to say that a body of a young aboriginal woman has been found. And thus the story begins.
Although I generally have a rough idea where the story is headed and how I want it to end, I essentially write from chapter to chapter and adjust the story as I progress. This is when I start lobbing balls and grenades, such as another body or a sudden twist in the plot. Generally I throw them to see what will happen. I have absolutely no idea where or how they will land or even if they will land. But this is the fun part of writing, a lot like life with lots of hidden bumps and detours along the way. Without them writing, and life, would be very boring.
As I near the end of the book, the balls and grenades begin landing, sometimes furiously and often in wholly unexpected ways. And as each one lands, I yell, “Yes, that worked perfectly” or I cringe and say, “Nope, it doesn’t work” and I’ll get rid of it in the revisions. But when they do land in a way that totally fits in with the story, it gives me a particularly good feeling of achievement. And I will say, that I am particularly pleased with the way some of these balls landed in A Green Place for Dying.
Let’s face it, that is what writing is all about, obtaining a wonderful sense of achievement in having created a story, people and a world that lives and breathes not only in your mind but also in your readers’ minds. And all from something as static as ‘words’.
Ottawa author, RJ Harlick, writes the Meg Harris mystery series set in the wilds of Quebec. Like her heroine Meg Harris, RJ loves nothing better than to roam the forests surrounding her own wilderness cabin, But unlike Meg, she doesn’t find a body at every twist and turn, although she certainly likes to put them in Meg’s way. Arctic Blue Death, the 4th in the series was nominated for this year's Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. A Green Place for Dying is due out Spring 2011.