Monday Morning, April 1, 2002. A fight broke out during the second market, but the first day of the first farmers’ market in Riverdell went relatively smoothly. The third market was when the murder occurred.
Penny and Kenneth were searching madly for snails in the lettuce when Nora Fisher, their new market’s manager, drove her yellow pickup in and parked near their garage apartment. “You go talk to her,” Kenneth said. “I’ll keep checking the Romaine. The red lettuce was the hardest. All those curlicues.” He was moving slowly on hands and knees down the rows they’d cultivated with the rototiller only the night before.
When I first wrote “Rearview Mirror,” the opening story in my novel in stories On the Road with Del & Louise (currently a finalist for the Agatha Award for Best First Novel), I had no idea that these characters would have life beyond that initial adventure. The goal in my mind was to finish a single story, not to start a whole book.
We all know we’re not supposed to do it. But I did it anyway.
Almost all Creative Writing 101 classes caution us against beginning with backstory, and so do most books on writing fiction. In Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, for example, Hallie Ephron offers a definition and a warning. “Backstory is information about how a character arrived at this particular place and time,” she writes. “It’s a sure sign that the novel is written by a novice when a load of backstory is dumped into the opening chapter.” I don’t doubt she’d say the same thing about a load of backstory dumped into the first two pages of a short story. In Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, Lawrence Block credits his agent with giving him “the best advice I ever received”: “Don’t begin at the beginning.” These “five precious words,” Block says, made him decide to switch around the first and second chapters of Death Pulls a Doublecross, so that the novel now begins with the protagonist lugging a body wrapped in an Oriental rug through the streets of New York City, with not a word of explanation about how he came to be in possession of the body in the first place. Now, that’s avoiding backstory.
The opening lines of my books tend to come to me well in advance of writing the rest of the story. That was certainly the case for my newest Kate Reilly Mystery, Red Flags. About four months before sitting down to actually engage on the novel—as I was trying to let things like the plot, the villain, the victim, and the supporting cast cook in my head—I heard the first line in my head. It brought with it the identity of the victim, long before I knew exactly why he’d been killed. And I should note that I originally wrote it as “I looked down at my cousin’s face and tried to care he was dead,” which got fixed up (and anonymized) in the editing process.