As National Novel Writing Month slogs on, here’s the next in our series about the novels that we started writing but, for whatever reason, never finished.
My first serious attempt to write a novel was, somewhat unfortunately, inspired by The Da Vinci Code. I was a college sophomore when I decided to try NaNoWriMo, and a few months into a busy school year, The Da Vinci Code and its cousin The Rule of Four were probably the last books I had read for fun. I was a medieval history and literature major particularly obsessed with England, and my moment of book inspiration came while thinking about the 12th-century murder of Thomas Becket: then archbishop of Canterbury, soon-to-be saint, and obviously the perfect fulcrum for a novel.
While wandering through the history section of Barnes & Noble, I had seen a book called The Quest for Becket’s Bones: The Mystery of the Relics of St. Thomas Becket of Canterbury. I hadn’t read it, but a mystery about a saint’s bones—a saint killed violently after a king’s tantrum about him—seemed (probably only to me) like a perfect seed for a modern mystery with medieval parallels. So I ordered the book and, without reading it, began planning my own. The King’s Evil, the title I gave my novel, was actually a phrase used to describe scrofula, a kind of tuberculosis, and had nothing to do with Becket or anyone connected to his story. I just liked the way it sounded.
When that November started, I had an outline for a prologue and two chapters, and a vague idea of the overarching mystery: the present-day murder victim was the last living protector of Becket’s bones. He had been part of a secret order formed in the sixteenth century, after England’s monasteries were dissolved and Becket’s Canterbury shrine destroyed. Though the victim in my novel was killed by four men, paralleling Becket’s murder, the ultimate mastermind behind the crime would have been, according to my outline, “a private collector/museum director/auctioneer” who wanted Becket’s bones for himself. Basically, it was The Da Vinci Code without any of the juicy religious conspiracy elements that made people unable to stop reading The Da Vinci Code. Fan fiction with the serial numbers sort of filed off. I’m not sure whether it’s better or worse that I didn’t realize this then.
I also didn’t spend much time thinking about the middle of the book, or about the clues that would lead my protagonist—a medievalist whose theories were seen as “controversial” within academia—to the murderer. But the Internet told me to fill out character worksheets, so I spent a few hours answering questions like “How did the pet once save the character’s life?” (My answer began, “She has never had her life literally saved by a pet.”) I named my main character Katherine, a name with suitably medieval English overtones. Her partner in investigation, and eventual love interest, would be an old acquaintance, or perhaps an ex-boyfriend, who happened to be a detective. There were bits of, well, me in there, too: Katherine’s hobbies, as per the worksheets, included watching romantic comedies and visiting open houses for fun, and she’d “dabbled in archaeology.” She’d worked in publishing for a few years before returning to academia, which, at the time, was one possible future I imagined for myself.
Somehow, with this vague premise, I managed to write about 30 thinly plotted pages of the book during that NaNoWriMo. In one particularly ridiculous scene, the murder victim just happened to have left a post-it note on his computer monitor listing the time and place of a meeting on the night of his death. Another note on the back of that same post-it mentioned Becket’s bones, handily revealing to Katherine and the detective a possible motive for the murder. Convenient!
Working on the book was weirdly energizing, considering that it involved the same things—reading, research, writing, and hunching over my laptop in a beanbag chair—that I already did all day. It was a secret joy, maybe because I had no idea how to do it. I didn’t feel any need to write in order, so I jumped from scene to scene as I thought of them, letting myself write the fun scenes—romance, murder, and a few interludes from the point of view of an angry Henry II—first. Somehow, I trusted that I would eventually be able to fill in everything else.
Nor did I notice the mediocrity of the prose. For example, one line of dialogue from a murder scene went, “Give us the box.”
“No,” replied another character (the murder victim). “I thought we were here to negotiate.”
Not good writing—but competent enough in an action-movie way that it was easy to power onward.
I also connected with some fellow NaNo-ers online, and when we weren’t giving each other encouragement on our plot summaries or passing around useful character worksheets, we made mock-ups of our novel covers. My fake cover image seems to be the one file connected to this project that I didn’t save, but I remember it: it was dark red (to represent blood?), the title in white in a medieval font, with a manuscript illumination of Becket’s murder between the title and my name.
But by the middle of the month, I had fallen behind on the daily NaNo wordcounts, mostly because I had no idea how to plot a mystery novel, and it isn’t the ideal genre to tackle with only a three-chapter outline. Eventually, I realized I could just as easily find ways to read my research books about Thomas Becket, Henry II, and medieval saints for school—I didn’t need to use my novel as an excuse.
I also realized that, while I very much wanted to write a book someday, I didn’t want to write this book. I wasn’t ready for the logistical challenges of writing a mystery: I had no idea how to seed the book with convincing red herrings or develop intriguing parallels between Becket’s murder and the modern-day one in the story. I’d begun the project with vague plans to set some scenes in the 12th century, but one thing studying history had taught me was how hard it would be to write believable historical fiction; in the end, I didn’t want to take on the challenge. Basically, the premise gave me a way to read more about some subjects I loved, but the actual work of writing a history-inspired thriller never appealed to me at all.
Looking back at my notes for The King’s Evil now, I can see which aspect of the story did intrigue me: the idea of a romance between Katherine, my protagonist, and the British detective she worked with on the case. My notes are full of questions and speculations about the two characters and their history, and their interactions fill the scenes I managed to write that November.
So it isn’t surprising that, three years later, the next time I made a serious attempt at writing a novel, it was a relationship—the friendship and then estrangement of two teenage cousins—that made the new idea spark for me. As I wrote and rewrote and revised, the characters’ interactions and personalities and histories were what compelled me to return to the story. I saw all of the character connections in the novel as a web, and whenever I thought about that web, I wanted to write.
It wasn’t suddenly easy for me to finish a novel once I’d figured out what excited me as a writer. In fact, I almost wish I’d forced myself to write more of The King’s Evil as an exercise in plot and structure. But it was that later manuscript, the character- and relationship-driven one, that I finally finished, submitted, and sold. (It will be published next fall.) And now, when I’m weighing whether to spend several years with a particular idea, what I look for is that emotional click, those messy spaces between characters where a story might bloom.
Previously in series: For Those Who Have Asked Politely About My “Novel”
Sara Polsky is a writer and editor at Curbed. Her first novel, This Is How I Find Her, will be published by Albert Whitman in fall 2013. Sometimes she tweets.