Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Thinking Outside the Box

Even before I started going to water aerobics, I have had this notion that it would be a very interesting start to a mystery to have someone come into a room in the dim early-morning light, switch on the overhead lights to illuminate a big indoor pool – and find a body floating face down at the deep end.

So now I’ve decided to write it.  I’ve been creating characters and motives and suspects and clues.  I read part of the synopsis to my writers group last Wednesday, and one of them, after a thoughtful silence, said, “Why is the murder victim a young woman?  Why couldn’t she be a cougar?”

After an explanation was handed out to those who didn’t know “cougar” is modern slang for an older woman who sexually exploits young men, the discussion went on more normal ways.  The culprit seemed a little obvious to someone, for example.  But that challenge stayed with me.  And so now I think my victim will be an older woman.  But that means I have to rethink a whole lot of the rest of the story.  I think it will be a better story.  I believe I’ve mentioned before that a good writers group is worth its weight in rubies.

Speaking of how a fairly small detail changes the whole perspective of a story, I read a sermon on last Sunday’s Gospel reading that changed my whole idea about it.  The reading is from the sixth chapter of Mark:  King Herod gave a big party for some very important men and let his daughter dance for them.  She did so well that he announced in front of everyone that she could have as a reward anything she wanted “even unto half my kingdom.”  She ran off and told her mother what Herod had promised.  Now the girl’s mother, Herodias, had a huge grudge against John the Baptist because he had told Herod he had committed a sin by marrying Herodias, who had been first his brother’s wife.  She had been pushing Herod to kill John, but all Herod had done was put John in prison.  So Herodias told the girl to tell Herod she wanted John’s head on a platter.  Herod, reluctantly (because he was in awe of John) but because he’d made the promise in front of important people whom he didn’t want thinking he was not a man of his word, immediately sent a soldier to the prison to behead John.  John’s head was given to the girl, who brought it to her mother.

This story turned up every so often in biblical epics from the 1950s.  Always the girl does a very sensuous dance and Herod is depicted as a lustful, incestuous idiot for making such a stupid promise.

But suppose, said the preacher, the girl was just a child?  Then Herod’s extravagant promise makes sense.  After all, what would a child ask for?  A pretty new dress?  A whole bowl of sweets?  How about a pony?  Everyone’s laughing.  She runs to ask her mother for a suggestion.  And wicked Herodias takes swift advantage of the situation.  Maybe she was frightened that Herod would become convinced John was right and would set her aside.  No more soft living in the palace.  No more whispering advice in the King’s ear.  No more preening about the place as queen.

See how changing just one detail turns the whole story on its head?  I’m going to try to remember my two lessons in thinking outside the idea box.


Christine Thresh said...

I found that a strange reading on Sunday. Your explanation and thinking out of the box made me ponder other possibilities.

Linda O. Johnston said...

Every once in a while I do consider whether to make a change in a story I've plotted for a while, Monica--and then marvel at all the other changes that would generate! Usually I leave things as originally planned.

Betty Hechtman said...

I am in the midst of plotting my next book. I have made lots of changes, including who did it.