I can never seem to make an outline for a mystery–be it novel or short story. I’ll think up a situation, have a sleuth in mind, probably a villain–and then plunge in and let the story flow, a scene at a time. It’s more fun this way; I love the surprises each scene brings (She jumped out a window! Oh! Now what’s going to happen?) Of course this random method hasn’t always worked. Two-thirds of the way through my novel Stolen Honey I discovered that the person I’d earlier considered a villain couldn’t possibly have strangled a woman. It wasn’t in his character. So I had to choose someone else with a motive and take another few months to go back and plant clues.
Two years ago I was invited to contribute an essay to the anthology Now Write! Mysteries, and in the process of deciding what to write I stumbled (literally–it had fallen out of a bookcase) upon a copy of my well-thumbed The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell. I reread the chapter titled “The Hero’s Adventure,” and in one of those rare moments of epiphany realized: Whoa… this is the outline I’ve been subconsciously following!
In that chapter, Campbell wrote: “Where we had thought to travel outward, we will come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world.”
The first time I’d read these words I had been through a traumatic divorce. With four children grown, I left Vermont to teach in a small liberal arts college in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. and was feeling a pariah. How on earth was I, virtually alone in a rented room, to be with all the world? I went on to study Campbell’s archetypal journey quest, in which the reluctant hero or heroine accepts the call to leave home, despite the apparent hardships, and sets out on a series of adventures beyond the safe, known world–often in search of something missing or lost (a human being?).
The journey is both physical and interior: a search for answers inside the self. As the seeker journeys into this mysterious otherworld, he/she meets with trials, tests, temptations to overcome and “dragons” to subdue (a villain?). There are moments of doubt and despair. But with luck, the hero will encounter an altruistic person, male or female (a romantic counterpart?) to help achieve the goal.
I did, in fact, re-meet a man I’d dated in college, whom I eventually married.
The seeker ultimately overcomes the proverbial dragons, and returns “home” with a renewed understanding of self, the world, and his or her place within it. The hero has been thinking one way, and now must disover a new way “of being or becoming.” Campbell cites the trials of seekers as diverse as Buddha, Odysseus, King Arthur, Jesus, Jonah and his whale, Martin Luther King, Jr. I think, too, of the imaginary universe of Star Wars, which undoubtedly had its origin in the archetypal adventures Campbell demonstrates in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1975). All stories, he shows us in this wise opus, are expressions of the same story-pattern, or “monomyth.”
I was thrilled, of course, to use this structure for future mysteries, and to have a reason (excuse?) for not plotting out in advance. I would simply follow my sleuth, neck or nothing, into this perilous other-world and then out again as she resolves a crime. I continued my quests through five mysteries with my Vermont dairy farmer Ruth, in two middle grade mysteries. and now in the persona of fiery Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary’s was a continual quest for women’s rights, social justice, and recognition as a serious writer. But the search was filled with adversity: the childbirth death of a beloved friend, an abused sister, abandonment during the French Revolution by a lover whose child she bore, two suicide attempts. And then just after she’d finally found fulfillment with writer William Godwin and given birth to the future Mary Shelley–she died at age thirty-eight.
Not all quests end exactly as we hope–even in our novels.
I think now of Mary’s quest as four steps. As Departure (her dysfunctional childhood); as Initiation (her misadventures with men and a vilifying society); her Return (to Godwin–and her resilience after so many failures); and finally, as Transformation. In the end of her real life, Mary had again taken up her novel Maria or the Wrongs of Woman and, no longer naive, having seen the dark side of the world, she plotted out a new, creative life for herself. It was, sadly, the physician’s unwashed hands that halted this purpose.
So I completed my essay for Now Write! (published by Penguin, 2011), along with a guided how-to create a mysterious journey quest. It’s a “how-to” I frequently consider myself, as I move into a third book in the Wollstonecraft series.
And in truth, as I look back on my own unfinished life, the quest goes on–as I expect it does for each of us as we sit down to contemplate our latest mystery. ”Do not go gentle into that good night,” warned poet Dylan Thomas, who had his own dragons to fight. ”Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.”