In the Beginning


Where should a story begin? In media res, of course, but at which point in the middle of things? For me, deciding where to begin a new book is the most difficult part of the entire writing process.   

When I was still teaching I would warn my students that if asked on an exam to explain why World War I occurred and they answered that it was because a tubercular teenager, after eating a sandwich, shot the unsatisfactory heir-apparent to a no-longer powerful nation at high noon in a city most Europeans and Americans could not point out on a map, then they hadn’t answered the question.  So, where does that story begin? 

A book might open with a kid walking out of a sandwich shop and shooting the fat guy sitting in the backseat of the car that by happenstance is stalled in the street in front of him.  Good action scene, but it isn’t the story.  Who was Gavrilo Princeps and why did he want to kill Franz-Ferdinand? And why did Europe explode because he was successful? It is a huge story; where to begin explaining it?

 Because my current book in progress has a large back story and a large cast of characters, I struggled over where to begin. I wrote six complete first chapters before I had the right opening. That’s about four more than usual for me and there is no guarantee that when the book is finished that chapter will still be the opening.  For example, my original first chapter for The Hanging ended up about a third of the way through the book. However, the opening of The Color of Light remained very little changed from proposal to finished book.

 As I struggled over the opening, there were times when I had to turn my chair around and look at the row of books with my name on the spine as reminder that I have managed to do this before, and can do it again. And, by jinggies, it got done, again. I am happy to say that the book now progresses apace. Occasional hiccups, of course, but progressing.


6 Responses

  1. You could also say it was because of the invention of the automobile. In Danubia, an amazing book about Central Europe and the Hapsburgs, Simon Winder notes that if the Archduke had been high up in a coach, he would have been safer.

  2. For, if he’d had a competent driver who hadn’t taken the wrong street and stalled the car as he tried to back up, the arch duke would not have been in front of the sandwich shop when Princeps walked out. The real question is, why did the assassination of a man of so little real consequence trigger that horrible war?

  3. It was all those pesky alliances. Plus Kaiser Bill spoiling for a war.

  4. And the French need to assuage the humiliations of the Franco-Prussian War, and…..

  5. Love it, Wendy. At some point in everything I’ve written, I “hit the wall,” totally convinced that this is the one I simply won’t be able to pull off. And then I, too look at the stuff I’ve managed to fool ’em with in the past…

  6. Happy to know, tom, that I am not alone.

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