There are essentially two approaches to designing a crime novel: “Pantsing” and “Plotting.” Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants, making the story up as they go along and often not knowing essential plot elements (like who did it!) until well into the drafting process. Plotters, you can probably guess, use tools like outlines and index cards and string to tie together their intricately plotted stories before they start the actual draft.
The design of my first novel, Little Comfort, required about 10 years of trial and error, the very definition of pantsing.
The seed of the novel began back in 2008 with the Clark Rockefeller case. You might remember that Clark Rockefeller (né Christian Gerhartsreiter) claimed to be a member of the Rockefeller clan, married a wealthy woman, and had a child with her. When his story started to unravel, he kidnapped his daughter and went on the run, making national headlines. After he was caught, it turned out that Rockefeller was actually from Germany, and the investigation ultimately connected him to the murder of a California couple.
I thought this story would be a terrific launching point for a crime novel. I wrote a three-page scene about a man named Sam (no last name) sitting in a bar on Charles Street in Boston. I knew Sam was fleeing something, though I didn’t quite know what. The scene took me a day to write, maybe two, but then I didn’t know where to take the story from there. I also didn’t know whether I wanted to commit the time and emotional energy it took to be a writer. I’d tried writing another novel a few years earlier. I’d even found an agent who’d shopped it around New York but didn’t have luck selling it. And it had been discouraging (soul-crushing, even).
So the scene sat on my computer for a few years. Every now and then I’d pull it up, read it, admire it, and think about how great it would be to turn it into something, and then I’d put it away for another day.
Then in late 2010, I got a new job and managed to negotiate a month off before I started. With the luxury of that free time, I decided it was now or never, and spent the month trying to shape that short scene into something bigger. Right after I graduated from Wesleyan, I’d worked for a for-profit college. The school was owned by a wealthy family of over-the-top backstabbers who seemed like they’d emerged fully formed from an ’80s nighttime soap opera like Dynasty. I thought, “Why not take ‘Sam’ and place him at that school, with that family, and see where the story went?” I spent the month toiling away and wound up with about half of a draft completed. And I hated every single word of it. I started my new job, and wondered if I’d wasted a month of precious free time on something that would never go anywhere.
Still not ready to give up, I continued to think through what the plot was missing, and I realized that Sam, a Tom Ripley–like character, needed a much stronger foil, and I landed on Hester Thursby, who changed everything.
Hester is a four-foot-nine-and-three-quarter-inch tall librarian at Harvard’s Widener Library who finds missing people as a side gig. Booklist describes her as “a tough, cerebral, relatably flawed sleuth who lulls herself to sleep with horror films and takes on serial killers and unexpected motherhood without skipping a beat.” For me, piecing together her internal and home lives was crucial to pushing this novel to completion.
Hester grew up as the only child of a mentally ill mother, and she learned to fend for herself, seeking refuge in her town library each afternoon after closing. She earned a degree from Wellesley on scholarship and now lives with her “non-husband” (as she calls him) Morgan Maguire and his three-year-old niece, Kate, along with their basset hound, Waffles.
So what happened to the scene that started the whole novel, the one where Sam sits in a bar on Charles Street and contemplates leaving town? I axed it, along with the entire storyline about the for-profit school (though I did spin that into a short story called “White Tights and Mary Janes” that published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine earlier this year). Little Comfort is Hester’s story, and I needed to go through the creative process of writing all of those words (thousands and thousands of words!) to find her. Once I did, I cut away anything that didn’t tell that story and was left with the final product.
After 10 years of pantsing through my first book, the design of my second novel, The Missing Ones (due in September of 2019), was much more straightforward. This time it was by necessity. The difference between a first novel and a second is simple: absolutely no one is waiting for a first novel, the motivation to write has to be internal, and you can sit with the prose as long as you like. With a second novel come expectations, from an agent, an editor, a publicist, and an audience. You also have a deadline. Because I have a very demanding day job, for this novel, I did a complete turnabout and became a plotter, developing a detailed outline and tacking those index cards to a bulletin board. What took 10 years the first time around took 10 months the second. Maybe I can write number three in 10 weeks?
—Edwin Hill is the author of Little Comfort and The Missing Ones. Visit him on the web at edwin-hill.com.