The “whydunit”, is arguably the more intriguing of questions asked along a literary journey suggests Jamie Mason, author of Three Graves Full. In today’s Big Idea, Jamie explains the method and mentality that went into polishing her debut novel.
I’ve never written anything that went theme first, story second. Probably someone could do it. No doubt someone has – or likely many someones. Lord knows maybe even I could do it if I wanted to or was paid a million dollars to do it that way. It’s just that neither of those scenarios has presented itself yet.
So, I got a Big Idea: There is a man, a mild man, not a bad guy, but a guy prone to doing the wrong thing. Then he kills somebody. In a panic, he plants the problem a little too close to home, if you know what I mean. And because, in fine non-psychopathic form, he can’t stand doing any yard work after that, he hires a landscaper to keep the front of his house − just the front – nice and presentable. He’s concerned that that the neighbors will start looking at him funny if his grass grows up to the windows and the hedges jump their beds.
Wouldn’t you know it, those landscapers discover a buried body on his property – only it’s not the body this guy buried.
And then this guy has about 300 pages of problems after that.
Since the foundation of Three Graves Full is one hell of a coincidence, I realized as I went along that the characters were going to need to be latched onto this ridiculous ride with some thematically very sound bolts. I noticed that, within the bounds of this story, everything seemed to turn on how inclined each character was to take the bald truth full in the face. The more they lied – and there were little lies and great big whoppers in the spectrum from omission to full on fabrications – the more the breadcrumbs fell to lead me back to why they were the way they were, and why they did the things they did.
I became fascinated with the idea of what I called “The Liar’s Margin” which was, in fact, the original and working title of the book. Here’s a little of what I had to say on it:
“Every event is boxed in by a set of facts; the truth as it were. There’s the what and the when of a deed; there’s where it happened and how it was done. But it’s at the why that the liar’s margin begins. It’s from this border that we launch the justifications for everything we do, and for all that we allow to be done to us. Only our distance from the hard truth and the direction of our push—toward or away from it—is the measure of our virtue.”
What I’d set out to do, and hope I’ve managed, is to take one fictional character’s worst nightmare, and gild that nightshade flower with a caper at the intersection of a few more fictional character’s worst nightmares. Then, as we seem more readily able to do with someone else’s problems, I wanted to find the humor there − and most importantly, to find the why. For me whodunit is almost always less interesting than whydunit.
The Big Idea of the liar’s margin is that it is the perfect laboratory for distilling ‘why’. If we know that she won’t face her reasons for putting up with a cheater, or that he’s not entirely ashamed of the murder he committed, or that another person is unwilling to admit how very like his father he really is – well then, we’ve done more than solved a fictional crime. We’ve earned ourselves a Diploma of Advanced Amateur Anthropological Studies from The University of Armchair.
And that’s not too shabby for just the price of a book.