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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, July 05, 2007

"G" is for good

Last Thursday, when I visited my mother for lunch, for fun we spent part of our time looking at the opening sentences and paragraphs of a few novels. They were a semi-random selection of popular novels and serious fiction, including things like Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, and Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry.

Based purely on the strength of their openers, among the small collection we looked at, I would award the palm to Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone mystery, "G" Is for Gumshoe. Here's the opening sentence:

Three things occurred on or about May 5, which is not only Cinco de Mayo in California, but Happy Birthday to me.

Nice. Many writers strive to grab your attention with an opening hook, which may be violent or often mystifying, but Grafton stimulates the reader's curiosity naturally and without excessive force by mentioning that "three things occurred." This simple statement provokes the question, "what three things?", and I as a reader am willing to extend the narrator enough credit to read on to find out. It's not an artificial attempt to mystify the reader, to provoke a huh? response, as so many openers do. It is a factual statement made by a person who has a direct, organized way of presenting information--and this in itself tells me something about the narrator, who is also clearly the first-person protagonist.

Other nice touches: Grafton's use of "on or about" tells us that the character is a cop or involved with the legal system, or is otherwise making playful use of that legalistic phrase. The date May 5 places the story precisely in time, and further strengthens the impression of the narrator's penchant for facts and precision. The mention of Cinco de Mayo in California sets the story in place, and also in attitude, since this unofficial holiday is a time of celebrating Mexican pride, hinting that the narrator may have connections with the large Hispanic community in California. Finally, the phrase "Happy Birthday to me" tells us still more about our narrator--that she's a Taurus, for one thing. Her use of "Happy Birthday" itself is ironic or playful, expressing her attitude. How well do you have to know someone to know what his or her birthday is? We know this narrator's birthday already, so are getting in fairly close and intimate--all in one 22-word sentence.

Here's the rest of the first paragraph:

Aside from the fact that I turned thirty-three (after what seemed like an interminable twelve months of being thirty-two), the following also came to pass:

1. The reconstruction of my apartment was completed and I moved back in.

2. I was hired by a Mrs. Clyde Gersh to bring her mother back from the Mojave desert.

3. I made one of the top slots on Tyrone Patty's hit list.

Very good. We learn a lot, quickly: that the narrator is 33, and that either time is hanging heavy on her hands ("an interminable twelve months of being thirty-two") or she is ironically commenting on how fast time is passing her by. Then she delivers immediately on the promise to tell us about the three things that happened. We learn that her apartment was reconstructed for some reason (was it wrecked somehow?); that she is someone whose work involves transporting people from the desert, at least sometimes; and that she has become an enemy of someone named Tyrone Patty.

Only at this last point, number 3, does Grafton use what I would call mystification--referring to someone or something that the reader does not know in a way that implies that the reader does or should know. (Note that in number 2, she refers to a Mrs. Clyde Gersh, indicating that the narrator did not know her either.) But by now we're drawn so far into the narrator's world that this teaser is legitimate. We know her well enough that she can play with us a bit. Plus, her no-nonsense style suggests that she won't leave us hanging for long. (I didn't read on to find out, by the way.)

There's no fluff here. Each sentence pulls you further into the narrator's world. She has a strong attitude and this permeates each phrase. All in all, I found it very engaging; it's hard not to keep reading.

Of course, this is just the opener. As in a horserace, just because you break fast from the gate doesn't mean you're going to win. But it does show that this writer is proficient, in control, and respects her readers. What's not to like?

More on this topic later. Aren't first paragraphs fun?

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