by Margaret Lucke
A late afternoon in early spring. I've just left my office in the attic of a Victorian mansion, where I worked for San Francisco's historic preservation organization. I'm walking down the block toward Van Ness Avenue, where I’ll catch a bus to the printshop that my husband and I own, where I plan to put in a few hours of bookkeeping.
The daylight is fading and the air is cool. My steps beat a rhythm on the sidewalk, and I begin to hear a conversation in my mind. A woman is awakened late at night by a jangling phone. The caller announces that he is her father, but it's not the voice of the man who raised her. "I'm your real father," he insists. She slams down the receiver.
Where did that come from? And how intriguing. During the bus ride I replay the exchange between the two of them, father and daughter, or are they?
Arriving at the printshop, I settle in at my desk. Before I pull out the stack of bills to pay, I write down the dialogue that's bouncing around in my head.
It's not as though I'd never started one before. I had files filled with scraps of paper like this one, on which I’d scribbled snippets of stories and random ideas. In a few cases I'd written a chapter or two, but then the book would stall. Although I'd written short stories, I'd never figured out how to write a long one. Starting was easy, but how did you keep the momentum rolling?
This time the characters wouldn't let me quit. They captivated me--who were they? What was their real relationship to each other? Why did she hang up on him so abruptly?
Soon I discovered that the woman was Jess Randolph, an artist who worked as an investigator for a private detective firm to support her art habit. The man, Allen Fraser, was indeed her biological father, but he had walked out on Jess and her mom when she was a small child. Now he was reaching out because he needed her professional help--he was the prime suspect in a high-profile murder.
Cramming a novel into my busy life was hard. I went weeks, sometimes months, without adding to my word count. But sooner or later the characters would drift back into my brain, usually as I was falling asleep, and whisper one more small piece of the story. In the morning I'd jot down this new revelation and once more my work would be in progress.
As I kept writing what interested me most was not what Jess did to solve the murder, but how she handled the jolt of having her father drop back into her life. It was fascinating to watch as a relationship warily developed between them.
I encountered two main challenges in writing the story. One was to maintain a balance between Jess’s sleuthing and her personal dilemma. The other, of course, was my old bugaboo, keeping up the momentum. When the novel was half written I stumbled on a book about screenwriting and read the section on the three-act structure with wide-open eyes. Here was the secret I'd been looking for. Once I divided plot into three acts and identified the dramatic moments that twisted it from one act into the next, the whole story fell together. I finished the book with renewed confidence and enthusiasm. I'm not saying every writer will find this approach helpful, but it made all the difference to me.
Taking my first book on the long journey from idea to finished manuscript taught me how to write. The journey from there to publication was educational too, but that's another story.