Friday, May 13, 2016

Finding Bill Doans - the Drama of Discovery

I started to write again this week.

Not much, really more editing than writing, but after what amounts to a three year lay off, it really felt good.

It has been a rough three years, perhaps the roughest while I was still trying, still in denial.  Life, due to various health and situational issues, has been highly... distracting. And that is incredibly depressing.  Distraction is death to the writer.  (Also, to the driver. Literal death to the driver.  So what little remains of my attention has gone to more critical things like traffic, rather than plotting.)  This past year I more or less gave up.

Am I back?  I don't know.  Certainly not full time.  But my mind is capable of holding stories in it again.

One of the things I did to feed my need for story, and mystery puzzle in particular, was research family history.  It's satisfying in two ways -- first in filling out this amazing saga of all of these thousands of people in my family tree and how they interlock.  Second in the fact that I am acting out a mystery drama myself, as I make little discoveries.

Like the story of Bill Doans.  All my life I heard this anecdote. It's not a great drama, certainly not enough to write a story about.  It's just that my dad, when he was a little boy about four or five, was all excited one morning about visiting a neighbor's house, a guy named Bill Jones, and he ran out of the house dressed only in his underware. (Some versions of the story had him in his birthday suit.)  His brother called after him and asked where he was going.

"I'm going to Bill Doans' house!" he called and off her ran.

And that's the whole story.  If you knew my dad, you'd chuckle.  I always assumed Bill Jones was some cool older kid.  Maybe a football player or something.

But then one day I was looking at the 1940 Census, taken when my dad was four years old, and right there on the same page of the census as my dad's family was... William Jones.  He lived right next door!  OMG!  It was Bill Doans!  I found Bill Doans!!!!

William Jones turned out to be 38 years old, but he had a son near my father's age, and a couple of teenagers.  Jones was a section foreman for the Ann Arbor Railroad, where my grandfather was the telegrapher and station agent.

And now I gotta wonder about this picture of my grandfather at the depot.  Could that other guy, the one with the overalls, be Bill Doans?  Could this be another mystery solved?  Maybe. I've got some aunts and an uncle who might know. Gotta remember to ask them.

But here is the thing about the little story I just told.  It's not a story about this guy who worked on the railroad.  He's actually the Maguffin.  The drama in the story above is about me, finding the guy who worked on the railroad.

Which isn't an action scene.  If you were to dramatize that, you'd basically just show me staring at a computer screen, then jumping up and down while my cat lashes his tail in annoyance at me disturbing his sleep.

Which is why there is so much pressure on us as writers to jazz up investigation scenes and boring discoveries.  Have a cool geeky lab guy do it all off screen and just tell the detective about it.  Or have the detective discover everything in interrogation, and exciting dramatic interactions, because it would be boring to just have them read it. Right?

But you know, some of the most exciting things in an investigation happen in the quiet moments.  John Le Carre knows this -- some of the most exciting chapters in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy involve George Smiley sitting still, in a room, reading.  Movies occasionally get it.  Antonioni's BLOW UP gets it right as the photographer protagonist obsessively examines small details in his photographs -- those sequences are the best part of the movie (imho, the rest simply goes off the rails).

A more recent example is last year's SPOTLIGHT -- about investigative reporters, who uncovered the depths of the cover up of pedophile priest scandal in Boston.  No, we aren't forced to watch them sit alone in a room and read, but the story does depend on how they grasp the threads of their story by pursuing small "boring" details -- like tiny clues they find poring over many years of church directories.

Those scenes are the most exciting moments in the movie, really.  Because finding that information is a true and serious problem.  There is no hip geekster to just punch it up on a computer for them. They have to DIG and find it.  And we get to watch them dig and see them struggle and finally succeed.  Much much more dramatic.

Not every mystery or every story requires that kind of focus, but it's important for us to remember that if something is exciting enough to obsess our characters, then maybe we shouldn't hide it in a back room.  Maybe we should trust the MacGuffin. 

Anyway, that's not what I meant to talk about today -- I was going to talk about the endless inspirations that I get from reading old newspapers, but maybe that will be another post on another day.

See you in the funny papers.


Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Loved this post, because I've been researching family history a lot myself lately. It fascinates me for multiple reasons: being a history buff, I love seeing where my own ancestors fit in and what they were doing during the time periods I've researched and written about—and like you said, the fun of doing "detective work" and piecing things together. It's always a little thrill when you discover another link, like finding someone as a child on a census and seeing what their parents' names were, or coming upon a marriage record that shows their wife's maiden name. (My family, like your cat, are occasionally bemused by my bursting in on them exclaiming something like, "I found Osmer—and his name is Osmond!")

I'd be interested to read that post about old newspapers, too!

The Daring Novelist said...

I really think that every mystery writer (and maybe every writer) should learn to do a little research. Not just finding what you're looking for, but all the collateral stuff you find out while you're looking.

That really is how a mystery works: you start out looking for one thing, and as you uncover more information, your picture of the truth changes, and you head in different directions until you finally get the big picture.