Monday, March 31, 2008

The Unexpected Guest

by Nina Wright

In the middle of the night on a mist-shrouded country road, Michael Starkwedder runs his car into a ditch. When he goes to the nearest house for help, he finds a murdered man in a wheelchair and a woman holding a smoking gun.

That's the opening scene of Agatha Christie’s classic play, The Unexpected Guest, adapted as a novel by Charles Osbourne. No spoilers here, but suffice it to say that the action goes inside-out when Michael Starkwedder arrives.

Precisely what happens when unexpected guests appear on my pages. Even though I (attempt to) outline before drafting, characters I never saw coming invade my plays and novels. In response, I do the only thing I can: sit back and watch as they take over what I erroneously believed was my story.

Case in point: An Ann Arbor-based animal rights advocacy, Four Legs Good (a.k.a. Fleggers), blindsided me while I was drafting the second Whiskey Mattimoe mystery, Whiskey Straight Up. Founded by a veterinarian with a speech impediment and no sense of humor with humans, Fleggers has been shaping my plotlines ever since. Poor Whiskey still struggles with the term “anti-speciesist.” So do I.

Another case in point: A hunky Scot named MacArthur stunned me when he showed up in Chapter One of Whiskey and Water claiming to be a “cleaner.” His biz had nothing whatsoever to do with either yard work or maid service although he did pick up dog shit. You’d have to read the series to appreciate how much that pleased Whiskey. The cleaner revealed many talents, including a knack for erasing celebrity hijinks. And selling real estate. He's versatile enough to resurface in the book I’m writing now, Whiskey with a Twist. I wonder what he’ll do in this one.

Have unexpected guests changed the course of your fiction? If not, just wait. . . .

39 comments:

Keith Raffel said...

Almost all the characters in what I write are unexpected. No outline, I just start and see who shows up. Like life.

Bill Cameron said...

My couple of main characters are always planned, and of course they never stick with the program. Buttheads.

I do like the unexpected visitors. One showed up recently in my current WIP, and oh how do I appreciate his appearance. He's causing all kinds of interesting trouble.

The problem is figuring out what the major story focus is going to end up being. It's kinda a big mess right now. But interesting -- to me anyway.

Saloma said...

I learned to outline and outline and outline before drafting. Actually, my final outlines resemble drafts; they are so detailed. No matter. As I write, unexpected characters show up and change the whole carefully crafted formula. Sometimes I wonder why I spend so much time prewriting when a lot changes, anyway. But it's my process.

Anonymous said...

I'm either more creative or more bored than I knew with my long-running series. In the early draft I'm writing now, an unexpected character is trying to kill my protagonist. I honestly didn't see that one coming. Neither did my publisher. I wonder what will happen--to my protagonist and my series.

H.B.

Nina Wright said...

Keith, I envy your approach, and I used to work that way, but now I try to sell my work based on partial manuscripts and outlines. That's supposed to save me time, but it's also a lot less fun.

Bill, based on your recent successes I'm going to assume that you trust your characters, whatever they want to do. Have fun sorting out the latest WIP!

Saloma, your process sounds similar to P.D. James's. I once read an interview in which she said she spends six months or more outlining and re-outlining her novels. Only after she has an incredibly detailed plan does she begin her draft.

And H--all I can say is I can't wait to read that one!

Nina

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