One Minute to Certain Death
Someone asked me on Friday why I write books and I, as I have to others, lied with my answer.
It’s easy to say “because it’s fun,” or “it keeps me off the streets,” or “because I want my grandkids see their granddad doing something useful in his old age.” It’s also because most questioners want a short answer.
To be truthful would take more time and explanation: writing helps satisfy my need to solve problems. I love to solve problems. I’ll write a whole book just to feature a nice problem for which I’ve made up an elegant solution.
You might be acquainted with Smoke Dreams, a novel I wrote that features the remodeling of an 1870s mansion. I loved writing that book because I got caught up in the details of how the house was originally built and the details of how the remodeling would be done. When you’re dealing with a hundred and fifty year-old house, every change spawns problems.
I spent endless joyful hours imagining authentic solutions – the foundation, the windows, the kitchen, the wiring, the insulation, the sheetrock, the porch, the roof, installing those cute little plastic pipes for hot and cold water, replacing the cistern, etcetera. I was a DIY junkie high on This Old House reruns! I even read two books about the evolution of toilets in the last half of the 1800s so I could understand what the bathroom might have looked like. We have no appreciation of the technological leaps that got us from outhouses to flushable porcelain bowls.
I must have written five or six pages of background on going to the potty before I admitted that nobody but me cared; the old toilet is not even mentioned in the final version of the book.
I love solving problems and that’s the nature of remodeling and rebuilding. If I ever win the lottery, I may build a house identical to the one in the book just to see if my solutions work.
My problem solving sometimes waits until the end of the book. I proofread a manuscript last night of Outlaw, a new Mogi Franklin mystery being published on May 1st. I had started the book with my history prelude (about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), written about half of the story establishing the characters and plot, and then had this great idea for an ending where Mogi gets himself into this terrible, horrible, awful situation from which there is absolutely no escape. He’s a goner! Without question, the boy is going to die!
Let me be truthful. When I thought of putting him in it, I had no idea of how I was going to get him out of his terrible, horrible, awful situation. No clue. I just knew that him being in that situation was going to grip the reader and have them sweating in their chairs thinking that this might be it – hasta la vista, baby, out of time, end of series, goodbye America, too bad, Jennifer.
I kept writing believing that I’d think of something. Close to the end of the book, I had Mogi imprisoned in a stolen homemade mini-submarine, in two hundred feet of water at the bottom of Lake Powell, running out of power, its front end caught in a mess of wires tied to a small mountain of explosives with only a minute left before they were timed to explode.
I was getting a little nervous.
It took a couple of days and a Tom Hanks movie, but it finally came to me. I made a small change in the beginning of the story and then watched him make his escape – a little damaged, but recovering nicely – and you will never – never – be able to guess how he’s going to escape until you read the book.
Even after all the times I had been through it, I read the proof up to that point and was raising my hands and pumping my fists when he did what he does.
Another problem solved!
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Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.