In my last post, I mentioned my desire to write a murder mystery story but that I felt I lacked the basic knowhow to set such a story in the present day. Instead, I thought about setting it some time in the future, on a new world.
Today, I have mostly been thinking through what the background might be for a world in which modern forensics might not be available and starting to create my Knowledge for this new world (working title “Jeuneterre”, which I think means “Young Earth” in French, although it’s a long time since I used my French so I could be slightly offbeat there – especially as, when talking about a world, I am now recalling that the word should be “monde”). This, to me, is superfun and tells a narrative and a story all of its own.
One thing I struggle with when I start creating something in the SF/F region is just that I fall in love with the stories that explain the world, as much as the story that I want to set in the world. People, so I am told, do not want to read five pages of exposition explaining how things got the way they are (the introduction to Anne McCaffery’s “Pern” novels, explaining about how Pern came about, is mercifully brief and a brilliant narrative background). And yet, it is these stories that drive me to read non-fiction history books so avidly. It’s one of the great things about reading about science: any discovery has a narrative to it, to say how it comes about that they asked this question and what they did to investigate the answer.
I do the same thing with world-building. At one stage, I got carried away and started to draw the entire historical narrative of how the alien worlds came to be settled and in what order, what the social and economic driving forces were, and so on. None of this would make the slightest bit of difference to the details that could be discerned in the mystery. No, I had to focus and think about how this world developed, and what place it plays – what would cause it to have the type of capabilities that I want, and not have the ones I don’t want it to have? I have answers now, and from those answers I am spinning an entire culture, with customs, rituals (especially funerals – if it’s a murder mystery then at least one person has to die, right? So they’re going to need to do something with the body), social life and so on.
Of course, this all then started to put certain boundaries around what might happen in my murder, and more importantly why it might happen and who might be the victim and who might be the murderer. This demonstrates the truth of the maxim that story and place have to create one another.
More importantly, it means thinking about why people in murder mysteries kill other people. It seems to me that these are generally either sex, money or secrets. Sometimes it’s more than one of these (for example, several of the “Six Against The Yard” short stories focussed on blackmail as the reason for killing). There are, of course, lots of ways to break down these strands into smaller subsections, and I will need to think about which one I want to use and why, and in what form. But to make it consistent and believable, I need to think about what the social norms might be in this society. What are their attitudes to sex? What role does money play? What things are taboo such that they would require a murder to prevent them from being more widely known? Why would those be taboo and not other things? If those things are taboo, and people relate to money that way, and they have those attitudes to sex – then what else would follow from those kinds of social norms? How did those norms develop, and are there any generational differences or tensions because of them?
Of course, I also need to know what the normal types of crime and punishment are, who generally does the investigating and how do they go about doing so? That will tend to develop out of what I need to have happen for there to be a sufficiently interesting mystery to solve, of course. However, the social norms, economic background and so on will all tie in to creating a plausible sense of who would investigate, how they could do it, and why they would. What might the murderer fear as the consequence of hir actions, if found out? Is it realistic that zie murdered in order to cover up some other crime? Who might be the “usual suspects” and who might be “above suspicion” – at least, at first?
I’ve been having fun answering these kinds of questions, working out what sorts of forces or actions might have generated this instead of that type of situation and so on. This is why I like puzzles, problem-solving and writing.
The point, however, is that if a person doesn’t do this kind of background for the story, then it doesn’t hold together. None of it necessarily appears in the top-level of the actual story, but it needs to be underneath it, all the way through. If it’s done well – whether you’re in the past, a foreign country, an alien world or some unusual environment in the present day – then people will either deduce or infer the rules for themselves, or else they will be curious enough to want to know more – which is when you sell them Book Two Of The Series… (and now I’m really getting ahead of myself). But it all starts with knowing the answers to the questions.