How I Came to Write An Innocent Murdered
One of the techniques I use, not only for An Innocent Murdered, but for other novels I’ve written as well, is to ask a key question: Whahut If? In the case of my murder mystery, I asked the question: What if a priest was thought to be a pedophile but wasn’t and what if he was killed because the media had already “convicted” him? This led me to another “what if” question: What if the case against a suspect was so strong that there seemed to be no possible way she could be innocent? And yet another question: How could someone else have done the crime in the face of such strong evidence against the suspect?
Those questions led me to my original draft for An Innocent Murdered, which I had first written in the 1990s. What compelled me to write this particular novel at that time was all the media publicity swirling about concerning priests who were accused of child molestation. I noticed that these few bad apples created incredible damage for priests in general—the vast majority of whom were God-fearing and loving men who never do such a thing. Yet the media appeared to paint them all with the same broad brush. That was totally unfair so I hoped my novel would open the eyes of people to the truth.
After setting my original draft aside for almost 15 years, I took a fresh look at it and had to change just about everything except the three main characters—the priest, the detective, and the person who was suspected of murder. When I sketched the outline for this novel, the skeletal part of the plot remained the same—there’s a murder of a priest, a suspect with strong evidence against her, and a detective who, at first, believes she is guilty but later has reason to think otherwise. Originally, I had the priest murdered in the first chapter, but then I asked myself if I were a reader, why would I care about this priest? I wouldn’t. It would be just another dead body. But I wanted the reader to care because this man was innocent of any wrongdoing. He was a good man. He truly cared about children. And I wanted to show that and not to tell that. Thus, the priest isn’t murdered until 12,000 words later. By that time, we know all about him—how he agonized over being falsely accused, how he felt when even another priest and nun scorned him, how he reminisced about sexual temptation as a teenager when another girl his age tried to seduce him.
When people ask me how I create a character, I tell them that I break some of the rules. I don’t use biographical sketches to force myself to create a character from scratch. I don’t agonize over all the physical characteristics of the person—the way he combs his hair into a bushy wave, the way her smile fades like an old painting, the way she wears her skirts so short you wonder how she hides her essentials when she sits, or the way he walks with a limp and has to rest after every block. Those physical attributes come out of my story anyway. What I try to do is to allow a movie to play in my head and as I “see” the characters acting and reacting to others and learn their hidden secrets deep in their minds, the characters come alive. Alive! I can’t really explain it unless I tell you how I created my first successful character in a historical novel I wrote called Sissy! My main character there was a 19th century woman named Jessica Radford. When I created this novel, I had an image of a 10-year-old slave girl crying out for her guardian angel whom she named Sissy. And I had an image of a young woman who went against the tide and insisted that all women be treated as equals with men—in 1862 !! I had Jessica so real that after a friend of mind asked me where Jessica was buried, I told him that she was a fictional character and he found it hard to believe. That’s how I knew I created a great character!
The other thing I had to do with An Innocent Murdered is to plant believable “red herrings” in the murder mystery. That is, there were others who could just as well have killed the priest. One in particular actually possessed the murder weapon itself! I had to plant clues in the novel which were so subtle that—when the reader finished the novel she would say to herself: “Aha, I should have known that all along.” Agatha Christie was a master at that, keeping you guessing until you got near the end of the book.
My novel involved two different locations—one was a mid-sized Kansas town (which is where I live) and the other was Chicago (where I was born and raised). I had the advantage of being intimately familiar with both towns so I felt comfortable in describing the scenes in my novel. For example, I was easily able to visualize where the abandoned rectory was in Chicago, even though I changed the name of the street, and I had a good sense where Rock Meadow, Kansas was (although a fictitious town) and where the police department would probably be located.
Even a contemporary novel requires research. I had to understand how a criminal investigation proceeds, how interrogations are made, and the importance of a flawless crime scene investigation. I had to know how long it would take for person to fly from Kansas City to Chicago, Illinois—as well as what airlines would fly there and what major hotels would be located not far from O’Hare airport.
As far as my writing routine is concerned, I rewrote the new draft of An Innocent Murdered in thirty days, using pressure exerted from the National Novel Writing Month (http://www.nanowrimo.org). But after those thirty days my novel was expanded from 55,000 words to 74,000 words and I spent the next several months editing it over and over until it was in great shape. I found that by collapsing the time frame on this book, I had to live continuously with this story—every day thinking about it, reworking it, coming up with revisions, so I think the artificial pressure I put upon myself help me craft a much better book.
This brings me to my last point. When a writer creates a novel, he should find great satisfaction in constantly rewriting it. There’s a certain delight in knowing, after your draft is completed, that you can now spend all of your time making your story much better than it was. You see things you haven’t noticed before. You notice omissions, you notice errors, and you notice room for improvement. The end result should be your best work. That’s what I hope An Innocent Murdered will prove to be.
“No, I understand. Do you think Matt and I can have access to the former rectory? We’d like to look around.”
“Well, I guess not, but why in the world would you want to look around over there?”
Matt showed him his badge. “It’s part of an investigation we’re doing on the murder of that child.”
“By all means, check it out.” He opened a desk drawer and took out a key attached to a plastic tag. “Here, take this.”
Matt pocketed the key and was about to leave when the man stopped him.
“That place is haunted, you know,” the old man said.
Tom Mach wrote two successful historical novels, Sissy! and All Parts Together, both of which have won rave reviews and were listed among the 150 best Kansas books in 2011.Sissy! won the J. Donald Coffin Memorial Book Award while All Parts Together was a viable entrant for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize Award. He also wrote a collection of short stories entitled Stories To Enjoy which received positive reviews. Tom’s other novels include: An Innocent Murdered, Advent, and Homer the Roamer.
His poetry collection, The Uni Verse, won the Nelson Poetry Book Award. In addition to several awards for his poetry, Writer’s Digest awarded him ninth place in a field of 3,000 entrants. His website is: http://www.TomMach.com He also has a popular blog for writers of both prose and verse at http://tommach.tumblr.com
Father O’Fallon has been murdered, and police officer Jacinta Perez is arrested and charged. Detective Matt Gunnison, however, is not convinced and with the help of Susan, an ex-nun, he discovers a fascinating link between the priest’s death and the death of a child 25 years ago. Will Matt be able to solve both murders? See video: http://t.co/H1siZOg
LINKS FOR VBT: AN INNOCENT MURDERED