Before keyboarding in the opening sentence, a writer needs to decide what point of view that novel or story will take. I didn’t do this when I started to write Safe Harbor, the first book in my Pat Tierney series. I plunged into the story, telling it from the POV of a third-person narrator. For some vague reason, I felt the first person narrator was too common in mystery novels, especially those by North American writers. The late Robert B. Parker used it in his Spenser series. Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky use it. I enjoy the works of Parker, Evanovich, Grafton and Paretsky, but for some vague reason I was determined to be different.
I completed the first drafts of Safe Harbor in the limited third person, the form of narration that lets the reader see the events from the POV of a single character or a few characters at the most. Early in 2009 I entered the manuscript in Britain’s Crime Writers’ Association’s Debut Dagger competition, a contest open to English-language writers around the world who haven’t had a novel published. The CWA didn’t get back to me, which meant, in a competition that attracts hundreds of entries, often more than a thousand, that the manuscript hadn’t made its shortlist.
I went back to Safe Harbor and applied more polish. Later that year, veteran Canadian crime writer Gail Bowen had a stint as writer-in-residence at the Toronto Reference Library and she read the first few chapters of the manuscript. “This book needs to be written in the first person,” she said when we met. “We need to know what Pat Tierney is thinking and feeling every step of the way.”
I felt like a light had been switched on in my head. Safe Harbor is a murder mystery, but it’s also the story of Pat’s personal journey. She learns about her husband Michael’s infidelity and starts to get on with her life. The story’s events—Jude’s murder and the danger little Tommy faces—affect Pat deeply because of her personal involvement in them. Jude was the mother of Michael’s child. Tommy is Michael’s son and a reminder to Pat of her husband’s affair. I realized I needed to get deeper into Pat’s head. And the best way to do that was to let her tell the story.
I rewrote the book in the first person. I knew Pat well, so I felt completely comfortable jumping into her shoes. And right from the start, I knew I’d made right choice. I felt an energy emanating from the story that hadn’t been there before. I showed several chapters to members of my writers’ group, and they agreed.
Early the following year, I entered the rewrite in the 2010 Debut Dagger competition. Same title, same storyline as my previous submission, but this time it was told in the first person. That year Safe Harbor emerged as one of 11 novels—out of about 1,100 submissions from around the world—that were shortlisted for the award. I was astonished…and thrilled. Being on that shortlist has been one of the highlights of my writing life.
I’m sure that the intimacy created by the first-person narration made all the difference in attracting the judges’ attention, and I went on to write Black Water. The second book in the Pat Tierney series explores Pat’s relationship with her daughter Tracy. It’s also in first person. The Pat Tierney books will all be written in first person, at least the sections that deal with Pat.
Will I always use a first-person narrator? Not necessarily. Every standalone novel, every series and every short story demands a certain point of view, depending how far the writer needs to get inside certain characters’ heads. Here’s a useful strategy if you’re uncertain what POV to use at the outset. Try writing opening chapters from different points of view, and settle on the one that is most comfortable for you as a writer and is the most effective for the story you want to tell.
Rosemary McCracken has worked on newspapers across Canada as a reporter, arts reviewer, editorial writer and editor. She is now a Toronto-based fiction writer and freelance journalist. Her first mystery novel, Safe Harbor, was shortlisted for Britain’s Crime Writers’ Association’s Debut Dagger in 2010 and published by Imajin Books in 2012. You can buy it here.
Black Water, the second book in the Pat Tierney series, has just been released at the special introductory price of .99! You can buy it here.
To win a $50 Amazon gift certificate, enter the Black Water giveaway contest here. Deadline is June 15.