Archive for the ‘Purgatory Ridge’ Category

Purgatory Ridge: The Story Arc

Monday, August 10th, 2009

I do a weird thing with my books.

Rereading Purgatory Ridge has made me look at the issue of story arc and how I construct a narrative, and I’m honestly surprised.  I see that I have often done something without really being aware of it.  Simply this:  At a certain point in the story, I shift direction dramatically.  A story that has had a very specific drive suddenly changes and what’s at the heart of the drama shifts.

Here’s how it works with Purgatory Ridge. After the prologue, the story opens with a bomb blast at a lumber mill, an enterprise that’s at the center of a controversy over the cutting of pine trees sacred to the Anishinaabeg.  The blast kills a man, a well-respected Ojibwe elder.  The first part of the book is a pretty straightforward whodunit.  Cork O’Connor, like every good protagonist in the genre from Miss Marple to Dave Robicheaux, goes about the business of trying to get to the bottom of the crime.  Midway through the story, however, everything changes.  Cork’s wife and son are kidnapped and the stakes instantly skyrocket.  The book becomes a thriller as well as a mystery.

I write my books in my head first.  When I conceived Purgatory Ridge, I had a very specific purpose in mind.  I’d written two books.  One, Iron Lake, was a book with relationship at its heart.  The second, Boundary Waters, was all about suspense. With third, I wanted to create a story that was a satisfying marriage of suspense and relationship.  I recall that I came up with the second part of the book first, the kidnapping and the idea of Jo O’Connor in jeopardy.  I constructed the first part of the book in order to set up the kidnapping and the misdirection.  One critic commented that the initial storyline would have been just fine; readers didn’t need the kidnapping.  I beg to differ.  If Purgatory Ridge had been just a book about a bombing that leaves a man dead, it would have be an acceptable mystery, but it wouldn’t be a thriller.  Putting someone in jeopardy ramps up the intrigue and the emotional investment in the outcome.  And not just any someone, but someone the readers—and Cork—care about very much.  In an earlier blog, I talked about creating suspense in many different ways.  The threat of harm to characters we care about is one of the most profound.

This switch of direction well into the book keeps the reader guessing.  I did it in The Devil’s Bed, my only stand alone.  I did it in Blood Hollow and in Thunder Bay and in the book that will be released this coming September, Heaven’s Keep. But I did it first in Purgatory Ridge, and I still appreciate the fresh energy that the technique delivers to the story.

At the end of Purgatory Ridge, all the answers have been delivered to the reader.  The mystery of the bombing has been solved.  The dark heart at the center of the all the misdeeds has been revealed.  And the mortal threat to Cork and those he loves has been resolved.  The book is a harrowing journey with one of the most emotional resolutions in the whole series.  On rereading, I think it stands up extremely well.  Another book I’m quite proud to have my name on.

Purgatory Ridge: In Praise of the Prologue

Friday, August 7th, 2009

winter01People get angry over prologues.  It’s weird.  They seem either to love them or to hate them.

Me, I love prologues.  Looking at my own work, I realize that almost every novel I’ve written has opened with a prologue, though I don’t always call it that.  Boundary Waters begins with Chapter One, but the whole scene is, in reality, a prologue.  Blood Hollow, the fourth book in the Cork O’Connor series, begins with a three-chapter scene, a long arc structured to read like a short story.  Purgatory Ridge begins with a section titled November, 1966.  It’s a prologue.

A prologue can be a powerful technique for grabbing a reader’s interest.  It requires no set up and no immediate resolution.  It must, of course, be significant to the story in some way, must somehow tie deeply into the narrative, otherwise it’s a cheat, and unsatisfying in the end.  One of my favorite prologues occurs in Dennis Lehane’s novel Gone Baby Gone.  It’s a brief but compelling portrait of a woman who, clearly, has something to hide.  Her secret isn’t revealed until almost the very end of the book, but when the reader understands the connection, left dangling for three hundred pages, it’s a marvelously satisfying resolution.

winter02So I began Purgatory Ridge with a prologue, a scene in which a great ore carrier sinks in a horrific storm and the sole survivor is left grief stricken.  That character doesn’t reappear for several chapters, and the part the sinking plays in the storyline isn’t revealed until several chapters after that.  But when the reader finally understands the connection, a great deal of the underlying motivation for the story falls easily into place.

I don’t understand the objection to prologues.  If you want to write and give me your own perspective, I’d be happy to carry on a discussion with you.  If you’ve got examples of prologues that don’t work—preferably none that I’ve written—I’d love to know what they are, and why they don’t work for you.

In the meantime, I’m going to hold to this literary device.  The book I’m working on now, a great Cork O’Connor novel titled Vermilion Drift (due out probably in fall of 2010) opens with a prologue that’s less than a page long and is, believe me, compelling as hell.

Purgatory Ridge: The Idea

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

Kent-on-North-Shore

I’m frequently asked where my ideas come from.  Sometimes that’s a difficult question to answer.  Often I simply can’t recall.  But Purgatory Ridge is different.  I remember well the day this story was delivered to me.

At the time, I was employed by the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development.  Iron Lake was already on bookshelves.  Boundary Waters was nearly complete.  I was trying to open myself to an idea for the next novel, but nothing was coming to me.

On my coffee break one afternoon, I sat down with a terrific woman named Kaye O’Geay, one of my cohorts at the Institute.  Our conversation turned to fathers, and she told me the story of the death of her own father.  He’d been a deckhand on an old ore carrier, a ship called the Daniel J. Morrell.  In November of 1966, while making the final passage of the season across Lake Huron, the Morrell encountered one of those horrific gales that occasionally sweep across the Great Lakes at that time of year.  In the course of battling the storm, the ore carrier broke in half and sank.  In terms of the loss of human life, it was, at the time, the worst disaster ever to occur on the Great Lakes.  (The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was still nine years away.)  Along with Kaye’s father, 27 other men were lost.  But one man survived, a watchman named Dennis Hale.  For more than forty hours, he drifted on an open pontoon raft, dressed only in his pea coat and skivvies.  The winds raged across the lake at sixty miles an hour; the air temperature hovered around freezing; the water was a bitter forty degrees; the waves towered thirty feet high.  Hale should have died.  But he didn’t.  The Coast Guard found him—nearly frozen—and flew him to a hospital, where he made his recovery.

North-Shore-004It was a remarkable story, and as soon as I heard it, I knew that somehow this was going to be at the heart of the next book.  I had no idea what kind of narrative I would build around it, but I had a clear image of the way the book would open: with the sinking of a great ore carrier during a terrible storm, seen through the eyes of the sole survivor.

Dennis Hale has given his account of the incident in a fascinating book called, in fact, Sole Survivor.  If you’re interested, you can order it online at a number of sites.

How did I take the seed of that initial idea and create the very complex storyline that became Purgatory Ridge?  It happened in the way it usually happens—the result of gestation.

While I was finishing Boundary Waters, I let the possibilities of “story” roll around in my head, all centered on the sinking of an ore boat and what part that might play.  I had a few ideas already for other elements that could contribute to building a plot, and all these possibilities bumped around in my thinking.  Over the course of several weeks, a complex storyline developed.  By the time I finished writing Boundary Waters, I knew most of the plot of Purgatory Ridge: how it would begin, how it would probably end, who was going to do what to whom and why.  As I usually do, I sat down and outlined the book.  And then I began the writing.  I opened with a prologue—the ore boat sinking—which is a technique that creates lots of controversy among readers and writers alike.  And that’ll be the subject of my next blog.

See you down the road!