“I’m dying — but first let me tell you my life story”

One of the first things you have to figure out when writing a novel is its point of view.

This usually isn’t hard — there just aren’t that many standard options for genre fiction.  For thrillers, a typical choice is a floating third-person point of view — the writer puts you in the head of one character, then another, then another, and that propels you through the story.  That’s the point of view I used for Summit and Pontiff. For mysteries, the typical choice is a first-person or limited third-person point of view.  The writer puts you in one person’s head as he or she tries to figure out the puzzle, and you try to figure it out along with that person.  I use a first-person narrative for Senator and Dover Beach (which is essentially a private-eye novel).

Sometime after I completed the first draft of Senator I decided I needed to tweak the point of view a bit.  It’s still told in the first person, but there is a structure to the narrative; I introduce a framing device.  The senator is typing his story into a computer.  He is writing the story for himself — to try to understand who he is.  As the story starts, we don’t know where he is, or what he’s up to.  Is he hiding from the police? We occasionally see scenes of him in this environment.  They’re written in the first-person present tense, while the bulk of the novel is in the standard past tense.

Essentially, the story is told as a formal flashback — starting at one point in time and then looking back to the events that led to that point in time.  Movies use flashbacks all the time.  (Watching old movies from the 40s and 50s, I sometimes get the impression that there was a law back then mandating the use of flashbacks.  The most recent one I watched was Mildred Pierce; the most famous flashback movie is obviously Citizen Kane.)  In novels, flashbacks just naturally flow into the narrative.  A character is introduced into the narrative, and the writer flashes back to tell his life story, or how he met the protagonist, or whatever.  A first-person narrative is by its very nature a flashback, but we typically don’t see that exact point of time at which the narrative is being told.  When you think about it, this is kind of weird — when does the private eye find the time to narrate the stories of his cases?  Why is he bothering to tell us these stories?

I decided to use the formal flashback structure in Senator because that weirdness was bothering me.  Why is a busy politician telling this story?  The concern I had (and, actually, I still have) is that some people might find the framing device — the senator trying to understand himself — to be borderline pretentious for what is at its core a murder mystery.  Maybe it should be reserved for Citizen Kane and friends.

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