The Rowena Method

Jeanne MatthewsJeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press.  Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust.  Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels.  She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband, who is a law professor, and her West Highland terrier, who is a law unto herself.  Her Boyfriend’s Bones, the fourth book in the series, has just been released.  You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at www.jeannematthews.com.

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A situation developed in my most recent Dinah Pelerin mystery, Her Boyfriend’s Bones in which a character I had intended to play only a minor part shoved her way out of the background and took over the story.  For comic relief, mostly to aggravate Dinah and make her life more difficult, I imported from a previous book an adolescent manipulatrix named K.D. Dobbs.  As originally planned, K.D. had no business except to pipe up every few chapters with an annoying remark or an inconvenient observation.  But before I knew it, she had grabbed the spotlight and threatened to upstage the whole cast.  Dinah tried to send her home to her mother, but she wouldn’t go and she wouldn’t shut up.  Her refusal to behave like a walk-on and keep out of the way of the main characters wreaked havoc with the plot.

In Mark Twain’s short comedy “Those Extraordinary Twins,” he describes a similar predicament.  His main characters – Aunt Patsy, Aunt Betsy, the twins, and Rowena, who was the heroine of his farce – had been assigned the responsibility to carry the action to its conclusion, but somewhere along the way they faltered and stumbled off the page.  Twain read back through the manuscript until he found them “stranded, idle, forgotten, and permanently useless.”  It was embarrassing, he said.  He had introduced them in great detail, made much of their affairs, and created an expectation in the reader that they would be there at the end with their problems neatly resolved.  Instead, the love match between Rowena and one of the twins fizzled, the others lost momentum, and a gang of insurgent second stringers burst on the scene and hijacked the yarn.

Twain mulled his dilemma.  He felt that he owed the reader an explanation for what had happened to the original team, but by the time he realized they were missing in action, the narrative had veered off to follow the doings of the new characters.  He saw no way to go back and drag the first bunch, limping and exhausted, to the finish line.  He decided there was only one alternative.  He had to give them “the grand bounce.”  Accordingly, he opened Chapter XVII with the following announcement: “Rowena went out in the backyard after supper to see the fireworks and fell down the well and got drowned.”

It was abrupt, but effective, and he reflected on how to weed out the rest of his non-performers.  The well was handy and it offered a definitive solution, so he hunted up two more characters and wrote, “They went out one night to stone the cat and fell in the well and got drowned.”  The fate Her Boyfriend's Bonesof the elderly aunts remained unaccounted for and Twain was tempted to drown them, too, but he said he was afraid it would arouse attention and generate an excess of sympathy for the old darlings.  He noted also that it was a smallish well and he didn’t think it would hold many more victims.

My novel didn’t have any extraneous characters, but I had a guy whose importance diminished as K.D. snatched more and more of his rightful duties.  Bit by bit, she appropriated the role that properly belonged to him.  I could have pushed him to man up and boot the little scene stealer out of the picture.  But the kid wasn’t going without a fight and a competition between the two for relevance and time on the page would have cluttered the story beyond reason.  It seemed necessary to remove one of them from the action, but how completely and for how long?  The guy had been essential at the beginning of the story and he ought by rights to be around at the end.  I couldn’t permanently dispatch him, but neither could I leave him “stranded, idle, and forgotten.”  And however effective it might be, killing a teenager just isn’t my style.  What to do, what to do?

Inspiration came from the winemaking history and traditions of the Greek island of Samos where my story is set.  As it turns out, there are a number of wells scattered around the island – not water wells, but wells to collect grape juice.  In earlier times, grapes were trodden by foot inside a walled enclosure and the juice forced through a conduit into a brick-lined pit.  The juice was siphoned out of the pit into goatskins, carted to the nearest taverna by donkeys, and then transferred into barrels to ferment.  It occurred to me that one of those now-disused pits would provide the perfect place to stash a character – not comfortably, but without drowning – until such time as he or she might be needed again.  It’s a kinder, gentler version of the Rowena Method.  And while not likely to become a standard device in mystery fiction, it worked for me. I can now claim that my hero Mark Twain and I have one modus operandi in common.

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