We all have our favorite beginnings, the first words of a book that plunk us into the middle of a story. Like an arresting snapshot, good beginnings change us from being mildly curious to fully committed. They make us unwilling to stop reading.
- They seethe with emotion, usually understated.
- They give me a sense of place.
- Tell me what the story’s about.
- Give me a sense of genre.
- Hint at the main character’s core conflict.
- Hint at the ending of the story.
- Give me a sense of the author’s voice.
Because beginnings are so important, writers go over and over and over and over them.
It’s about the third or fourth draft of the second Fina book, Missing Brandy, and I’m editing the opening yet again—okay, I know, I’m supposed to move on, but I get stuck. It’s a bad habit of mine, a compulsion, I suppose, what I do while eating breakfast instead of reading the back of the cereal box. But re-writing the beginning for me clarifies structure, deepens my understanding of the story. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.
It’ll change lots of times before the book is published, but so far, here it is:
On misty nights in late spring, my world smells of fish, oregano, and funeral parlors. Whenever I sniff it, I know something’s about to happen, and it won’t be altogether good. Sure enough, minutes after Denny and I left the restaurant, Lucy’s answering service called me with a message from a Mrs. Trisha Liam. Her thirteen-year-old daughter was missing and she needed an investigator.
“She wants a call back right away, and she wasn’t polite,” the service operator said. “With a mother like that, who can blame the girl for leaving?”
I yelled out to Jane, NYPD detective, erstwhile enemy but our dinner companion tonight who walked faster than I did, thanks to having legs a foot longer than mine. Earlier, over coffee and one of Vinegar Hill House’s gargantuan desserts, she’d told me about Brandy Liam’s abduction and said she’d given the Liam woman my number. Jane had warned me, saying, “The woman is a real bitch.” Swell. But now the blonde detective was single-tracking it. From a block away, I could feel her mind moving in a straight line. As I watched her disappearing form, she sashayed, head down, feet splayed, probably ignoring the gulls overhead and the fog horns from somewhere on the watery belly beyond Brooklyn. I texted her, but she ignored her cell, got into her car, and drove away.
Then I kissed Denny good night and told him I’d see him later. You might think our kiss was lascivious if you were peeking, but you’d be wrong. It was chaste compared to our usual ten-minute prequels.
Photo: May 9, 1910. “Newsies at Skeeter’s Branch, Jefferson near Franklin, St. Louis,” May 9, 1910. Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, Public Domain.