The Body and the Bomb post-mortem

I had wanted to put up a thread earlier for my story The Body and the Bomb, published back in April by Crossed Genres, but I don’t think that page is the appropriate place for me to put my thoughts about the story — I don’t entirely subscribe to the “death of the author” or “intentional fallacy” arguments, but nor do I think that someone should read to the end of a story, and then immediately be told by the author that they interpreted it incorrectly.

At the same time, I am trying to become a better writer, and getting feedback on my stories is important to me. So now that a reasonable amount of time has elapsed, here are my thoughts about this story as a post-mortem, and if you feel like sharing your thoughts as well, let me state up front that you are not wrong, even (especially) if you disagree with me.

I’ve put the rest of the post behind a cut tag for those not interested in this particular self-indulgence.

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

Sherlock Holmes, in A Scandal in Bohemia.

The quote listed above is what I see as the theme of the piece. To some extent it’s the theme of most detective stories, actually. Over and over I tried to have characters present facts along with their own (wrong) interpretations: Dr. Ma thinking that if Virtainen could find the bomb, Chief Nouri could have found it. Ram thinking that the local mob was acting up because they thought Nouri was distracted. The bit with the dirty coffee mugs, where each drinker’s thoughts went to flavored coffee first and interpreted the taste with that in mind. All together, the little false theories were intended to be a clue about the big false theory: each person had a pet theory of how the world behaves, fit the facts to that theory, and thereby missed the truth.

The trick with substituting broken glass for the incubation bins was a similar sort of thing, mirroring the overall plot. I was a bit more explicit about that, partly because it didn’t entirely fit that theme, but also because I wanted to tease the reader a bit (and tip the hat to those readers who picked up on it) In the future, I think I’ll do less of that explicit reveal: On re-reading, it feels crammed in and smacks a little of lack of confidence.

In early versions of this story, Inspector Crandall (who appeared in a few other stories) was the main character. He’s the one with all the information, and the turning point was his lightbulb moment. It didn’t work. The story could have ended at any point, and I was just stringing it along until I gauged that the time was right for him to magically solve it. Beta readers pointed out that Nouri was the more interesting character, both because of her personality and because she had more of her reputation on the line than the Inspector did. This was a difficult thing to get over, and the solution was to use a different Inspector who was more of a blank slate (which in turn exposed just how bland Crandall had been in this story). That freed me to make Nouri the main character, and the story benefitted immensely from that decision: she’s a better viewpoint character in a number of ways. Once that was done, the other story elements fell more neatly into place, notably the little rivalry with Ma, which had been mostly absent in the early versions.

And yet, for all that the story culminates in her triumph over suspicion and Virtainen’s plot, the key decision of the story is not hers. It’s only once Lee decides to trust her that she gets the remaining pieces of the puzzle and a fair shot at solving the case. I think that’s a weakness of the story. It’s still her insight that saves the day, and in detective stories that’s the important bit, but I do wish that the case represented more of a challenge for her, made her give something up to win. Maybe the next one.

I think that the three main characters work fairly well together. While I didn’t plan this, I find on re-reading that I seem to have grabbed them from the D&D alignment chart: Lawful Good Nouri, Neutral Good Lee, Chaotic Good Ma. Or maybe that’s me bringing my own baggage to the story, remembering bits that I cut out, or bits of backstory I made up. There was an interesting half-baked idea about Nouri’s brothers maybe being mobbed up that I ditched because I couldn’t do it justice in a story this short. This sort of thing is why I don’t like to give too much credence to authorial intent: the story just is different in my own head compared to what it can possibly be to readers. I’ve seen too many parallel versions, cut too many scenes that I recall as still being there.

All in all, I’m pretty happy with the way this story turned out. It got a good home, people have said nice things about it. When the reprint rights are available in a month or two I’ll look into what else I can do with it: maybe an audio version or foreign language version.

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