Edith here, writing from north of Boston on the darkest day of the year.
And delighted to welcome back our good friend Lucy Burdette! I just finished reading her new thriller, Unsafe Haven, and loved it. I love hearing here about beginnings that she rejected before she hit on the right one (and it is, definitely, the right one). One lucky commenter will win an audio copy of the book!
Here’s the blurb: After giving birth in a subway bathroom and thrusting her newborn into a newly jilted bride’s arms, a teenage runaway teams up with that stranger to save herself and her baby from the ruthless sex trafficker in pursuit.
Openings and Outtakes, aka Making the Sausage
As I read these days, a book needs to hook me right away. The hook can be character, setting, or plot, but if I’m to plow in and stay through to the finish, something must grab me. After twelve books in my Key West series, I’m comfortable writing those mysteries in the first person. There’s no question about how to open— it must be Hayley Snow’s perspective. She tells every story. If she’s not in the scene, I can’t describe it live in the book. Someone else can tell it after the fact, but you won’t see it on the page, in the moment.
My first thriller Unsafe Haven (out today in hardcover and audio!) took ten years to write and plenty of false starts. In the final draft, there are four points of view, all of them third person: the young runaway Addison aka Addy, the recently jilted bride and medical student Elizabeth, Detective Jack Meigs, and Addy’s so-called boyfriend, Rafe. I really struggled with where to start and in whose voice, and therefore, I wrote it several different ways.
I tried showing Elizabeth and her fiancé going to the church for their final marital counseling session. Instead of wrapping things up and worrying about last minute details about the wedding, her fiancé is about to announce that he can’t go through with it. It went something like this…
Elizabeth dialed up Kevin. This was a real emergency—not just a text message rundown of the gifts piling up in her parents’ living room or a minor scare about the boutonnières for his groomsmen.
“Your Aunt Betty called Mom,” she told him. “Her sciatica improved over the weekend and she wants to change her regrets to a yes.”
“I warned you my family is hard to pin down.”
“You said wacky and unpredictable.” Elizabeth laughed. “And you were right. Mom called the caterer but now we have a problem with the seating chart. We could put her with your parents but—“
“Can we talk about this after the minister?” Kevin asked. “I’m about to get my ass kicked for losing focus with the customers.”
And so on and on and on…Maybe I needed to know that detail for background, but unfortunately, it was a little D-U-L-L, as my sister-in-law used to say. This was not the moment that would grab readers and pull them in. I realized that Addy’s story is what drives the narrative of Unsafe Haven, so I had to start with her. I tried a scene describing a slice of Addy’s life in the brothel before she escapes:
Addy waited half an hour after she heard the lock click in the door and then the last heavy footsteps creak down the hallway. Her roommate’s breathing evened into its soft nightly rhythm. She felt sick about leaving her behind but two of them would never make it out. Besides, Rafe had dismissed the idea of bringing Heather before she’d even finished saying it.
“Just you, and if you’re later than midnight, I go without you. Got it?”
She got it.
She turned the covers back, slid out of bed, and crept across the cold floorboards to the closet. Her throat constricted with fear as a gust of frigid air rattled the window. Her stomach pitched and growled—she’d had wicked indigestion all day. Breathing into the cramps, she groped for the plastic bag stashed in the back of the closet and removed some of its contents: a soiled down jacket she’d found in a dumpster two blocks south, a faded blue sweatshirt, and the pair of knock-off Uggs she’d lifted from the street merchant’s table. Pulling the sweatshirt over her pajamas, she eased the window open and squeezed outside, her distended stomach catching on the splintered wooden lintel.
Again, it felt important to me to know exactly what Addy was running from. But wouldn’t it make more sense to start in the middle of the action, rather than dither around describing what came before? Here’s the opening of the real chapter one:
Tonight, Addy’s worst enemy might be an irritable cop, just bored enough to be curious. She ducked into the station and melted into the waiting crowd, most of them jazzed up to celebrate the night before New Year’s Eve. As she groped in her pocket for the change she’d been saving, she caught a glimpse of herself in the metal frame of one of the posters lining the stairs to the subway. White face, huge eyes, the dirty and oversized clothing of a runaway. She bought a one-ride MetroCard, slashed it through the reader, and clacked through the gate onto the platform, softly chanting the directions Rafe had made her memorize: Subway from Harlem to Grand Central, shuttle to Times Square. N, Q, R, or W train to 33rd Street, PATH train to Hoboken.
‘Chicklet! What brings you out tonight?’
Her heart plunged, hearing her street nickname. It was Des, the dealer who worked the grid a couple of blocks away from Georgia’s place. Addy always tried to stay far away from him. She’d seen what had happened to some of the other girls, who’d taken the samples he offered and then got hooked and desperate. Bad enough to service the special gentlemen Georgia introduced them to.
Des sauntered over and squeezed her chin with cold fingers, turning her face, forcing her to meet his gaze. ‘Where you going, girlfriend?’ He wore his hair greased back into a ponytail, a fringed vest, his eyes dark and mean like a hungry reptile.
Fear and the fetid heat of the subway tunnel pressed in, making her feel nauseous and crampy. She wrenched free, bolted to the trash can, Des on her heels, and heaved out the contents of her stomach.
‘Whoa,’ said Des, stumbling back. ‘What you been drinkin’, baby?’
Readers: what kinds of things draw you immediately into a new book? And writers, how many false starts does it take you to find the right beginning? (I hope I’m not the only slow learner.) I’ll send one commenter an audio code to Unsafe Haven.
Lucy Burdette aka clinical psychologist Roberta Isleib is the author of the popular Key West Food Critic mystery series, including the latest, A SCONE OF CONTENTION. Lucy’s first novel of suspense, UNSAFE HAVEN, has been published by Severn House. Her books and stories have been shortlisted for Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards. THE KEY LIME CRIME won the bronze medal for popular fiction from the Florida Book Awards in 2020. She’s a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, and a past president of Sisters in Crime. She currently serves as president of the Friends of the Key West Library.
Read the first chapter and buy the book on Lucy’s website: https://lucyburdette.com/books/unsafe-haven/
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