|Mystery author Jeanne M. Dams discusses her relationship with a famous first line ...
Everyone knows Bulwer-Lytton’s infamous line, “It was a dark and stormy night.” There’s an annual contest in its honor, celebrating the worst possible first line for a novel. There are so many things wrong with the sentence. It’s in passive voice, absolutely the wrong way to begin a book. It’s redundant; most nights are dark. It has no hook, goes no place. And so on, and so on. So why did I choose to title my next Dorothy Martin mystery A Dark And Stormy Night?
Well, for a number of reasons. I was having a hard time coming up with a title that wasn’t just plain drab. The book concerns a country-house weekend that turns dicey when a magnificent storm, an epic storm, savages the countryside and uncovers the skeleton of someone long-buried under an old patriarch of an oak tree. I had concentrated on the country-house aspect, but suddenly the storm rapped on my computer screen and begged for attention, and I thought, Why not?
Besides the storm in the book, another Dark and Stormy Night looms large in my history. I was for five years the director of the MWA-Midwest’s annual writers’ workshop, Of Dark and Stormy Nights. Those were good years, meeting so many wonderful people and having such a good time. And in fact an earlier Dark and Stormy, before I took over as director, was where I met my first editor, Michael Seidman. and set foot on the road that led to publication. So the phrase has positive vibes for me.
The phrase was also very good luck for the late Madeleine L’Engle, marvelous children’s writer. Her first novel, A Wrinkle in Time, won the Newbery Award and led to a series, other books, fame and fortune. It wasn’t until I was reading the book for about the tenth time that I realized the first line is — you guessed it — “It was a dark and stormy night.” How great is that?
Finally, the title will, I hope, bring a chuckle to anyone who knows the background of the phrase, and since I intend my books to be what I like to call “cheerful mysteries,” a chuckle isn’t a bad way for a reader to start.
Oh, about the storm, you ask. Well, I wanted a way to isolate a group of people as in the time-honored country-house mysteries of Christie and the like. Isolation isn’t so easy in these days of multi-levels of instant communication. A flood or a snowstorm wouldn’t do it: physical isolation might result, but there are still cell phones and email and the Internet. Okay, I needed something that would knock out all those and cut the house off physically as well.
That was when I remembered the near-hurricane that struck England’s south-east in October of 1987. I visited an English friend in December of that year, to do research on my first novel (The Body in the Transept), and saw for myself the hundreds of trees that were still down, the hundreds of houses that were still unliveable because of holes in the roof, the roads that were still impassable, and so on. I read up on the storm (bless the Internet) and learned that all power was out for days in that part of the country, trains weren’t operating, roads were blocked — perfect for my purposes. Blow down the cell towers and other transmission points, and voilà, the perfect storm.
So when my editor gave her blessing to the title, I was, as my English characters might say, chuffed. I hope my readers will be, too.
- Jeanne M. Dams