A/N: Done for the Mai Universe "Teaparty for Muses"; the prompt was "beginnings."
~X X X~
"'The entry of Doctor...' No, that won't do. Um...'Rarely have I seen such a...' Oh, I give up!" I cried out in frustration, crumpling the sheet of paper on which I'd scribbled down at least five attempts to begin my latest literary effort, and pitched the foolscap into the wastepaper basket to join several of its fellows. Single sentences, whole paragraphs, on one occasion nearly a full page, had been written, rewritten, crossed out, and eventually dispatched as hopeless.
It wasn't the material. The cases of consulting detective Shizuru Viola were exciting and interesting enough on their own, without literary conceit. Too, I didn't even have to worry about coming up with a plot for the story, since characters, events, conflict, and conclusion had all been pre-created for me by life. I'd never had any problem before in turning my notes into a proper narrative. This time, though...
Damn it, the words just would not come.
"Things are not going well for Natsuki?"
The voice was smooth, like a whisper of velvet against the skin or the taste of a fine Scotch, and had a faint, lilting accent, by way of Venice and Kyoto. It was the voice of the reason why I had access to the material I wrote about: Shizuru was my fellow-lodger and often invited me along on her cases. I wasn't quite sure why she asked, but then again I wasn't even quite sure why I so often agreed. I wasn't exactly at my best when crawling into somebody's head, even my own, and trying to figure out what was going on inside.
I jammed the pen back into its spot in the desk set and pushed away from my seat.
"It's awful," I admitted flatly, and it was a bigger admission than it might have seemed. I did not easily confess to being at a disadvantage, not even if it was terminally obvious that I was.
Shizuru's smile...changed, somehow. I'm not quite sure that I could describe it or even point to any part of her face that actually moved, but it seemed to be in some way softer.
"I'm sorry that the writing isn't going well. Is there anything that I can do to help you?"
The "you" at the end of the sentence was the real clincher. I can pretty much tell when Shizuru is teasing me because her use of the third person goes way up. When she starts talking to me properly in the second person, I know she's being serious. I wouldn't have talked about this to teasing Shizuru and left myself open to her fun at my expense.
Then again, she was London's greatest deductive mind, wasn't she? Probably the reason she wasn't teasing was because she could observe and deduce my feelings on the point.
I sighed heavily.
"I don't know."
"It's...I don't even know how to start the story."
She tapped her forefinger against her lips.
"You are writing about the Holdernesse case, are you not? The kidnapping and murder?"
"Yeah. Of course, I'm changing the names and the setting pretty extensively. After all that they've been through, the family doesn't need the world and his wife knowing about their dirty laundry. Lucky there was no mention of the kidnapping in the papers so no one will be able to match the facts up with the real case. Don't worry, though. Everyone will still be able to read about your brilliant deductions."
"Natsuki," she chided, "I'm hardly concerned about that."
"Yeah, I know." I ran my hand through my hair, pushing it back over my shoulder.
"What I was driving at is, if you are writing about that case, why would the beginning be so much trouble? The headmaster of a boys' school bursting through our door and passing out on the carpet would be nearly as dramatic a beginning for the story as it was for the case, I should think."
"It is and sometimes that's just what I want to do, just plunge right into the action and have done with it." There were a good four or five scraps in the wastebasket that began exactly that way.
"You're not convinced of it, though?"
I shook my head.
"If all I'm doing is presenting the facts of the case, shocking event after shocking event, then I'm not really telling a story, but reporting the news. If that's all I'm doing then I'd be better off writing it up as a monograph on the detective process, a kind of case study for detectives."
Shizuru sipped tea.
"That would be an admirable goal, but not I think what you would be comfortable in writing."
I shook my head.
"No, it's not. The readers like a good mystery puzzle solved by a sharp-eyed and quick-witted detective, yes, but more than that it's the characters that make a good story. People that we can empathize with, to share in their fear and their joy, their suffering and triumph. To feel our client's elation when the boy was returned safety, and to get tangled up in the conflicted feelings of the family."
"I do not recall Natsuki being particularly confused in her feelings about the family."
I grinned sheepishly.
"Well, okay, yeah, but I'm talking about what makes a good story. I mean, I love Gothic novels even though I'd probably want to shoot half the 'heroes' if I met them in real life. Besides, you're the heroine of these things, not me, and you do sympathize, or else the secretary would have been on the gallows as an accomplice to murder and the mastermind behind the kidnapping instead of just nursing the broken jaw I gave him." Which had nearly cost Shizuru her fee, but hey, he'd deserved a hell of a lot worse.
"So...I want to sort of set things up so that the readers can see that, before the action begins. I don't want to derail the thread of the narrative just to introduce that, because it'll seem like I threw it all in as an afterthought. But then I turn it around and I feel like I'm stealing the power of this great dramatic beginning by delaying it for a page or two of scene-setting. I mean, I remember how I felt when he landed on the rug, and I'd like the readers to get that same shock."
"Ara, ara, that is a dilemma. So you are caught between extremes, as it were."
"Exactly." I dropped onto the sofa next to her. "It's driving me mad. Every time I think that I've got it right, I start second-guessing myself."
"Which is not very much like Natsuki."
"I know." I wasn't, say, Lady Haruka Armitage, but I was pretty stubborn and not given to waffling. "But here I am, three hours later, nearly time for luncheon, and accomplishing nothing other than supporting the paper industry by wasting foolscap." I sighed heavily.
Shizuru reached out and brushed her fingers over my shoulder.
"You're very tense."
"Yeah, I guess so."
"Turn around," she prompted. "Go on," she added when I hesitated, and I obliged, shifting my hips on the sofa so that I was facing away from her.
"That's good," she said, and in the next moment she began to massage my shoulders, working her fingers against the stiff muscles in my neck and upper back. Despite Shizuru's languid, ladylike appearance, she had surprising strength in her hands and was able to give a good, hard rub. Involuntarily, I let out a little sigh.
"That feels really good, Shizuru. If this consulting detective thing doesn't work out, you could get a position as an attendant at the Turkish baths on the spot."
Shizuru chuckled softly.
"I am glad that Natsuki believes I have many professional skills."
"It's not—mmm!—like that and you know it."
"Yes, but I do enjoy teasing you a bit."
"I can't deny that," I muttered under my breath.
She went on with the shoulder massage for another couple of minutes and I was really started to relax before she said anything else.
"So how did you feel about the start of the case?"
"Well, you are the narrator."
"Yeah, but...you're the heroine. I'm just there to tell the story."
"Mm-mm," she said, and I could imagine her shaking her head, the exact little not-quite-a-smile on her lips. "You are much more than that. You are their eyes and ears, their entree into the story. You stand in their place, showing to them how they should feel, what they should see. There is a reason, after all, why such stories are so rarely written from the hero or heroine's perspective. I rather doubt that my own point of view would be one that your audience could readily identify with."
She had a point there.
"I'll grant you the last part, but since when do I represent anybody's perspective?" Somehow, I figured that the average middle-class reader of the Strand would find little in common with a bastard, half-Japanese female who rejected pretty much every assumption about the social role of women. Where Shizuru for the most part stood for the New Woman and Rational Dress, living independently of her family by working at her own profession and all that, I pretty much kicked over all the archetypes completely. The shirt and trousers I was wearing were only the most obvious clue on that.
Shizuru chuckled softly.
"I will grant that Natsuki is a unique person. But that is not what is important. The readers see through your eyes and therefore imagine yourself as more like them. By sharing your thoughts and feelings in first-person narration, a sympathy grows between you. This happens even in stories narrated by villainous protagonists, where we find ourselves cheering the success of their villainy before we realize it."
"Since when do you know so much about literary techniques?"
"Well, my parents were schoolmasters," she said, almost apologetically. I, of course, had pretty much skipped out of most of my secondary education, having more important things to do (particularly than learn the kind of "ladylike accomplishments" featured in the seminary I'd been sent to, such as deportment, etiquette, music, or watercolors).
"I guess that would do it," I agreed.
"Besides which, I think you underestimate the positive effect your perspective has on your male readers."
I spun around in place.
"Are you calling me masculine?" I yelped. Shizuru giggled into her hand, eyes laughing. "Damn it, what's so funny?"
"Kannin na, Natsuki," she apologized while still laughing. "Your reaction was priceless."
"I am a girl here, you know. There's a big difference between acting like a brainless ninny and being a man."
"I am very aware that you are no less a woman despite your unconventional dress and attitudes," she assured me.
"You'd better be," I huffed.
"What I meant was, you better fit with the attitudes and expectations of a male reader. You react to an insult, to a problem, or to a situation of physical danger in the way the average man is taught by society that he should react. If someone were to threaten you with a knife, would you shriek, cower back in terror, run away, or faint the way the heroines of the Gothic novels you love so much would?"
"Hell, no. Okay, I see your point. But isn't the same just as true for you?"
She graciously did not point all the ways in which she managed to be properly ladylike at the same time as she practiced her profession, instead taking a different tack.
"But you are the narrator, Natsuki. I am expected to be an unusual person. You, on the other hand, serve as the voice, the heart of your readers by which they not only view your stories from afar but feel themselves as a part of it. That intimacy between author and audience is the strength of first-person narration. If you do not use that strength, then you had as well write in the third person with its greater scope of perception offered."
I considered what she was telling me.
"So you're saying that I should start the story in the way that best sets up how I was feeling. Whatever lets me communicate that mood is how you think I should go?"
"Yes, exactly. You may think that your readers like to enjoy your rather flattering portrait of me—"
"Hey, it's not that flattering. Readers like their detectives to be idiosyncratic. Though at least you don't board up the windows and stay indoors all day like Dupin. I swear, I didn't know if Poe was writing a mystery or a vampire story! So maybe you're sane by comparison."
"Ara, I am not entirely sure if that was a compliment."
"I'm sorry, Shizuru. You're offering help and I'm sitting here making smart-aleck remarks."
"Natsuki is simply not as experienced as she should be at teasing her friends, so it comes out more harshly than she means."
"In any case, the point I was making is that your stories are not about 'Shizuru Viola solving a mystery' but 'Natsuki Kuga watching and helping as Shizuru Viola solves a mystery.' If the story was narrated by someone else—me, for example—it would not be as good. So you should try to start your story the way it started for you, wherever you consider the beginning of the Holdernesse case to be."
I thought it over.
"Yeah, I guess I see what you mean. When I think of the case, it starts with the headmaster bursting through our door and passing out at our feet. He nearly took out your Kyoto tea set on the way down."
"I am very glad that he did not."
"So I'll start with how startled and confused I was and go from there, how I felt like some sudden menace had plunged into our lives." I was already starting to get ideas, sentences that I had been fighting with settling into place in my mind. Eager to get some of them down on paper, I hopped up from the couch, then stopped on my way to the desk and looked back at my friend.
"Thank you, Shizuru. I really mean it."
"You're very welcome. If I might offer one more piece of advice?"
"Perhaps Natsuki should not mention that she broke the secretary's jaw? I do not believe that is quite the behavior one expects from a lady, even a detective's associate."
"Hey, he completely deserved it. Which is why he didn't press charges, since if he whined about being hit I'd have had to explain why I hit him and that would have cost him a lot more than it'd cost me. Besides, there's no way I could write about what I feel and let me approve the Duke just letting him go."
"Then perhaps you could have him gone before we got there? Sent off to seek his fortune in Australia has a nice ring to it."
"Maybe..." I mused. It would take quite a while to get that far into the story, but now at least I was on the road to getting there.
It seemed that it wasn't just crime-related mysteries Shizuru was good at solving.
~X X X~
A/N: Sherlockians will have already noted that Natsuki is attempting to write "The Adventure of the Priory School." I must say, I did have some fun trying to think about Shizuru and Natsuki's reactions to the characters in that story...particularly Natsuki's opinion of Wilder (anyone else reminded of Shiho, in a parental rather than romantic sense? A bit of a theme there in Conan Doyle if one also considers "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire"...) and Shizuru's thoughts on the Duke's original lover. Shizuru, I suspect, would be a lot more tolerant of Wilder than Natsuki.
As for Shizuru's thoughts on the dynamic of the stories, I will note that she has a point in canon...the stories which Holmes himself narrates ("The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier" and "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane") are generally considered among the worst of the lot, with the third-person "The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone" and "His Last Bow" not far behind. It's not just the character of Holmes as the detective that matters, but the narrative voice of Watson describing the action and letting us into Holmes's world.
As for myself, I'm probably surprising no one when I mention that the subject of this story arises out of my own frustrations with "You Know My Methods, Natsuki." Only my problems are pretty much the reverse of Natsuki's...I know the criminals, the victims, the motives, the characters, the themes I want to present, and what part of the metaplot needs to be advanced. It's the how of it...the technical details of the crime and the clues that Shizuru finds to solve it...that's making me tear out my hair in frustration. I've junked three different versions of the opening chapter, and my outline is a mess! But I struggle on...