Etymology always has a new story. No, not bugs – that’s entomology. I’m talking about where words come from, the roads they use to get here, and how the journey changes them. When they arrive, they often look very different from when they got on the omnibus.

A ‘clue’ is a piece of evidence, something we follow to solve a mystery or unravel a problem. It’s a rather general word – a clue can be fingerprints, a lab test, an observation, a phone call. Crossword puzzles have clues. Lots of people don’t have a clue.

Originally ‘clue’ was ‘clew,’ a ball of thread. Think of a labyrinth, trying to find your way out of those twisting passages. Even Daedalos, the inventor, had trouble with that. The Greek hero Theseus unwound a ball of thread as he pursued the Minotaur so he could quickly find his way back out. Clever Ariadne, King Minos’ daughter, gave him the ‘clew.’

Writers must leave clews. As we wind our way towards the center of our story, we have to leave a way to get back out. It’s no good to get to the middle and then have to bring in a deus ex machina to rescue our story. Too contrived. If we unwind our clew a little bit at a time, the way out is no problem.

This is how I’ve been re-writing my most recent story, begun in November. I am creating a detailed outline – literally everything that happens, in order. Each event must lead naturally from the last. I am about halfway now, and see the value of planning before writing. On my first draft I wrote my way to the middle and couldn’t get out. Surprisingly, this method doesn’t produce a bland and predictable story; it lets me place clues where they can increase tension and raise suspense.

Once my outline is laid, the writing will be easier because I won’t be thinking about what should happen next or how to solve a problem I just created by blundering into a dead end. All that pretty writing – how can I bear to unravel it? That is how my first drafts usually go; by the time I figure out I don’t need something, I’ve already committed too much time and emotion to it. I can’t cut the thread.

Today my creative writing students will each receive a box containing three clues. Some will find a stack of letters, twenty years old, or a page from a newspaper article. Some will find a watch, or a picture, or a diploma, or a ring. (None of these clues are actual objects, of course – this is a fiction class, you know.) They will ask themselves, who sent this box, and why? What does each item tell us about the person who put them inside?

Students always want their characters to be physically attractive, rich, famous. They forget about the little things, the small clues that lead to the really interesting stories. We will see how far these clews will unwind, what stories they will produce. That is my journey today.


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