Friday, April 18, 2014

Connecting the Dots

The intrepid Lottie Albright delves into old murders which causes new murders. It's not really a cold case series, as it focuses on the present day murder. Thus it technically morphs into a suspense. Will my historian/undersheriff figure out who did it back then in time to prevent becoming the victim  on the next page?

In some ways, a straight cold case would be easier to present because the Lottie Albright series is told in present day first person. I can't use flashbacks and have to depend on the back story emerging through historical investigation techniques.

My most dependable tool has always been microfilmed newspapers. The Kansas State Historical Society was founded in 1875. They have one of the world's most comprehensive collection of newspapers. All the papers are on microfilm and many are on-line through Chronicling America http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/newspapers/#Kansas. Instructions for obtaining microfilmed Kansas papers can be found at http://www.kshs.org/p/newspapers-in-kansas/11528.

Since Lottie doesn't have access to the villain's mind the plot depends on her ability to connect the dots. Nothing is more valuable in both academic investigation and mystery plotting than knowing something is just not quite right. In other words, reading between the lines. Because usually newspaper items are objective.

Here's an example of what I mean by not quite right. An announcement in the 1950s local news item: "Lonnie Balfour and family will be moving to the Balfour homestead later this month. He will take over the extensive farming operation of his late father." Lottie thinks that's funny. Lonnie was a CPA and the second son. The oldest son, Jeff, was the obvious heir. He was a farmer. Was there tension over this? This leads her to the recorded deed and even more newspapers and death certificates. Aha! Lonnie died in a mysterious accident. His descendants are alive today. And so it goes. Diaries, letters, voting records, notes from organizations, and yearbooks have their own testimony.

Was one child consistently on the honor role and in every activity under the sun? And another in the same family barely mentioned in the high school newspaper or not a participate in any groups according to the yearbook? Why? With persistence, it easy to find this out.

It's easy to really keep the plot hopping through the protagonist's questions as long as the writer resists the temptation to inject a massive dose of history and cultural details. For instance, old newspapers show group pictures of students at events. The debate team is especially well-groomed, except for one member. Why was there no one looking out for this kid? Had his parents ever come to one of his debates?

Being able to enter the mind of the first person protagonist is quite a lot of fun, because one can make this amazing sleuth really smart, not at all like the bumbling novelist who hasn't got a clue.

2 comments:

Eileen Goudge said...

I love the idea of a sleuth solving cold cases. Brilliant! And requiring a great more ingenuity than with fresh clues & DNA evidence. I spent time in the archives of the local paper in Eastsound, WA researching a mystery subplot for one my novels. I was fascinated by what the past revealed.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Thanks Eileen. Another source that surprised me was when a lady at the historical society took us on a tour of old cemeteries. They really told a story.

As we went from tombstone to tombstone we could see the tragic death of four children in one family. One after another ages ranging from 9 months to four years old. Then an infant, who lived for two weeks. The mother died the same day the baby was born.