Friday, October 24, 2014

Keeping Secrets

I'm reading the proofs of my next book (What the Fly Saw). In one scene, my protagonist, Hannah McCabe, is having drinks with another detective, Sean Pettigrew. They agree that they are friends who can keep each other's secrets. Their conversation got me thinking about the secrets we keep and those we share.

In one study I looked at about secret-keeping and disclosure, the subjects tended to have confided a secret to at least one other person. That person was someone to whom they felt emotionally close. Generally, when we keep a secret to ourselves, it's because we feel shame, embarrassment, guilt, and/or fear the consequences if the secret becomes known. Keeping a secret can be stressful. But the prospect of having that secret revealed or discovered may seem even worse. Of course, crime fiction thrives on secrets -- secrets that threaten a relationship or a career, secrets that place a victim in the power of a blackmailer, secrets that are worth killing to preserve. In crime fiction, characters with secrets that are unrelated to the crime that the sleuth is investigating provide false leads and red herrings.

As writers, a part of getting to know a character is to get him or her to tell us what he or she keeps secret. What has she never told anyone? Under what circumstances would she reveal her secret? To a best friend? To a lover? To a lawyer or a minister? How would she react if the person she confided in betrayed her by telling her secret?

Secrets are a gold mine for a crime writer because there are so many possibilities and combinations – secrets from the past, secrets from the present, secrets that are private matters but could have public consequences, state secrets and trade secrets, secrets gathers by infiltrators and informants. Secrets can be written down, whispered in ears, kept on computers, buried in a hole in the backyard, be in code or in plain view, told to the parrot or whispered with a last breath. Secrets can be the mad wife in the attic or the baby that was given up for adoption and turns up at the door.

Personally, I like family secrets. In Death's Favorite Child, the first book in my Lizzie Stuart series, Lizzie learns that her recently deceased grandmother, Hester Rose, has lied to her. Hester Rose claimed not to know who Lizzie's father was or where Lizzie's teenage mother went when she got on a bus and left town a few days after Lizzie was born. The secrets that Hester Rose took to her grave become a part of the series arc – questions that Lizzie eventually tries to answer.

A really useful secret – whether one that the character is keeping or one that she is trying to learn – makes that character feel vulnerable. There may be nothing shameful about the secret by modern standards, but the character dreads exposure or dreads learning the truth. A good secret goes to that character's sense of self and how he or she wants to be perceived. A good secret makes a character cringe when he imagines having it whispered from ear to ear among the people he knows.


I don't know yet what secret Hannah McCabe is keeping to herself. We have only been together for two books. I suspect that her deepest, darkest secret is not one that she would tell her colleague and friend, Pettigrew, over a drink after work. It could also be a while before she's willing to tell me. After all, she knows I'm going to use it to make her life difficult.

1 comment:

Eileen Goudge said...

Great post, Frankie! I'm big on secrets in my writing. I guess it comes from keeping a few. I never tell.