Thursday, February 26, 2015
I’m in the midst of writing the climax to All Men Fear Me, my latest Alafair Tucker novel. It’s the big reveal, when the reader finds out whodunnit, and more importantly, when Alafair finds out whodunnit. Maybe she confronts the killer. Then what does she do? When I begin writing a new mystery novel, I usually know who the murderer is, and sometimes I know how and why s/he did it. I may also have an idea how the killer went about trying to cover up the crime. I’m pretty good about doling out clues at appropriate intervals throughout the story. But here’s the hard part: Alafair, my protagonist, has to figure out who did the deed.
And that is not easy, my friend, because I have to do it in such a way that is realistic and makes sense.
Alafair is not a law enforcement professional or a private investigator. She doesn’t do this for a living, nor does she have any official authority to compel people to answer her questions. She also lives in an era when people are constrained by fairly rigid gender roles. In fact, question number one is: what is she doing trying to solve a murder, anyway? The first thing I have to do is give her a really compelling reason to get involved at all.
Then I have to give her the means and the opportunities to uncover information and make connections, and I can’t force the action to fit the outcome I want. In other words, I can’t have Alafair doing things that a woman with the resources she has couldn’t do. I can’t have her act against her own nature, either, just to advance the plot or create tension in an artificial way.
This is the reason I’ve been known to stare at the screen for an hour when I’m at a critical juncture, thinking “how can I get Alafair off the farm and into that office in town to search for the gun, before sundown, when she has a bunch of kids and a husband, all of whom want dinner?”
I could just have her up and leave and let everyone fend for himself, or I could contrive to have all the children and the husband go out to eat at whatever the 1917 equivalent of McDonald’s was. But if I did that, I have a feeling I’d hear about it from disgruntled readers. Not to mention a horrified editor. Sometimes I just can’t come up with a plausible way to do it, and I have to go at it from a totally different angle or rework the scene altogether.
This is one of the things I like about writing an amateur sleuth. She has to be sneaky, persistent, smart, and clever in order to find her answers. And sometimes, she’s smarter than I am. In fact, there have been occasions where Alafair came upon a clue that I was not aware of myself until it appeared on the page. Toward the end of my fourth book in the series, The Sky Took Him, Alafair was sitting in a hospital corridor, having a nice, normal, conversation with the family, when she noticed something at exactly the same time I did, an observation which provided both of us with a vital piece of information. It surprised the heck out of me, but it was plausible, very much in character for Alafair, and worked like a charm. Moments like this are why writing a mystery can be such fun.