Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Hardest Part

When I start a mystery, I know who the murderer is, and I know how and why s/he did it. I 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 hardest part: Alafair, my protagonist, has to figure out who did the deed.

What’s the problem, you ask? Just have your sleuth sort through the clues, make the right connections, and Bob’s your uncle.

As anyone who has ever written a mystery can attest, it’s not that easy, my friend, because you have to do it in such a way that is realistic and makes sense.

Alafair is very much an amateur sleuth. She 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. So, 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.

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 ten kids who want dinner?”

I could just have her up and leave, or I could contrive to have all the kids and the husband go out to eat at whatever the 1915 equivalent of McDonald’s was. But that wouldn’t be realistic. 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.

Forcing the action is a common mistake for a beginning writer. I often see it done in one of two ways. One is the “Idiot College Student Syndrome”. This is when the character has been brilliant throughout the book, but suddenly does something stupid just so you can put her in danger and increase the tension. One by one, five college students went into that dark room alone and were massacred by an ax murderer. In the name of all that’s holy, Number Six, don’t go in there! Call the police, you idiot!

Second is the “Wildly Unbelievable Coincidence”, in which the author hands the sleuth the vital clue in the most implausible fashion. The detective didn’t detect. He just happened to be in the right place. He just happened to stumble across an object. The killer suddenly leaped up out of his chair and confessed. I have to be sure that my sleuth honestly found the answer using the information provided in the story.

This is one of the things I like about an amateur sleuth - she has to be sneaky, persistent, smart, and clever in order to find her answers. 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, 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.

I'm working on the sixth book right now, and praying for Alafair to let me in on her insights one more time.


Irene Bennett Brown said...

I'm praying, too. Love your books, can hardly wait for number six.

Donis Casey said...

Keep up that praying, Irene, I could use it.

Ronald S. Barrios said...

Wow, that is quite a challange. I write a series about a Private Investigator and what I do is just let the story flow, meaning, chapter two comes out of chapter one and chapter three comes out of chapter two and so on. In this way I can introduce leads and/or clues in a realistic fashion. One of the best ways I've found for my character, Rey, to find out information is to ask a lot of questions and stir up a little trouble while asking. When someone is poking around that usually stirs up a reaction from those looking to hide something. Then Rey can piece together what has happened. Of course Rey does have a love interest named Ashley who is incredibly brilliant and he can bounce ideas off her and she gives a fresh perspective he might not have had otherwise. But if I'm reading correctly, and I like to think that I am, ;) your novels are set in 1915...that does present its own set of issues because, as you said, you can't do then some of the things you can do now. I'll definately look for your novels on Kindle.
Good Luck,
Ronald S. Barrios
author of Blood Drops

Susan Russo Anderson said...

Hello Donis, and thanks so much for "The Hardest Part," and I agree, this is one of the most difficult parts for me, too—to have my amateur detective act in a natural way, in normal (for her) situations, as you say, without forcing the action. She is also a woman, but sleuthing in nineteenth-century Sicily, a culture which would seem, on the face of it, to preclude women doing anything outside the home, let alone detective work. Fortunately, my main character is a midwife-turned-sleuth, and midwives had a special place in that society, granted certain powers and special networking capabilities that her contemporaries did not have. Although I look forward to reading your work, I confess I have not done so as yet. But I'll bet Alafair is a little larger than life, with rich deductive powers and a longing to do right by society's victims. I think, too, that sometimes we can push the boundaries of "normal" for a certain era without becoming improbable or unbelievable, or—as is increasingly popular—fantastical. Your post was engaging and honest and I've gotten so much out of it and this site. Thank you, Susan