Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Hardest Part for an Amateur Sleuth

Donis here, still carrying on, still writing on a mystery and hoping my protagonist is smarter than I am. When I start a mystery novel, I usually know who the murderer is, and I usually 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: Bianca, 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.

My protagonist,Bianca, is a Jazz age silent movie star, quite unlike my earlier protagonist, Alafair, who is an Oklahoma farm wife with a bunch of children. But like Alafair, Bianca is not a law enforcement professional or a private investigator. She doesn’t solve crimes 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 Bianca doing things that a woman of her time and place - even one with her considerable resources - wouldn’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 Bianca figure out what a mobster is up to," or “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?”

Whatever my heroine does, it must 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 my protagonist 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 my twelfth mystery right now, and praying for Bianca to come up with a blinding insight and let me in on it.


Ellen said...

Thanks for this post, Donis! I'm still very new at writing amateur sleuth novels, and I keep hoping it will get easier to make the pieces fit in the mystery puzzles. Given your experiences, it looks as though I'll still be challenged another ten books or so down the road :)

I can't seem to get past the reader to writer transition: it's as if I don't want to know who did it to soon, just like I wouldn't want to guess who did it if I were reading it. Mind-mapping helps, but if you've got any advice, I'd love to hear it.

Will be checking out your novels!

Donis Casey said...

Thanks, Ellen. One thing I've learned over the years is that as the novel goes on, whodunnit changes more often than you'd believe. Things are revealed to the author BY THE CHARACTERS as she writes them. Just don't get stuck by your original ideas. Let revelations come as you go along! It's a miracle.