She’s such a character!

My stories tend to be character driven rather than plot driven. You might think that’s a bit odd for someone who writes cosy mysteries, and you’d be right. Very often in a cosy mystery, you meet a collection of characters who tend to be caricatures, almost, of ‘typical’ people you might meet in the situation where the crime occurs, and it is the story – the plot – that is of primary importance. I’m not saying that my minor characters are fully realised, well-rounded and recognisable individuals, but I try.

The problem for me is that my books usually have a vast range of characters in them (and FYI it’s a nightmare and a half trying to think of names for them all) so there’s not always the space in the story to give everyone their own life without totally confusing the reader.  It can be hard for me, let alone the reader, to keep track of everyone. With Night and Day: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 1 I put in a character list à la old-school mysteries, thinking that would be helpful to readers (having been castigated for not putting one in) but I got even more complaints about that. So in the end it was just easier to leave it out.

And I’ve tried to create complex, realistic people as my main characters. They have faults and flaws. It is not my intention to write a book where the main characters don’t grow or change, or are completely perfect. I want them to mess up – and my main characters do that big-time. I want them to be relatable.

In my Dottie Manderson mysteries set in the 1930s, I have two detectives who are the ‘main’ protagonists, Dottie herself and Inspector Hardy, with a supporting cast of around a dozen other ‘regulars’. Then each story has its own characters on top of that. My protagonists are not the isolated individuals of many books in my genre–no brooding detective all alone with their ghosts for me. No, mine both have a family who pop in and out, often the source of useful information or connections, or just serving as a distraction or to illustrate some aspect of the character of my main people. In addition, they also have careers and are involved with work colleagues who again cannot be overlooked all the time.

And then as I say, each mystery requires its own cast of players–the numbers are rising! Making people really stand out can be a challenge. There are reasons for this.

Obviously the first reason is me. I have only a limited experience of life. I think that’s the same for most of us. We always, consciously or unconsciously, bring our own life experiences, attitudes and beliefs, and our flaws and strengths with us when we create anything. It’s been said that authors put something–sometimes quite a lot-of themselves into what they create. How can they not? So I try to compensate for this by doing a lot of research, and by trying to create people who are not much like me. I’m not sure how well I succeed with that.

But I don’t like to read books where the detective is perfect. I’m bored by protagonists who are perfect, who always behave the right way, say the right thing, do the right thing, who think clearly at all times and never get confused, puzzled or befuddled, who don’t lash out, or say the wrong thing, or believe liars or cheats. My characters are all too flawed, and as readers will know, they sometimes make disastrous decisions. And then have to live with the consequences.

In addition to that, I’d like to think the characters grow. I’ve lost track of how many detective series I’ve stopped bothering with because I couldn’t deal with the fact that the protagonists never ever learn from their mistakes, or keep on acting in an implausible or unprofessional manner despite twenty years as a police inspector etc. Because in real life we do learn, most of the time, don’t we? Or we try to.

My character Cressida in the Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy grows a little. As the trilogy goes on, she travels from being a designer-label obsessed airhead to being a caring mother and family-oriented person who doesn’t mind seaside staycations as that brings a lot of fun to all the family. Okay, she does still love a nice outfit, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of her life. And yes, she is still a bit manipulative, but she genuinely cares about the people close to her. which is why she gets into the messes she gets into, trying to help people by getting rid of some of the–ahem–nuisances in their lives. Oh yes, she is still a mass-murdering monster – but a nice one.

In my stand-alone novel, Easy Living, the main character Jane goes from a rose-tinted truth-denying outlook to recognising and facing up to the truth about her relationship – and it hurts her a great deal to come to terms with that. It’s a good thing she has three close – though dead – friends who are determined to stick by her side every step of the way.

Someone recently sent me a personal message on Facebook to outline all the things she disliked about my work. We’re not friends. I hadn’t explicitly invited her to give me any career pointers or to advise me on my work. I say ‘explicitly’ because in a sense, by publishing my books, I have invited a certain level of criticism. And I do believe that we should have free speech and that people should be able to say what they think. I don’t believe in censorship that tells people what they are allowed or not allowed to say or think.

However, part of me wonders what this woman intended to achieve with her message. I admit I don’t really understand why she did it. Did she think I’d immediately promise to rewrite all my books her way? Or that I’d stop writing? Or that I’d learn some kind of valuable lesson from her and turn my life around? Or did she want her money back? An apology? If I have ever disliked a book, I’ve just not read any more by that author. No writer can be all things to all people, and a writing style I like may not appeal to someone else. I’ve never contacted someone directly to tell them I hate their work.

To that person, I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the book. It’s perfectly fine that you have an opinion. I don’t plan to contact you to explain myself.

Does Dottie grow? I believe she does. When we meet her in book 1 of the Dottie Manderson mysteries, Night and Day, she is very young (19) and is mainly interested in having fun and going dancing. She’s a teenager, after all, and from a well-to-do, privileged background. She works from choice, not necessity, and can please herself entirely with what she does all day.

After two years of stumbling over corpses, she becomes more confident, more caring towards others. She becomes a business-woman and has to learn, almost from scratch, how to run her business. Added to that, as she grows up and goes out into the world around her, she is trying to understand life and human experience, is losing her childlike idealisation of people. Not only was the world of Britain in the 1930s light-years away from life in our era, it was also a time of massive sweeping changes. I like to think Dottie stays true to herself: she passionately believes in working hard, doing the right thing, helping people and giving support to those who need it. She is terminally nosy and always wants to understand what’s going on in people’s lives. In that respect, I believe she is relatable and ‘realistic’, hopefully sympathetic.

Obviously, I’ve only been writing for a few years. I published Criss Cross in 2013, and had only completed six full-length novels before that. So I consider myself still very much a learning writer. One day I hope to be an excellent writer. Until then I plan to grow and learn, and I hope my characters will do the same.

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The unreliable narrator – she’s out to fool you!

Like all stories, mysteries are told by narrators. Even mysteries told in the third person have a narrator, though the story is usually told by an omniscient narrator with a kind of ‘bird’s eye view’ of the story and its characters. But if you are reading a mystery written in the first person, the ‘I’ of the story is your narrator, and in this very intimate world of the first-person narrator, you as a reader need to be on your guard because the main mission in the life of the first-person narrator is to pull the wool over your eyes!

This is very often how the author introduces red herrings. As the reader, you get drawn into the world of the first-person narrator, he or she seems nice, they explain things to you and tell you what the other characters are like or about their secrets. They are your feet, eyes and ears as you step into the story and begin to explore the fictional world of the book.

Or maybe they are really horrid, but either way, they unfold to you the plot of the story as they see it and it all seems very plausible. You are drawn inside and it is only at the end, you realise that they missed out crucial information or disguised themselves or presented events in a rather biased manner, with the deliberate intention of thwarting your attempt to solve the mystery all by yourself.

Maybe they are seeking to divert suspicion from themselves, or even if you know what they did and how they did it, it is important for the first-person narrator that you sympathise, even condone their actions and approve their motives. They deceive you with half-truths, half-lies or even simply accidental misinterpretation. The bumbling narrator is in many ways the worst. They disarm you with their apparent incompetence, they admit to being forgetful, or unsure of their facts, and all the time—all the time—they are deliberately drawing you into a sticky web of their own creation and you cannot escape until you read the words, ‘The End’.

They might throw you off the scent by seeming to reveal some great truth. They admit to some minor sin in order to distract you from your hunt for clues. Their very openness, the revelation of their intimate thoughts, feelings and actions actually conceals greater guilt—the guilt of deception. Even worse, the author actually uses them to control your reaction to the story and how information is revealed to you. Can you believe it? So often in an apparent display of ‘fairness’, they will actually allow the narrator’s flaw to be revealed early on in the story, in the hope that you will have forgotten it by the time the story reaches its denouement. The author manipulates your sympathy, forcing you to acquit the narrator of wrongdoing as you stand in the place of the judge and jury to examine the action of the story. The author actually laughs as they write those lines that will trap you then surprise you. He he he.

Now that you know this, you are forearmed, and will be on the lookout for these artful devices.

Here below are a few noted novels with unreliable narrators: (sorry to spoil that for you…)

I also tried this with my Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy.

 

Agatha Christie’s infamous The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho

Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita

Ian McEwan’s Atonement

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In Media Res – don’t start at the beginning!

This is an old blog post I’m recycling due to having had a conversation with several people lately about the right place to start a story.

In Media Res

For a writer it can be a bit tricky to know where to start your story. Whether you are writing a mystery, a children’s novel, a family saga, or a paranormal romance, you often feel a need to tell the whole story. This can mean beginning far too early. You tell the reader in painstaking detail that your protagonist got up, had a shower, got dressed, had breakfast, went to work and that it was a day just like any other. Maybe you talk about how the steam fogs up the bathroom mirror and then describe the colour of her nail polish as she wipes it away, or you describe the pattern made by her cereal as it drifts around in the milk, and how that reminds her of the time when…

But there is a better way… What you could do, is to start in the middle of things. In Media Res. Begin your story right there in the middle of the action. Let your reader meet your protagonist at the crossroads where everything begins to happen, or change, when something new is coming. We don’t want to meet them a year before it happens. Or even a day before. The action is what will make or break your main character, and it will make or break your story. The first time I meet your protagonist, I want to meet him crouched and panting in a dark alley, his heart in his mouth, in constant expectation of hearing a footstep, wondering if they have found him.

Or, let’s meet her for the first time as she comes down the stairs in the dark and falls over the dead body. Show me how she raises a bloody hand in the candlelight. Or show me the new kid’s first day at school when he has to walk past everyone to reach his seat. Or maybe the new baby has got sick and a nervous young dad has to beg a lift to get to the doctor’s surgery in t he next town. Or let me see the moon rising behind darkling clouds as I hear the sound of a werewolf baying for blood. 

Let me see your protagonist as they step on the brake at the top of the hill and discover the brakeline has been cut; let me watch as they career perilously ever closer to the wall or lumber-truck or cliff edge and their apparently unavoidable doom.

Cut to the chase. Literally.

No more lengthy introductory scenes a la Proust, unless you are Proust. No more stage dressing. Does the audience arrive to see the rehearsal? No, they only arrive for the main event. Don’t bother to tell your reader what your character had for breakfast unless that’s what killed them.

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