Mystery Writer Casually Jokes About Murder; Does Not Go Well…

Today I want to talk about humor in mysteries—specifically cozies—and the challenge of keeping something as serious as murder light-hearted.

It’s a delicate balance.

The death needs to impact the amateur sleuth enough so as to be realistic and so they don’t appear callous, but the story also needs to stay light enough to satisfy traditional cozy readers. After all, we don’t read cozies to feel woefully depressed (that’s what the news is for, ha!).

Here are a few tricks I’ve learned to do this:

  1. Leverage voice—have the MC make funny observations about her/his world or the investigative process. BUT the catch is to also maintain a depth of emotion between quips.
  2. Slapstick—put your amateur sleuth in funny scenarios that tend toward hilarity. Consider having her/him trip over the body or act clumsy in some other way (think Stephanie Plum).
  3. Witty dialogue—even the most intense scenes can benefit from witty dialogue. Plus it’s realistic; we all know those folks who crack jokes as a way to process.
  4. Comedic relief character—have one character who always seems to lighten the mood à la C3PO in Star Wars.
  5. Cats—there’s a reason cozies always feature a cat (or other cuddly creature); they’re cute and never fail to lighten every scene they appear in!

Writers, how do you balance humor in mysteries? Readers, can you think of humor in cozies you have especially enjoyed?

There’s No Rush

When I first started writing, I was in a big hurry. My dream was to be published—to be able to go into a bookstore and find my book on its hallowed shelves.

In order to achieve this goal, I constantly pushed myself to finish at least one chapter per week, to finish editing my manuscript by a given date, to send out a certain amount of query letters, whatever it might be.

It felt like if I slowed down at all, I would be standing in the way of my dream.

I remember specifically worrying that by taking too long 1. There wouldn’t be any agents or editors accepting submissions and 2. The subject matter of my novel would be out of fashion by the time I finished.

Since then, I’ve learned this: there’s no rush.

There will always be fabulous agents and editors excited to discover new work, and, worst case scenario, if your novel happens to be about a vampire/werewolf love triangle or girls on trains, put it in a drawer and wait for the trend to come round again. Someday that thing will sell!

slothBut the most important thing I’ve learned is that the publishing industry moves very slowly.

Writing a manuscript can take years (I’m a slow writer), querying literary agents can take months if not years, working with said agent to revise a manuscript can take months, querying editors on that project can take months if not years, and then editing that project and releasing it into the wild can take months if not years.

And let me just say that waiting is the hardest part. There’s nothing quite like picturing an editor from your favorite press considering whether or not to take on your title, i.e., make your wildest dream come true.

The point is, every step of the way takes time. There’s no reason to rush through your manuscript when the rest of the process is going to take a while. It’s better to take the time necessary to make a novel shine—let it marinate for an extra month (or six!) before hopping into revisions, spend an extra week polishing one pesky scene, take a couple hours to ensure the voice is just right in a single paragraph.

Most writers are familiar with the advice to write every day. I don’t necessarily agree with this. Yes, continue making forward progress, but cut yourself a little bit of slack.

If you work hard and stick with it, your manuscript will be finished eventually, and it will be all the better for relaxing and taking extra time. Besides, writing is supposed to be fun!

Will They Or Won’t They?

valentineI know romance is supposed to take the backseat plot-wise in mysteries, but in honor of Valentine’s Day I thought it’d be fun to highlight a few relationships that steal the show!

Here are a few of my favorite will-they-or-won’t-they couples from mystery series:

Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott – This unconventional pair is from J.K. Rowling’s/Robert Galbraith’s series and their relationship is part of the intrigue, especially after that cliffhanger ending in book 3. They so clearly need each other and I absolutely love the way Strike empowers Robin to pursue her detecting dream!

Jane Steward and Edwin Alcott – I recently got hooked on this Ellery Adams cozy series and can’t wait for the next installment, especially to see what happens next between Jane and Edwin! Edwin plays the perfect suspect-turned-love-interest and I love that he harbors a treasure trove of secrets…

Lady Emily Ashton and Colin Hargreaves – One of the things I most admire about Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily is how modern she strives to be in Victorian England, and the best thing about Colin Hargreaves is that he completely supports her seemingly eccentric ways. Plus, I mean, he’s super hot *swoon*

Phryne Fisher and Detective Jack Robinson – Granted, this is based on the tv show (anyone know if there will be another season?!), but the chemistry between these characters is palpable. I love how they flirtatiously challenge each other so that the tension builds through every. single. episode. Not to mention that kiss!

Nichelle Clark and Joey – One great way to increase romantic tension is to add obstacles to a relationship, and LynDee Walker is masterful with reporter Nichelle and her sexy mafia boss boyfriend Joey. That they have to keep their relationship secret makes it even steamier!

Who are your favorite couples in mystery series??

A Newborn Beginning

I had a post for this month all planned out. I was going to talk about plot structure, specifically at the beginning of novels, based on James Scott Bell’s book Plot & Structure. But before I got a chance to write said post, my daughter decided to make her debut a few weeks early.

sophieraine
Already a Bronco fan!

It was like any other Tuesday (isn’t that how the unexpected always starts?) when I started feeling…something at work and 20 hours later Sophie Raine arrived.

I’m already in love. She has my husband’s chin and my eyes, and she may be tiny, but golly she is fierce! She’s so strong and her sweet personality is just starting to shine through.

This is a new beginning for my husband and me, so really it’s very fitting for this month’s theme. Our lives will never be the same.

To tie it back to my original idea for this post, we’ve crossed the first threshold—through Doorway #1 as Bell calls it. We can never go back to how things were before, but why would we want to? Unlike our characters who are constantly tortured through our tales, Sophie’s arrival is a happy event and I can’t wait to see where this adventure takes us next!

The “Perfect” Writing Atmosphere

Picture this: it’s a crisp fall day and you’re cozy on your couch with a fire crackling in the background. Your cat is cheering you on with her quiet purring as you hurriedly clack away at the keys of your laptop keyboard, your glasses perched studiously on the end of your nose. You have at least another uninterrupted hour before real life will bother you. Oh, and you’re not completely consumed with worry over the actions of the President-elect.

Show of hands—how often does this scenario actually happen?

It sounds glorious, but in actuality, most of my writing tends to take place at the kitchen table in short spurts before or after work. If it’s the morning, I’m usually groggy and the cat is meowing for breakfast. My glasses are smudged and my hair is in complete disarray. I’m constantly aware of time—how much has passed, how much do I have left before I need to make the mad scramble to start the day?

fiction

Sure, there have been those special moments where I get close to the daydream, although they’re few and far between. What I’ve found encouraging is that the words I type during the frantic sessions are no less than the words I type in the more blissful scenario.

It’s easy to buy in to the concept of the ideal writing atmosphere. To affiliate the quality of our writing with the atmosphere in which the words are produced. Why else are we so fascinated to learn that Dame Agatha Christie often wrote while taking baths or that the masterful Stephen King writes at least 2,000 words at his desk every morning?

This is why I love things like NaNoWriMo. For those that aren’t familiar, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, which is going on right now. It’s a challenge to pen 50,000 words in 30 days.

NaNoWriMo strives to help folks with a dream of writing get into the habit of putting pen to paper every day. It doesn’t matter if they’re the most brilliant words ever written or utter drivel (in my experience, they’re most often the latter). It’s that at the end of 30 days, you have a complete first draft.

And there’s a reason why NaNoWriMo takes place in the month of November, notoriously one of the busiest months of the year. Because these are the times when it’s hardest to find time to write. It strips away our notion of “perfect” writing times and forces us to come to grips with the reality that maybe there is no ideal writing atmosphere.

While I’m not participating in NaNoWriMo this year, know that I’m with all you NaNoers in spirit, writing at my kitchen table each morning, smudged glasses and all.

Writers, what’s your ideal writing atmosphere? Are you able to make it happen more often than I am? Readers, do you find it interesting to learn behind-the-scenes info on an author’s process?

On Deceptive Characters

Let’s talk about deceptive characters.

Maybe it’s just my impatience showing, but when I first start writing new characters, I’m tempted to have them act overly suspicious or overly good, depending on what their role is, right out of the gate. But where’s the fun in that?

deceptionThe best characters are ones we grow to care about throughout a story, those who show us their world in such a clear way we start thinking we know exactly who they are and how they’re going to behave. Then *bam* they surprise us!

Think **Spoiler alert** Snape from Harry Potter, or Dr. Sheppard from The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, or Sienna Brooks from The Inferno.

The tricky part is that characters aren’t born into books this way. They must build up to this point—they must have an arc.

This is especially true for deceptive characters.

In writing deceptive characters, I always feel like I’m forcing myself to hold something back. Like the telling of a really great joke where you’re so excited you can hardly help but blurt out the punch line.

Now, in general, there are a couple types of deceptive characters in mysteries:

  1. Suspicious or unlikable characters who turn out to be good, or at least not murderers, as the case may be.
  2. Seemingly innocent or likable characters who truly shock us when they’re unveiled to be the baddie.

So what makes characters likable/unlikable? The best answer I’ve heard is to observe what makes you like or dislike someone in your own life. Or you could take notes during the next presidential debate.

Here are a few tricks I’ve found to be helpful in developing likable/unlikable characters:

  1. For unlikable characters, have them say or do something obnoxious like man-splain or cut someone off in rush hour, be mean to an animal or character who can’t defend themselves, have them be someone the MC or another reliable character has a problem with for a very valid reason (maybe a work-nemesis or ex-boyfriend), and/or give them an annoying habit.
  2. For likable characters, have them be caring (duh), have them stick up for an underdog or have a pet that thinks they’re swell (this is seriously a great—albeit cheap—way to make a character likable), give them witty dialogue, show that they have a good relationship with the MC or another likable character, and/or give them a tragic backstory that makes us empathize with them.

Readers, who are your favorite deceptive characters? Why did their true nature take you by surprise? Writers, do you have any tools you use to make characters likable/unlikable before the big reveal?

The Many Textures and Mysteries of Fall

Fall is by far my favorite season of the year. So no surprise, when I started thinking about texture, the first things that came to mind were the crinkling of colorful leaves, the felt-like grass of a football stadium, the slimy innards of a pumpkin, and the soft pages of a good book.

mysteriesReading is at its best in the fall. My favorite way to page through a book—or my Kindle, as it were—is while sipping on something warm with a knitted scarf wrapped around my neck and the rain pattering outside. This is especially true for mysteries.

Mysteries have always felt very autumnal…Maybe it’s that so many of the classics take place in the UK where drizzly weather abounds, or maybe it’s the dark nature of murder and the sleuth’s task of exacting justice.

Regardless, while mysteries are great year round, there’s something special about reading a good mystery in the fall. Here are some of the mysteries I’m looking forward to reading over the next couple months:

  • A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro This YA novel piqued my interest when I first read the premise, the descendants of Sherlock and Watson must team up to solve a murder at their school. Nuff said!
  • The Secret Place by Tana French I’ve been working my way through the Dublin Murder Squad Series, and this is the next one on-queue. They’re dark, beautifully written, and impossible to predict.
  • Lethal Lifestyles by LynDee Walker Headlines in High Heels is one of my fave cozy series right now, and the newest book comes out September 27! The mysteries always solid, and I can’t wait to read what happens next to all the characters.
  • Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter This book has been on my To Read list for ages and I’ve heard nothing but good things about it. I think it’s finally time to pick up this dark mystery and see what all the hubbub is about!
  • Size 12 Is Not Fat by Meg Cabot The title is funny enough, but this cozy sounds right up my alley, especially since I really enjoyed one of Cabot’s other adult novels, The Boy Nextdoor.

What books are you excited to read this fall? Are there any mysteries I need to add to my list?