Making a Motive

In Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot said of motives, “Most frequent—money. That is to say, gain in its various ramifications. Then there is revenge—and love, and fear, and pure hate, and beneficence.”

I think our favorite little Belgium detective is onto something…he does have the famed gray cells, after all.

Motives are a way for the murderer to seek vindication for what they see as a wrongdoing. With mysteries I’ve read—and in my own writing, no matter how creative I think I’m being—it seems that most motives boil down to one of three things:

Financial gain— a wealthy relative plans to make a new will, a surprise next-of-kin surfaces to snatch away an inheritance, or maybe—as is especially popular in cozy-verse—a competing store opens threatening to put our wily antagonist out of business.

orient_expressAffairs of the heart—Unrequited love, jealousy, betrayal. Nothing invokes more emotion than love in all its forms, whether it’s romantic, familial, or friendly.

Secrets—A secret identity about to be unveiled, a juicy tidbit overheard, a scandalous affair. I’ve found that this is usually the motive of the second murder in a mystery (if there is one), i.e., so-and-so saw something suspicious and is about to unmask the identity of the killer but then poof! they become the next victim.

What do you think mystery fans, can motives be simplified into these categories? What are your favorite motives? And who else is stoked for the new Murder on the Orient Express adaptation?!

An American Book Nerd in London

You know you’re a book nerd if you travel all the way to Great Britain and…

UKWeatherSpend so long at the Jane Austen museum in Bath that you run out of time to see the actual baths the town is famous for.

Attend a midnight release party for Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince at Waterstones, feeling giddy that you get to read the newest installment 7 hours before your Colorado counterparts.

Spend the first leg of your honeymoon at the Sherlock-themed hotel on Baker Street (my husband is really amazing).

Force your friends to wander around Hyde Park for hours in search of the Peter Pan statue.

Make a special trip to King’s Cross Station just to see Platform 9 and ¾.

Walk along the south bank of the Thames to see the Globe Theater where Shakespeare’s plays were first performed.

What have you done that proves you’re a book nerd at heart?

Grumpy Fries and Lazy Lies — Part 8

Goodness knows I’ve dreamed of taking a spin in Sterling’s Maserati, but not like this.

I sit shotgun, holding my head in my hands. If only I weren’t so sleep deprived from finishing my damn article, perhaps I could piece this nightmare together.

I can’t make sense of it. Sure, Grumpy was a bit of a grump, hence his namesake, but he was a part of the community. You could count on him rocking in the chair on his porch, growling at passersby. Despite his bark, I always got the impression he was lonely. We had that in common.

“Oh, Fred!” I exclaim.

“There aren’t any children present, you can say the actual f-word.”

“No, Fred, my date.” I twist in my seat and look behind me, the palm trees flying by so fast I get dizzy. “I forgot to call and cancel.”

“We have other things to worry about right now,” Sterling says, the corner of his lips twitching into a smirk.

“You’re right,” I admit with a sigh. “So where are we going?” When Sterling said he needed my help, I seized the excuse to get out of my apartment, no questions asked.

“To pay Aloysius a visit.” He cuts a look at me sideways.

My face flushes and all the coffee I’ve consumed in the last twelve hours roils in my stomach. No wonder the detective didn’t mention specifics.

“Forget it.” I’d rather face Grumpy’s murderer than my ex. “Turn this heap of metal around pronto.”

Sterling grimaces, gently patting the steering wheel. “Ignore her, baby.”

I’m about to snap at him not to call me baby when I realize he’s not talking to me. I roll my eyes.

“Come on, Persephone. I need to know if he’s been in contact with Duncan.” His clenched jaw accentuates at least one week’s worth of stubble. “Please,” he adds, the word sounding foreign on his tongue.

I face forward, crossing my arms over my chest.

Here’s the thing: Grumpy didn’t deserve to die the way he did. Will it be painful digging up my past? Of course. Am I looking for a way to procrastinate on my work? Probably. Will I let some jackass get away with breaking and entering into my apartment? Hell no.

“On one condition,” I finally say, one eyebrow raised.

“What’s that?”

I smile sweetly at him, running one finger along the leather seat.“You’re not going to like it.” He really does make an impressive figure in his Maserati.

#

Humidity clings to me like the glitter I’ll never be able to scrub from my apartment, ominous and unyielding.

Alo lives in a quintessential bachelor pad on the other side of the railroad tracks. Locusts hum in mulberry trees bordering the complex and the air smells smoky and sour, like milk long expired.

I squeeze Sterling’s forearm, his muscles taut beneath his shirt, as I knock on Alo’s door. There’s no way I’d visit my ex without proof that my life is better off without him.

Seconds pass as I shift from one flip flop-clad foot to the other. There’s a scuffling behind the door and then the unmistakable sound of two voices whispering.

Sterling pounds on the door, the vein in his forehead throbbing.

“Coming,” a shaky voice says before the door opens, revealing my ex in all his glory. With skinny jeans, a tight t-shirt, and a silvering goatee, he’s every inch the aging hipster.

“Hello, Al,” I say, leaning into Sterling.

“I hate it when you call me that,” he grumbles.

“I know,” I say, clicking my tongue.

“Are you two together now?” Alo nods between Sterling and me.

I peck Sterling on the cheek, my pounding heart giving credibility to our act. “And we owe it all to you.”

“Enough,” Sterling whispers as he nuzzles my hair, his breath warm on my neck.

“Don’t pretend you’re not enjoying this,” I whisper back with a wink. He just grunts.

“So what are you doing here?” Alo asks, fiddling with the bracelet around his wrist. He was always great at accessorizing.

Sterling steps over the threshold, gently tugging me along with him. Alo’s apartment appears to be empty, but there are two plates of half-eaten etouffee on the kitchen table.

“We need to talk,” I say. “About Grumpy.”

“What about him?” Alo asks, sweat beading on his upper lip.

“He passed away this morning,” Sterling says, his eyes scanning every inch of Aloysius’ apartment. “Know anything about that?”

“I haven’t been back to that neighborhood since Persephone filed the restraining order after the letter incident.”

My ex may have lied about many things—the success of his band, how much he can bench, his sexuality—but I actually believe him now.

There’s a thump in the back of the apartment. Sterling drops his arm from my shoulder and nudges me behind him. “I’ll need to see in your shoe closet.”

I shake my head. “Alo, what sort of trouble have you gotten yourself into?”

Cultivating Clues

Clues are seeds the author cultivates in the reader.

Some seeds start tiny and grow throughout the story, blooming at just the right moment. Others turn into weeds meant to distract the reader from the truth.

There’s always that scene in mysteries where the author initially plants seeds, usually buried in a detailed description of the crime scene and/or murder victim. There’s enough of a spotlight on said scene that the reader knows there’s a key clue being sewn.

So, Mysteristas, let’s put on our sleuthing hats and play a little game!

Below is a passage from The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie, which I happened to have read recently. Hidden in the passage is a key detail that later helps Miss Marple crack the case. Can you spot the clue?

Her thin body was dressed in a backless evening dress of white spangled satin. The face was heavily made-up, the powder standing out grotesquely on its blue swollen surface, the mascara of the lashes lying thickly on the distorted cheeks, the scarlet of the lips looking like a gash. The fingernails were enameled in a deep blood-red and so were the toenails in their cheap silver sandal shoes. It was a cheap, tawdry, flamboyant figure—most incongruous in the solid old-fashioned comfort of Colonel Bantry’s library.

Do you see it? Probably not, unless you’re some sort of Sherlockian mastermind, but how about after one more scene where the seed starts sprouting…

“Doesn’t it remind you of anything?”

For Miss Marple had attained fame by her ability to link up trivial village happenings with graver problems in such a way as to throw light upon the latter.

“No,” said Miss Marple thoughtfully, “I can’t say that it does—not at the moment. I was reminded a little of Mrs. Chetty’s youngest—Edie, you know—but I think that was just because this poor girl bit her nails and her front teeth stuck out a little. Nothing more than that. And, of course,” went on Miss Marple, pursuing the parallel further, “Edie was fond of what I call cheap finery, too.”

“You mean her dress?” said Miss Bantry.

“Yes, a very tawdry satin—poor quality.”

 We’re slowly honing in on the important clue, but there are still some pesky weeds to sort through…

“See, it’s a fingernail. Her fingernail! I’m going to label it Fingernail of the Murdered Woman and take it back to school. It’s a good souvenir, don’t you think?”

“Where did you get it?” asked Miss Marple.

“Well, it was a bit of luck, really. Because, of course, I didn’t know she was going to be murdered then. It was before dinner last night. Ruby caught her nail in Josie’s shawl and it tore it. Mums cut if off for her and gave it to me and said put it in the wastepaper basket, and I meant to, but I put it in my pocket instead, and this morning I remembered and looked to see if it was still there and it was, so now I’ve got it as a souvenir.”

Ah, now the flower—er clue—is starting to take shape! And one final scene:

“But, of course, really, in my mind, I knew. You couldn’t get away, could you, from those bitten nails?” [said Miss Marple]

“Nails?” said Sir Henry. “But she tore her nail and cut the others.”

“Nonsense,” said Miss Marple. “Bitten nails and close cut nails are quite different! Nobody could mistake them who knew anything about girl’s nails—very ugly, bitten nails, as I always tell the girls in my class. Those nails, you see, were a fact. And they could only mean one thing. The body in Colonel Bantry’s library wasn’t Ruby Keene at all.”

The fingernails! We’re directed to the murder victim’s fingernails from the get-go, and then the seed sprouts and continues growing throughout the story. References are continually made to those nails, but it takes time, and a brilliant storyteller, for us to realize how the puzzle fits together. 

When were you able to figure out which clue was important? Do you make note of the initial scene where clues are sewn?

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??