Changes in Villainy

In January, my husband and I welcomed our baby girl into the world. Since then, our lives have been turned upside-down, inside-out, and tugged in pretty much every other direction imaginable. One effect of this is that I’ve become much more sensitive.

I get teary during diaper commercials, forlorn watching the news, and sickened by violence toward children.

For example, I read Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes when it first came out three years ago. Without giving too much away, there is something that happens in the opening chapter. Something I completely forgot about. Watching the (utterly fantastic) tv adaptation, I was shocked by this event. How could I have spaced such an atrocity?!

It’s not that I was callous or didn’t care, it’s that my perception of villainy has been drastically altered with the birth of my daughter.

I have different worries (and wayyyyy more of them!) and different fears than I used to have.

This is true on a macro scale as well.

There’s a reason books like 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale have recently returned to the bestseller list. Because the villainy in those stories reflects what’s happening in the world today.

This is something I’m keeping in mind as I plod along in my current WIP, which showcases a new villain. A villain who’s craftier, harder to nab, and more cold-hearted than any I’ve written before.

But one thing is for certain: no pets or children will be injured in my manuscript. It’s a good thing I write cozies!

Readers, have your perceptions of villains changed over time? Writers, do you write different villains as you go through different life stages?

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Cut the Fluff

“I try to leave out the parts readers skip.” ~Elmore Leonard

parisTransitional phrases like late that night come in super handy to heed Mr. Leonard’s excellent advice. These show that time has passed without bogging the reader down with unnecessary fluff that doesn’t serve the plot. And, as we all know, everything must serve the plot! It’s kinda like the One Ring.

 

Here are a few instances where I’ve learned I need to leverage transitional phrases:

  • I allow myself one—*maybe* two—transportation scenes per manuscript. As a combo pantser/plotter, I tend to use bus rides, walks, etc. to explore where I want the scene to go next. Which means, once I figure out where the scene is going, I can cut out the actual transportation and just say something like, one awkward Uber ride later…
  • When I show characters coming up with a plan that they later enact, this is sometimes because I’m struggling to figure out how the hero is going to take down the baddie. Problem is, nobody wants to read both the scheming AND the actual scheme. Unless the plan falls to pieces, I usually skip to the action with a phrase like, after an afternoon spent carefully laying my trap…
  • Since I write mysteries, it’s important to have lots of chills creeping up spines, nervous twitches, and other murder-inspired reactions, but sometimes it’s not that interesting to read over and over, which is when I usually leverage something along the lines of: after another sleepless night spent twitching at every sound…
  • If I ever start feeling bored while I’m writing a scene, I know the reader is sure as hell going to be bored. That’s when I cut ahead to where the action picks up with phrases like, I think about the kiss all afternoon, or, the weekend passes without incident.

Readers, I’m curious what scenes do you tend to skip? Writers, do you have any rules of thumb like mine? Do you pure plotters struggle with the same situations?

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?