Saturday, April 6, 2019

The Hardest Part of Writing a Mystery Series

When I started writing the Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series in 2004 (yes, 2004, even though not first published until 2011), I planned the first three books. Appraisal for Murder would introduce the characters and Jolie's job as a real estate appraiser by having her find a body while doing her job. Rekindling Motives would resolve long-ago and current murders, and in the third book (not then titled) Jolie would solve the murder of her good friend, Scoobie.

What?! Last time I looked, Scoobie was in book eleven, perfectly healthy. Clearly, he didn't die in When the Carny Comes to Town.

I found that not only was Scoobie the readers' favorite characters, he was mine. Funny and complicated, he became the character whose evolution propelled many aspects of the series.

That's not a bad thing -- unless the author becomes so invested in the characters that the mystery becomes secondary. It may not be something the author sees. Crimes still abound, the sleuth's life is disrupted while solving them, and the bad guys get their comeuppance.

Though invested in my characters, I promised I'd never put them first. I may have broken that commitment. In a recent five-star review of Underground in Ocean Alley, a reviewer noted how much she liked it and then said, "Read for the characters, not the mystery." Uh oh. I reread the book. I think the mystery is solid, but the characters' lives have become a bigger part of the story.

Do you remember the TV show House, with Hugh Laurie? The early seasons each show revolved around Dr. House and his team solving a complicated medical mystery. Then the show became a prime-time soap opera dealing with characters' love lives and Dr. House's opioid addiction. I stopped watching.

I swore that the 'Dr. House Effect' would never affect my writing. My books in the Jolie Getntil series have certainly not become soap operas. As I start book twelve in the series I've devised a 'mystery versus character' chart that I'll use to evaluate each chapter.

Personally, I think the most effective way to avoid becoming too focused on characters' lives or evolution is more plot twists. That's mystery plot, not redirection of character paths.

I may do more pre-writing plotting. I can't say outline, because my brain doesn't work that way. I always start with the idea for the murder and a couple of pages of what I think of as progression notes. I'll add to the latter. Now, to finish a book in the Logland series so I can get back to Jolie and friends...

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