How Are Your Mystery Chops?

myschopsThe time has never been better, for writing a mystery novel – particularly a mystery series.

Mysteries are among the hottest commodities in today’s book publishing marketplace, and the doors are open to the first-time novelist.

I’m prime example. After years of writing articles and nonfiction TV scripts, recently I sold my first novel – and you’ll find it on the mystery shelf. Simple Justice hit bookstores last summer, launching the Benjamin Justice mystery series.

Benjamin Justice isn’t just another Sam Spade clone, however. The contemporary mystery market has changed, and the stereotypical hard-boiled male private eye is passe with many readers. In fact, mystery novels featuring female sleuths outsell those with male protagonists. And female characters overall are more independent, complex and charismatic, than ever before.

Similarly, more mysteries being published today reflect the wide diversity of American culture, including race, gender, sexual orientation, religious background and region.

While a novel’s story remain of paramount importance, “character-driven” mysteries – as opposed to traditional “plot-driven” whodunits – are becoming increasingly popular. Mystery editors welcome deeper themes and the exploration of social issues.

With all this mind, I created the character of Benjamin Justice, a protagonist strong enough to sustain an ongoing series (another trend among first mystery novels), Justice is a washed-up reporter who operates out of the gay community of West Hollywood, California (where I make my own home), and whose life is haunted by his lover’s death from AIDS. As Justice struggles with his personal demons, he becomes entangled in the investigation of a complex, gay-bashing murder.

Perhaps you have a worthy mystery series character in you waiting to emerge, and a compelling story to tell. If so, here are some tips I gleaned from experts working in the field on how to develop a successful character – with an eye to keeping the character and stories fresh from book to book:

* Create a character who is realistic and believable, yet distance and fresh enough to warrant publication.

Michael Connelly, author of the Harry Bosch series (including The Last Coyote): “To paraphrase Vince Lombardi: Character isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. I think all plots are derivative, and I think readers know and accept that. What they’re looking for is a window into someone else’s world. You provide that with character.”

Melodie Johnson Howe, author of the Claire Conrad series (The Mother Shadow, Beauty Dies): “Find out what’s unique and special about your character because that’s what’s going to sell your book. But unique must never mean unreal, unbelievable or forced. A unique character should rise out of the ordinary, and have the ability to look at an extraordinary situation through his or her own very real past and special personality.”

* Give your character an occupation and/or psychological makeup that logically involves him or her in murder after murder.

Joseph Pittman, senior editor at Dutton Signet: “Offer some logical connection between the main character and the murder, or at least a personal reason why that character would solve the crime.”

Jan Burke, author of the Irene Kelly series (Remember Me, Irene): “You must think about how your sleuth is drawn into these murders. Are you going to be able to live in this character’s world and be able to come up with these (deadly) situations again and again? How do you have your sleuth intersect with the victims? What’s going to involve this character believably in case after case?

“Ask yourself how often this kind of character has been done before and if your character is different from others with the same occupation. [Mystery writer] Nevada Barr came up with a park ranger (Anna Pigeon) who gets involved in mysteries in different national parks. Nevada brought a new and different occupation to mysteries.

“But what really makes that series work – and I can’t stress this enough – is that Barr’s really a fine writer. Choosing your character and occupation is just your first building block.”

* Create a character you personally identify with.

Melodie Johnson Howe: “Don’t think about what the public wants. Think about what you want.”

Jan Burke: “Readers have to root for your protagonist, and if you don’t care about the protagonist, neither will the reader. You need that personal involvement in your lead character,”

Michael Connelly: “The first books are easiest because you’re still creating the basics about the character. After that you have to dig deeper into this person you’ve created each time. If you stop adding to the portrait with each book, the character goes stale.”

* To know your character fully, you must envision his or her personal world, and immerse yourself in it.

Melodie Johnson Howe: “The personal world is what reveals your series character to the reader. It is where the character lives, breathes and thinks. It is where desires burn and failures haunt.”

Howe suggests writing a biographical sketch for each of your characters, complete with deep background detail, both physical and psychological.

Michael Connelly: “You have to give your main character a rich past life that intrudes on the present. Readers may not remember the plot, but they’d better remember the character or it might be a short series.”

* Don’t mistake gimmick and surface detail for true characterization.

Joseph Pittman: “Some writers give their characters a lot of eccentricities, but I think strong characterization is more an internal thing – the psychological complexity of the character – than a matter of external detail.”

Michael Connelly: “If you write something in one book, you must live with it for the rest of the series. In my first two books I threw in a few character details about Bosch that I later regretted because now I have to stick with them.”

Kevin Robinson’s series sleuth Stick Foster is distinguished partly by Foster’s use of a wheelchair (mirroring Robinson himself in real life), but Robinson warns that the wheelchair must “have its own legitimate place in the (story) … In Mall Rats (for example), Stick’s wheelchair doesn’t keep him from breaking and entering to gain access to restricted offices in the FBI building, but it does play a major role in helping him get out.”

In Simple Justice, my main character copes with his alcoholism, shaves and does his laundry irregularly, and has a potent sexual imagination and drive – all of which influence scenes and plot turns in the story. Use your imagination to keep character detail and story intertwined. Try to make every detail work for you, supporting story and theme.

* Choose and develop your supporting characters carefully.

Jan Burke: “One function of (supporting characters) is to reveal things about the central character, especially if the novel is in the first person. They can also be a wonderful opportunity to provide color, tension, surprise, red herrings – they can do a lot to keep a series from getting stale.”

Joseph Pittman: “Beware of the sidekick. That’s usually the character who is the most fun, the one who can get away with more. The problem is, sometimes they overshadow the main character. Some of the more successful series now have no sidekicks.”

Philip Luber, author of the Harry Kline series (Deliver Us From Evil): “If a supporting character is important enough to continue from book to book, then he or she must be presented as something more than a plot device.”

[Editors note: For more tips on using secondary characters, see Nancy Kress’s Fiction columns in the September and October issues of WD.]

* A strong narrative voice is crucial to create a strong character and sustain it from book to book.

Melodie Johnson Howe: “Voice sets the tone for your entire novel. Be passionate about the story you have chosen to tell. If it doesn’t feel fresh and exciting to you, it’s not going to feel that way to the reader.”

Lawrence Block, author of the Matthew Scudder series (A Long Line of Dead Men) and Bernie Rhodenbarr series (The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart): “Narrative voice is the sense of the writer’s inner self that’s communicated in prose. It will be more endearing to the extent that it’s honest. As to how to do it, you just have to write the book and write it the best you can.”

A powerful narrative voice often comes from a writer’s willingness to expose his or her feelings, viewpoint, attitude, etc. – what some authors call “writing close to the bone.”

Joseph Pittman: “I think you have to start with a little bit of yourself to get an initial handle on the character. Putting just enough of yourself into the character to at least ground him or her in reality. Because you want that character to be as real as possible.”

Michael Connelly: “I think narrative voice and character are almost the same thing. The narrative voice is bred through the character. If he has a unique feel or quality to him, it will come out in the voice, even if it’s in the third person.”

* Don’t neglect plot for character.

Joseph Pittman: “Today’s reader wants more psychological insight – not so much the whodunit as the whydunit. But there’s such an emphasis on character these days, sometimes the mystery get’s forgotten. It’s important to remember what you’re writing. Readers still love the puzzle.”

Joan Drury, publisher, Spinsters Ink and author of the Tyler Jones series (Silent Words): “Your character’s personal world must pertain in some way to the mystery. I see less experienced writers who think they can put anything in that relates to the character, but mystery readers will get disenchanted with that. Mysteries are first and foremost plot-driven.”

Melodie Johnson Howe: “The race, gender or sexual preference of your series character doesn’t change the boundaries of the genre. The writer must still create a suspenseful, compelling mystery.”

* Subplot can deepen character and add a fresh dimension to each new story, but it shouldn’t stray too far.

Melodie Johnson Howe: “Subplot – that which is not the main mystery plot – is where you can explore the personal life of your character. I always think this works best when the mystery plot and the subplot intersect. The writer can reveal the mystery while also revealing the inner thoughts and feelings of the protagonist.”

Philip Luber: “The best books are those in which the unwinding of the plot and the development of the characters move forward as if they were bound together, totally interdependent.”

* Use your imagination to keep each new story original and distinct.

Michael Connelly: “With my first book (The Black Echo). I just tried to make it as interesting and well written as I could. After that, I concentrated on making one a character study, another a more plot-driven story and another a road story. This kept me fresh, and I hope it kept the books fresh.”

Philip Luber: “My favorite example is the Lawrence Block series about Matt Scudder. With each book the character has become more rich and more interesting. We see him age. We watch him resolve personal issues that first arose in earlier books. We see his relationships ripen over time.”

Other writers place their stories in a new city or other locale with each book, give them a new love interest, tackle a different social issue, take on a compelling new theme.

* Use the revision process to weed out the repetitive and the stale.

Melodie Johnson Howe: “Just write. Then rewrite and rewrite and rewrite.”

Howe and other writers say that revising earlier drafts provides an invaluable opportunity to give their stories and characters the sharpness and edge that makes them distinctive and appealing.

Revision is also a good time, they say, to look for – then eliminate or change – overly familiar characters, settings, descriptions, plot devices, snatches of dialogue, and so on, that you may unconsciously be repeating from your earlier work.

* Conversely, beware of continuity problems from book to book.

Michael Connelly: “I wish I’d kept a character journal from the beginning so I’d have an easy reference to details about characters who run through all the books. It’s sometimes difficult to keep track, and I’m tired of having to reread my books to make sure I have things correct.”

Melodie Johnson Howe: “Make a list of details about your continuing characters. Birth dates, ages, car, homes, offices. Whatever you think you might not remember and don’t want to spend time searching for in a previous book. Trust me, you won’t remember.”

Philip Luber: “I keep a grid on my hard disk to help me recall the life chronologies of my main characters, and the relationships of each chronology to the others.”

* Don’t become so preoccupied with creating a character for the future that you neglect to write the best novel you can now.

Philip Luber: “Never assume you’ll get a second chance to reach your reader. Always use your best stuff at the first opportunity. If you’re good at what you do, it will regenerate in transmuted form.”

Lawrence Block: “Don’t write a series just because you feel that’s what the world expects.”

Joseph Pittman: “If you can’t sell the first one, you can’t sell the second one. Finish the first one and send it out and think about writing something completely different. Don’t invest a lot of time writing other mysteries with the same character until you know you’ve sold the first one.

“But if you really want it, don’t give up.”

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