Murder by Syllabub, fifth in the Ellen McKenzie series, is available in bookstores now. Purebred Dead, the first in the new Mary McGill series, was released in August 2015 and Curtains for Miss Plym will be out in April 2016.
A couple of weeks ago I spent the day with various 6th grade language arts classes at Holcomb Bridge Middle School, just outside Atlanta, Ga. As the author of 7 published mysteries, I had been invited to talk to them about how to construct a story, and that’s what we attempted to do.
I had a handout, outlining what we needed for a protagonist, antagonist, how to build a story line, keep the story going and so forth. We started with an idea and proceeded to build a protagonist. We only had 50 minutes for each class, so there was a whole lot we never got to, but my main goal was to help them see how much we needed to know about our characters before we could build a believable one, how every action, and everyone in the story had to serve to move it along, and how, due to the events in the story, the character will change, but you, the writer, have to show how and why they make those changes.
We only touched on some of these points, but we built some pretty interesting protagonists once we got past the “his name is Don and he wears a blue hat” stage. Understanding that you need to know more about a character than their name and how they look is not an easy concept. You need to know about their-well-their character. Are they kind-a bully-insecure-focused-curious-bad home life-loyal to friends-more than are they good at sports or do they stay at home and read? Although these things give us a glimpse of what our character might be like, we need much more. They began to see, I think, that we need to know a great deal about someone, how they think, how they feel, what do they respond to, before we can build a story around them.
However, we never had time to build a murderer. That was too bad, because I think the murderer, and why he/she becomes a murderer, is often the most interesting character in the book. That is rarely the case in real life when so many murders we hear about on the nightly news are the result of gang shootings, domestic violence, or something as stupid as someone losing their temper because someone cut in front of you. These are tragic, and they’re certainly stories worth telling both about what brought the murderer to the point where he/she could commit such a crime, and about the person who falls victim to it. Many excellent books have been written about just these kinds of incidents, but what interests me more is the deliberate murder, the kind that seems to happen only occasionally (possibly more often than we think) in real life but almost always in traditional or cozy mysteries. The murderer among us.
What drives a person to deliberately murder another? To plot, to plan, to deliberately cause the death of someone, someone they know well. Hate? Rejection? Fear? Desperation? Greed? Is this ability to murder a sign of strength, weakness, an inability to feel compassion or a deliberate suppression of any emotion other than the need to obtain whatever reward the death of their victim will give them? Building this kind of character, then giving them the right set of circumstances that pushes them to murder is fascinating stuff for an author, and I think for a reader.
One of Miss Marple’s great strengths was her ability to understand the people of St. Mary Mead, to see their frailties, what made them strong, what scared them, what tempted them beyond their ability to withstand that temptation. It was one of Agatha Christie’s great gifts that she was able to so aptly portray the killer that we, the reader, believed we knew him or her, and while detesting their brutal actions, could understand the motivation that pushed them to the most horrible of all crimes, murder.
Think of some of your favorite murder mysteries. I’ll bet that often the murderer stands out in your mind as clearly as the hero, for different reasons but as a complete human being, one you probably don’t like much, especially at the end, but you at least understand what and who they are, and what drove them to do what they did.
Creating real characters isn’t easy, and creating villains who aren’t caricatures is probably the hardest but it’s very rewarding and very interesting. I hope, someday, I can return to Holcomb Bridge Middle School and we’ll work only on villains. As good as those kids were at coming up with heroes, we should get some great ones.
“This amiable mystery is bound to please fans of
Elaine Viets and Kate Carlisle” (Library Journal)
“Fans of Laurien Berenson may especially enjoy this
well-crafted canine holiday mystery” (Booklist)
“Dog-loving cozy fans will welcome Delaney’s series launch,
an extension of her Ellie McKenzie series” (Publishers Weekly)