Monday, December 10, 2018

When Life Gets in the Way

Whilst contemplating this month’s Mystery Monday post, my life got in the way. Such is the existence of a struggling author. As much as you’d like to mull over your ideas and creative battles, sometimes pressing matters like a roof over your head and cooking dinner have to take precedence – that is, if you happen to enjoy things like a roof over your head and a warm dinner.
I know what you’re thinking: this is an apology post for not having a real topic for a Mystery Monday blog. And you’re not wrong… except that in the midst of all this life getting in the way, I started to think how often a character’s ‘life’ gets in the ‘way’ of the story.
I put ‘LIFE’ and ‘WAY’ in quotes because A) a character is doesn’t actually have a life, it’s imaginary and I know that and I don’t want the crazy police to come and haul me away and B) because – and this is important – it’s not really in the way of anything.
Hear me out.
You can use “Life Interruptions” (for lack of a better turn of phrase) to do multiple things in any story, but it is an extremely handy literary device in a mystery.
An interruption can place your main character or detective in an unexpected situation that could put them in more or less mortal danger than to which they are accustomed.
A big city detective’s divorce leads her to move to a small town where she now sees danger everywhere yet everybody around her tells her that no danger exists. Sounds like a pretty cool setup for a suspicious death, no?
A small town banker has to go to a dangerous metropolis to help his sick sister. After several events where he cries wolf, a really wolf comes to call and he must solve the crime.
Life interruptions are not just good devices for a plot, they are also good devices for a clue.
In Chasing Those Devil Bones, my main character must attend a funeral. At that funeral, she’s given the critical piece of information she needs to solve her crime. A teeny tiny little clue to push the story towards its conclusion. But the event surrounding that single moment provides an opportunity to explore some of Clementine Toledano’s inner world that the reader wouldn’t otherwise know existed.
I use these interruptions a lot. And if done well, they will enhance the mystery, rather than distract from it. In October’s Mystery Mondaypost, I talked about different techniques to hide clues in plain sight. This device is definitely one of them, but it’s also a good spot for a little misdirection, should you need it.
James Lee Burke is a master at these interruptions. Sometimes they’re as dramatic as a plane crash, other times as mundane as a child’s homework assignment, but they always move the story forward. And that’s really the trick.
You can’t just add in a new life event without it having a direct impact on the story you’re writing -  even if it’s an interesting one to you that allows you to deepen your understanding of your characters. While these self-indulgent little darlings are usually some of a writer’s favorite moments, they are also the parts of a novel that will drag the story to a standstill and force the reader to skim through your precious words until you’re back on track with some relevant text.
The bottom line is that even in a genre as formulaic as a good mystery, your characters have to live. And in any life, even a fictional one, life will get in the way from time to time. The important thing to remember is that every interruption must move the story forward.