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Saturday, July 22, 2006

To Murder or Not To Murder

This is a paraphrase of a question recently posted to the blog. Here’s the original: I heard you don't always have to have a dead body. What other crimes are fitting for a cozy? The one I'm brainstorming calls for something like a missing artifact or forged relic. Would that work?

Short answer. Possibly. In combination with another crime. I’ll explain after I digress into a deeper explanation of cozies, and from that, I think, you’ll understand my answer.

Cozies are an interesting child in the family of mystery and suspense. At first glance, they seem tame. A good cozy, whether secular or inspirational, has no blatant sex or violence. This doesn’t mean such things don’t occur behind the scenes, but they don’t happen on stage, written in the pages of the book.

In reality, the most well written cozies aren’t tame at all. They explore the depths of the human psyche. Characters seethe with emotion, which is often hidden by the veneer of civility. I’m sure some people think a cozy mystery is easy to write, as far as mysteries go. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Suspect characters, as Lisa said in her blog entry, are essential. That means a large cast of people. The characterization alone makes a cozy difficult to write. Each of these suspects needs to be identifiable and needs the motivation to have committed the crime. That means a cozy mystery writer has to understand what makes people tick. The author must be willing to explore the depths of human emotion. Greed, jealousy, hatred, anger, revenge, lust. . . And then the author has to be able to slowly and subtly reveal those emotions in the actions of the characters. That’s not easy to do. Each character must be different, with their own definite personality. I think that’s partially what is meant by “quirky” characters. Often a small quirk is what makes a character memorable.

A personal observation here: sometimes inspirational writers want to sugarcoat their characters. They are uncomfortable in exploring the depth of sin it takes to commit a murder, for example. And some Christian authors avoid depth of conflict. This is probably because they don’t like conflict in their own lives, and they don’t like to think about the ugly side of life. I have only to point to the Bible for a good example of conflict and depth of sin. Every evil motivation known to man is contained within the pages of the Bible. In addition, the only way to keep the interest of the reader is conflict, conflict, conflict. As Donald Maass says, think of the worst thing that can happen to a character, then make it more horrible.

Okay, back to cozies. The reason that murder is often used in a cozy is whatever crime is committed must be significant enough to make a sleuth willing to pay the price to solve the crime, and the villain willing to pay the price to hide and/or stop the crime from being solved.

Here are some rules to remember:

1. A crime must occur at the beginning of the book. In most cozies that crime is a murder. It doesn’t have to be, but whatever it is has got to be significant and propel the sleuth into action. Murder can also be committed in the course of another crime. Or additional crimes can occur along the way.

2. The sleuthing must start shortly after the crime is discovered. And the sleuth needs a good reason to be solving the crime.

3. You must be fair to your readers. All the suspects must be revealed before the middle of the book. The clues the hero/heroine discovers along the way must be available to the reader. Don’t throw in facts that will determine the solution to the crime toward the end of the book without foreshadowing them at the beginning.

4. You must have a sufficient number of suspects to keep the reader guessing.

5. The mystery has to be investigated and solved. The hero or heroine can’t just bumble along, stumbling over clues. The main character must actively solve the crime, even if law enforcement solves the crime, too.

So, back to the original question. A missing artifact or forged relic would work in combination with another crime. For instance, perhaps a collector realizes that one piece of his priceless collection is a forgery. It is, in fact, a replacement for the original. Because of this realization, somebody is murdered. Maybe the collector. Or a family member. Or the forger. Make it significant. Make it cost somebody dearly. And then make everyone who matters pay a steep price in the resolution of the mystery.

4 Comments:

Blogger Gina said...

Thanks for devoting a whole entry to my question. It's becoming clearer. So here's another question.

Can a murder be backstory and the book open with another crime or forgery?

In the cozy I'm brainstorming, the wife's husband dies mysteriously and it's one of the motivations for her to go back to where he got the artifact. It's really the true motivation. She wants to solve the mystery of his death, but he died months earlier. Could that work? If not, I'll keep brainstorming. :)

9:47 PM  
Blogger Ron Estrada said...

I think that works great, Gina, especially if the wife thought the murder was only an accident or a random robbery. Then, several months later, stumbles onto something--an address, photo, anything--of her husbands that leads her into an investigation. Just be sure to create awesome characters and setting so you can set yourself up for a series!

8:13 AM  
Blogger Gina said...

Thanks, Ron. Great tip about stumbling onto something early. I've got my main characters, now to work on those suspects.

1:06 PM  
Blogger Candice Speare said...

Hey, Gina! I think Ron is right. His idea is great. Your story sounds great!

2:35 PM  

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