Aw, Come On
Happy New Year! We hope all our devoted readers (we’re pretty sure we have at least a couple of them, even excluding each other and our mom) had a nice holiday and are enjoying a wonderful 2012.
One of the more gratifying aspects of the last few weeks has been getting enthusiastic feedback from friends who have bought the book. We appreciate the show of support and of course, we’d appreciate gushing reviews on either Barnes and Noble (www.bn.com) or Amazon (www.amazon.com) or – heck – both even more. (This has been a paid political announcement on behalf of the Mary Ann and Diane Davidson Retirement Fund.)
Both of us have a demented sense of humor – we hope that comes through in our writing – that extends to playing pranks on friends and family. One of our frequent victims has been known to look at Mary Ann and say, “You’re plotting something, aren’t you? NO PLOTTING!” (Would she think of putting a disgusting rubber insect in the sugar bowl to scare said victim? She would, indeed!) That is one kind of plotting we both enjoy, a tendency that some of our characters echo (Emma and her brother Virgil).
Another type of plotting (that, typically, does not involve rubber insects in unsuspecting places, darn it) is the basics of how you put a story together: who does what to whom, when, why and how. Plotting is often more important, we think, in a mystery than in a regular old novel, otherwise nobody would bother to keep reading a mystery after the first couple of chapters. (Whereas a character in a Henry James novel can blather on for 19 pages about why someone hasn’t come into the room yet, one reason one of us wants to find out where Henry James is buried, then dig him up and then kick the &^%$#*? out of him for being such a bad writer.)
Developing a storyline is only half the work, though. It’s equally important to make the story plausible (unless you are really going for over-the-top humor, like Janet Evanovich, an author whom we both enjoy, whose main character, Stephanie Plum, seems to have a car or two explode in every book in the series. Ms. Evanovich makes that implausibility work, plausibly: not many writers could).
We recently came across a thorny plotting problem we needed to resolve. To start with, in a murder mystery, you usually need more than one suspect, unless you are planning on writing a short story. A really short story, if for no other reason than hardly anybody reads a mystery if it is beyond obvious WhoDunnit. So, a plot challenge becomes peppering your prose with plausible perps (extra points for alliteration). The story unfolds (at least for us) as our heroine figures out who had motive and opportunity to do the deed. She then whittles the list of possible perps down until, around the last 20 pages or so, you find out WhoReallyDunnit. That’s a mystery in a nutshell (albeit one filled with untraceable poison. This means the squirrel did it).
The thorny plotting problem we had involved one of the murder suspects (in our second book, due out this summer) ostensibly doing something bad at a company that “just happened” to be the same company where Emma, our heroine, is working on a consulting assignment. Now, the murder itself has nothing to do with Emma’s work or that company. The coincidence was developed to allow Emma to easily look into the suspect’s background and discover a motive for murder (that is, a motive for that PP (Potential Perp) to have offed that particular HICV (Had It Coming Victim). At the time one or the other or both of us wrote it, it didn’t seem like a problem.
Later, and upon reading the section, both of us decided that particular plot ploy was just too darn convenient to be plausible, not that “convenient” isn’t a lot easier, writing-wise (Is your protagonist being menaced by an evildoer in a dark alley? There’s a cleverly placed tire iron five feet away for her to defend herself with, thank heavens, or “thank the writer.” This when everybody knows tire irons are pretty darn scarce if you look more than five feet away from a car trunk.)
We then had to figure out how we could make the key “possible motive” of a character (being fired from work for an alleged Bad Deed) discoverable by Emma without resorting to an arm of coincidence so long, it reached not only the basket rim, but the upper bleachers.
How did we solve our dilemma? Just by coincidence (really!) Mary Ann learned this week that a friend is a member of a Silicon Valley “finance professionals” organization. Even in a large metropolitan area, it is sometimes a very small professional world among people who do the same thing and who congregate regularly to a) listen to a boring speaker b) drink cheap wine and snarf soggy hors d’oeuvres c) complain about work…er….share best practices. So, we’ll allow Emma to exploit these professional associations to learn about the suspect’s background. In other words, Emma has to dig for information, rather than have it drop in her lap in less than one paragraph.
While we were at it, we’ve given the suspect a richer backstory, that includes her writing potboilers on the side. (You know, the kind with heaving breasts on the cover and windswept hair, with bimbo-licious titles like Reckless Rancid Romance). We’re almost gleeful at the wretched potboiler titles and plots we can invent. (Hey, maybe one of us should do some market research – reading a potboiler is loads easier than struggling through a blow-by-blow of the battle of Cannae, as fascinating as the latter topic is. Potboilers also italicize all the good parts that is, the sections involving heavy breathing. Hehehehe.)
Only time and book sales will tell if we came up with something plausible enough. But we do know from our own reading, if something is too good to be true, it’s probably just lazy writing. More to the point: if we don’t buy it, we can’t and won’t expect our readers to, either. Mostly because we weren’t shooting for the “bimbolicious market sector” where handsome, single pirates with raven hair and emerald eyes, who are really English lords with three castles, just happen upon a shipwreck where our heroine, Cassandra (or pick another overblown name) is the sole survivor, yet still looks ravishing and has a full wardrobe of 17th century clothes we can describe in boring, lacy detail. (And with that, we close, to go find an airplane bag to retch into.)