In the Mind of a Cozy Mystery Writer
Guest Post by Liz Dodwell
Stapled to the telephone pole, the sheet of white letter-sized paper read:
VAMPIRE, WITCH, VOODOO PRIESTESS, and NATURIST looking for roommate to share large space. Utilities and other perks included.
This kind of stuff is manna from heaven for a cozy mystery writer, and the good news is, inspiration is everywhere. So long as you’re open to it, a story in the news, an overheard comment, a sign on a passing truck, all can spark that creative fire.
I once got off a plane and overheard a man greeting his wife with, “How was the flight?” In a voice of high excitement she responded, “I sat next to a hooker!” That snippet got added to my little book (Oh, yes, there’s a black book) right away and has been percolating in my mind for a long time.
Did the hooker announce her profession and, if so, why? Was there an overheard remark? Perhaps the wife deduced something from a letter her seat-mate was reading, or from her appearance…
Questions like that could occur to many of you, but the mystery writer will take things further and begin to weave a crime.
Maybe the hooker wasn’t really a hooker but needed to be sure she was noticed on the flight. She’s planned to kill her husband, and he’ll be pouring his five o’ clock martini at the very moment she makes her outrageous remark. She has secretly laced his gin with a sleep aid and programmed the thermostat to turn on high heat to induce heat stroke after he falls asleep. By the time she returns from her trip the temperature will be back to normal and she’ll play the part of the grieving widow.
You get the picture? There are so many possibilities!
Not all writers wait for inspiration to strike and, like them, there are times when I become more of an investigator. The urge to know and understand the story behind real life happenings is a powerful thing. Then to take what is learned and weave a plot around it, injecting some of my own thoughts, beliefs and experiences, ending up with a credible story is a real thrill.
The ultimate goal for an author, of course, is to entertain the readers. For me it is, anyway. Cozy mystery is more light-hearted than other mystery genres and I like that humor can mix with murder, and that the endings are always happy, or at least positive. I tend to take things even a little further. Nearly all my stories feature a rescued animal that, in turn, helps rescue its rescuers. (Did you get that?) And I must admit I do use my characters to bring light to issues such as homeless military veterans and missing children, in a manner that is integral to the story, of course.
There’s nothing original in that. Agatha Christie laced her works with unconventional and unpopular topics of the day: the preoccupation of the wealthy with their money and status, prejudices against certain classes and national origin. Even her little detective, Hercule Poirot, came in for his share of derision – “Foreign, of course!”
I’m often asked how I develop my characters. Well, most of them are just like people you and I would know, with a few foibles here and there. Even the killer is always seemingly normal; ‘til the story ends. My heroines often have a little of me in them – stubborn, clumsy and nosy. Fortunately, the bit I can make up is that they always win in the end.
As a story progresses my characters become more real to me. I have conversations with them (out loud, according to my husband), I know their fears, share their joy, feel their pain. Once I wrote about a child whose dog was run over. Half way through the chapter I was crying so hard I had to stop. That book never got finished; it was touching too many emotional nerves.
I’m not sure how much the readers really care about authenticity, after all the story is the thing, but for me too many inaccuracies impact my pleasure in a book. For instance, I cringe whenever I read that old fallacy about having to wait 24 hours before filing a missing person report. Where did that start, anyway? Hollywood, I suspect.
Agatha Christie said, “The best time to plan a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”
For me it’s walking my dogs in the morning, though there’s never a time I’m not considering how to add depth to a character, wondering how my protagonist will react in a situation, or plotting to kill someone. And I must say, every time I “do someone in,” so to speak, there’s a certain guilty pleasure in knowing I can do so with impunity.
Even better, when someone asks me what’s on my mind, it’s a real kick to see their faces when I reply with a casual turn of my hand, “Oh, just wondering how I can kill Dr. Squatpump and get away with it.” I love my job.
To get back to the VAMPIRE, WITCH sign. What story would you create from it? I’m picturing a young woman who answers the ad. The “large space” turns out to be an old candle-making factory and the current resident looks nothing like a witch, but she does end up dead in the home with a black rose on her chest. There will be a handsome young man, naturally. Perhaps he’ll be a policeman. Oh, and there’s a local clergyman; his name is Reverend Jolly…
Liz Dodwell is the author of the Polly Parrett Pet-Setter Cozy Mystery Series, among other books. In addition to writing and and publishing, she opens her home to many rescue animals. Find more from Liz at http://lizdodwell.com/.