Saturday, April 24, 2010


by Sheila Connolly

I've been working happily on my new book, which my publisher wants July 1st. For you writers out there, you know how it goes when things are rolling smoothly. You're in the groove, the zone. The words are flowing, and plot twists are blossoming like daffodils (and falling over like daffodils, but that's a different problem). All's right with the world.

I had written about thirty-five thousand words and then looked at my rather casual outline. I was eight days into the story–and there was no weekend. Now, one could call my protagonist a workaholic, but still. The world expects breaks now and then, and my books are supposed to take place in the real world, or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

The problem is, I have no idea what Nell Pratt does over the weekend, or in any of her "off-screen" time. And worse, I have no idea how much my readers really want to know.
Nell commutes from her suburban home to her city job by train. That means I can put her on the train for a couple of hours a day, where she can read the newspaper or a book, or she can stare pensively out the window and think about the current murder on her plate, which presumably helps her solve it by page 278. Thinking is good–in moderation.
But that's not going to help out with the weekend, where there's still time to fill. Does anyone really care about what she eats for dinner, when she does the laundry, how often she cleans her house or pays the bills? We all live ordinary daily lives, and we don't want to spend time and money reading about someone else doing all that boring stuff.
Sometimes I can send her off to do something to "clear her head" (so she can get back to solving murders, fresh as a daisy, on Monday morning). I can make her take a hike in the country, go antiquing, see a movie. But someone–either my editor or a reader–is going to tell me that whatever mundane activity I choose doesn't contribute anything to the plot, which is true.

My poor heroine has no pets and apparently no hobbies. She's reasonably handy at home improvement, but how many times can she paint the bathroom? She lives in a small house with no yard, so gardening is out of the question.

And she has no friends. In my own defense, the original version of this story included a book club that met every few weeks. It was like a Greek chorus, made up of women ranging in age from teens to 70s, who would listen to my heroine's woes and provide sympathy and advice. I liked the group, but in the interest of shortening and tightening the book, it disappeared. Yes, it didn't advance the plot, but it filled in a few blanks–and gave Nell some additional human contact.

We know that as writers, or at least those of us who write traditional mysteries, we must create a protagonist with whom a reader can identify and empathize. We have to flesh out a character who is believable, with quirks and foibles, but with a strong and solid core. How do we do that? Does knowing that my heroine is a lousy housekeeper make her more endearing? Or do you say, when confronted with her stack of dirty dishes, "get on with the story already"?

On the other hand, do you feel cheated when a writer says something like, "She spent the weekend doing necessary chores" and stops there? Two days, gone in one sentence. That doesn't seem right either: given that a successful murder investigation usually takes only a week or two, throwing away two days feels wrong. If Nell were a cop she could work around the clock until the murderer was caught, but she's an amateur, on the sidelines, and she's stuck with those pesky weekends.

Still, a writer doesn't want to be compulsive, accounting for every minute of the day. One could write, for example, "She pushed her chair back from the desk, stood up, and walked around the desk to the door, which she opened with her right hand, simultaneously turning off the light switch with her left hand." Or, "she picked up her blue toothbrush and carefully spread a one-inch worm of shiny green toothpaste with sparkles in it over the bristles, noting as she did that she really ought to get out a new toothbrush, as her long-time dentist had recommended more than once." Are you asleep yet? No, just drowned in minutiae. You have put the book down and gone off to do something a bit more stimulating, like balancing your checkbook.

How do I find a balance? I have to leave some room for the reader to fill in the blanks from his or her own imagination. At the same time, I have to build enough of an outline so that the reader can color it in–and I can't just leave out big pieces. What's the best solution?

One final note: you might have noticed that the calendar at the top of the post has only six days in a week. Maybe that's the solution!


Paul said...

It's a shame, really, that so much of the structure of stories has to be dictated by the marketplace. Certainly nothing should go in a story that isn't called for by the plot (or the tone you're trying to sustain) but that still ought to leave plenty of room for details that only indirectly advance the story yet still flesh out the character or feed the mood. And, yes, this kind of thing can be done subtly with a few well-chosen words or clever turn of phrase, but it often feels as though we need to dumb down the writing so that it is transparent to the lowest common denominator of readers.

I say put it all in and then back away from it later. It's always easier to edit too much work than to tease more out of too little.

Rosemary Harris said...

This is a great observation, Sheila. While it sometimes kills me to include things like "I showered and changed" , some version of that frequently has to be included. No less a pro than Stuart Kaminsky once asked me "wouldn't your character have rinsed out her mouth?" after a scene in which Paula Holliday barfs.
The chores and endless grooming and eating can be boring but not if they add a layer to your character or the setting - is she cleaning up in her workout clothes but never getting to the gym? Walking to the laundry past the Jamaican bakery where she trades smiles with the guy who's playing reggae on his 1980's boom box?
If this character is the one in Philly she can go out for a cheese steak or a bowl of snapper soup! Or stay home and watch the Sixers on the weekend. ;-)
Can't wait to read it!

J D Webb said...

I say let your mind run away with other things while she's mulling over the crime. A crotchety neighbor who over hears her talking to herself about a murder, a stray dog or cat comes for a visit, she trips and falls requiring a short trip to the hospital where she finds a clue, while mowing her small yard the mower breaks down and the repair shop has a hunk doing the fixing. These can show a different side of Nell.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Good points here, Sheila! It's a tough balance between too much info and not enough.

I'm scheduling this on my tweets today...

Mystery Writing is Murder

Sheila Connolly said...

You're right, Paul--in the effort to keep your book at 75,000 or 80,000 words, or whatever the publisher wants that week, words must be sacrificed, and most often those words are the ones that add color, flavor, texture to characters and settings.

Ro, I suppose all readers make assumptions about those blank hours. People have to eat, sleep, and (we hope) bathe regularly. Of course, you can learn a lot about a person based on his or her choice of food--TV dinner or gourmet meal for one? Does she read in the evening or sink into a stupor in front of the television? (Or yell at on-screen sports? Waddaya mean, the Eagles traded Donovan??)

I do let her go to restaurants, though. Thank goodness Nell likes to eat.

Msmstry said...

As a voracious reader, I've developed a certain reading rule that works for me. If the amateur sleuth has a "real" job, pet(s), spouse, or child(ren), then, by golly, s/he has to spend a certain amount of time with them in the book—or account for them somehow.

If, however, the protagonist is a loner, I'm perfectly happy to have the author dispose of time in a couple of sentences or even that old trick of extra spaces between paragraphs.

Just an acknowledgement that the sleuth does have a life outside the case except when something really cool intervenes is enough for me.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Do you really want an ongoing series character to be such a loner? I get a little annoyed with Kinsey Millhone for having no women friends--but even she has her landlord Henry and eats at Rosie's, where the reader always hears exactly what Rosie orders her to eat. Look at Judge Deborah Knott's complex web of relationships, including 11 brothers and their families. Often they don't advance the plot--but readers love to hear about them and what they do when they get together.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Shiela, I found that if I did a character sheet about the main characters: description (hair, eye color, scars, tattoos, mental stability, etc), family and friends, occupation, hobbies, likes, dislikes, MOST of it never made it into the book but it gave me something to work from and often details will slip in at the right place. Meanin I wrote too much to get it down on paper, then used only what I thought the reader wanted/needed. Somehow it works. Maybe it's getting to know the character better (for the writer) or getting inside the character?

Mary Jane Maffini said...

Hmmm. Note to sleuth?

Get a dog
Walk it.
Do the laundry.
Fold it.
Boil an egg.
Eat it.

Nope, still needs work!

I understand the problem, Sheila. Of course, the fun stuff is all around the investigation, the love life or lack of it and of course, the dodging of bullets. I enjoyed your post and it made me think. I love these books and I look forward to seeing how you deal with this.


Sandra Parshall said...

It's not easy to find space in a mystery for stuff that doesn't relate to the plot, and that can have the effect of making a character seem isolated. But if the character doesn't inhabit a complete world, he/she won't seem real to readers. As I said, it's not easy. Which is no help at all, I know!

My big problem is allowing time for characters to sleep. I can get rolling and stuff a week's worth of action into one day before I remind myself that just as the sun must rise, it must also set, and one day must pass into the next.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy, Jack Bauer doesn't sleep--in fact, nobody on "24" does. Or is that just an instance of how novels have to get everything right but TV shows can be totally unrealistic? Or maybe it's just that our protagonists' goals seldom include saving the world?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Though look who's talking: I'm writing this at 2:45 am. I shouldn't have had the coffee ice cream at the Turkish restaurant. ;)

Barbara Monajem said...

It's now 3:46 am, and I'm eating canned peaches and reading the blogs I never get time for during the day. But if I write even that much about what my heroine is doing in her off time, I get antsy. My rule is to include nothing that doesn't advance the story, so a blah weekend will be disposed of in ten words or so. That is, if I ever write a story that takes more than two or three days.

It's courageous of you to take on a loner character, Sheila. I would find that so hard to write.

Sheila Connolly said...

I reserve the right to stick the book club back in--let my editor axe it if she must. I think it's useful for my poor loner protagonist to have a batch of people to bounce ideas off, and they're fresh eyes--not related to either the museum community or law enforcement. She can find a fresh idea there if she (I?) needs to advance the plot.

I can see it now: her new employee tells her, "girl, you need to get a life!"

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, you can also start killing those book club members off next time you're stuck for a victim. :)