Tuesday, March 12, 2013

It's Not Just the Clues, It's the People




I never thought I’d write mysteries.

The only thing I’ve ever really wanted to do is write, though, and I read mysteries from a very early age. I especially loved the U.K. authors: mid-century ones like Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Michael Innes, more modern ones like Phil Rickman, Martha Grimes, Tana French. Clever writers with clever, twisting plots.

A lovely read, but not my—to stay on the British side of the pond—cup of tea really, not as a writer. I wrote (and still write) historical fiction, vast sprawling novels that followed families through generations or a country through its medieval crises. I focused on the characters, on making a century come alive for the reader through getting to know the people who lived in it.

And then I realized that my favorite mysteries, while well-plotted, also brought the reader into lives and thoughts and emotions of people. As much as I wanted Deborah Crombie’s Duncan Kinkaid to solve the murder, I also wanted to know what was going to happen next between him and Gemma. Just as Adam Dalgliesh made clever connections in his police procedural world, so too did I want to visualize his flat high above the Thames. And I’ll always want to know how Merrily Watson’s relationship with her daughter is coming along, even as she separates the spirit side of things from basic human evil.

At the end of the day, if we don’t care about people, how can we care about what happens to them? No matter how intricate the plot, the center of every mystery is still the people involved.

I still probably wouldn’t have added to my own fictional repertoire if a non-writer friend hadn’t proposed co-authoring a mystery novel. I jumped at the chance: she was skilled at plotting, and I was a good writer: at the very least, we could have some fun together. And so was born Irene Adler, globe-trotting anthropologist and professional poker player, and our joint pseudonym of J.A. Squires; Echelon Press will be publishing the second in that mystery series later this year, and the more I get to know Irene, the more I enjoy seeing what she does when placed in mysterious circumstances.

And I’ve been having fun with my own set of fictional mystery-solvers ever since. My most recent book, Murder Most Academic, out last month from Mainly Murder Press, introduces a new protagonist, Trinity Pierce, history professor and former callgirl; and I just signed a contract with St. Martin’s/Minotaur for a series that takes place in Montréal and features Martine LeDuc, the city’s publicity director. These are all written under my Alicia Stone pseudonym, so that my historical fiction readers can stick with one name and my mystery readers can find books under the other.

And the greatest joy I feel is in giving these characters life, in getting to know them, in figuring out what is important to them and what they’d risk their lives for and why they make the decisions they do. Sure, the background is important, the plot is important, but as I write I tend to make changes in the storyline anyway, because as I get to know these people, as I create their backstory and listen to them talking, eavesdrop on their thoughts, figure out their motivations, more frequently than not they deviate from my plot outline and I generally choose to follow them rather than make them follow me.

Maybe there’s a lesson in all this. Maybe in the final analysis all literature, genre-based or not, is about people. We read for so many different reasons: for entertainment, for enlightenment, for inspiration; but in every case we read because we connect in some way with the characters on the page.

So I’ll continue to write historical fiction, and mysteries, and who knows where all this will take me in the future? Wherever it is, you can be sure that there will be some interesting people involved.

And now it’s your turn. Who are your favorite fictional characters, and why do you like them so much? I’d love to hear where your literary heroes and heroines take you!

Jeannette Angell


Jeannette de Beauvoir writes historical fiction, short stories, and poetry as Jeannette de Beauvoir http://tinyurl.com/a5x8mbj , Jeannette Angell  www.jeannetteangell.com ; and Jeannine Allard  www.jeannineallard.com ;, and mysteries as J.A. Squires: ireneadlermysteries.com ; and Alicia Stone  www.aliciastone.com
 












2 comments:

Marilyn Levinson said...

I agree. It's the characters we care about and remember. I remember watching a TV detective show--
"Major Crimes," the spinoff from "The Closer." I was more interested in the lead detective's relationship with the young boy she'd taken under her wing than in the murder. Months later, I remember the two characters and not the homicide the team was investigating.

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