by Julie, staying put in Somerville
20+ years ago Mary Stibal and I took a mystery writing class together at Harvard University. We went to our first Sisters in Crime meeting together. We’ve celebrated short story successes together. And now we get to celebrate her debut as a novelist with the publication of A Widow in Pearls.
How An Incredibly Stupid Idea Can Make for a Great Story
A way that tension can be built in a mystery is to have a likeable protagonist act on a very bad idea. Which makes the reader think, “Oh no, I can’t believe she’s actually thinking of doing that! I’m sure she’s not going to actually do that!” and then, “OH MY GOD she’s doing it, and she’ll get caught, or killed!” But in order for this approach to work, the reader has to believe the protagonist has a compelling reason to do something very stupid. And dangerous.
In my book, A Widow in Pearls, Madeline Lane, co-owner of a small gem store in Boston has one of the wealthiest women, and the bluest of blue bloods in Boston, as a demanding customer. A woman who is also intensely private.
When the story opens, Madeline is trying to decide if her best customer is totally unbearable or just crusty. And then the rich woman is murdered. After the funeral the woman’s son, a high-handed SOB, is frantically looking for missing private papers of his mother so he can donate them to the Boston Public Library. Which Madeline knows would make her customer roll over in her grave. So where are they? She doesn’t know, but she does feel a responsibility to her customer, who has just left her a fortune in pearls her will. And so Madeline has a terrible idea. She decides to break into the woman’s townhouse, which was the scene of the murder, and find these papers before the SOB son gets his hands on them.
Madeline knows it’s crazy, but she also knows how to get inside, and it’s now or never before the locks are changed. So that night she searches the townhouse, jumping at every sound. She is about to leave empty-handed when she finds the papers hidden in a kitchen cabinet, and then hears someone enter through the back door. It is the woman’s son! Madeline slips out a side door with the papers, and drives home. A relief.
But once she gets home she goes through the papers – just a tattered, wrinkled manuscript — but it reveals an old but explosive secret about the dead woman’s family. And a powerful motive for murder. But she can’t just take the manuscript to the police, she has to first find out if the story in the manuscript is true. And Madeline sets out to discover the truth behind a long-ago sordid tale. And in the process becomes a suspect herself in the woman’s murder.
And so, a very bad, stupid idea ultimately leads to the solution of the woman’s murder. This set-up is a variation of the dramatic gambit which has the audience thinking, “Don’t open that door. Whatever you do, don’t open that door!” And the reader becomes very engaged in the story. But the character opens the door, and all hell breaks loose.
Question: Do you become frustrated and lose interest when a likeable character acts on a bad and risky idea? Or do you become intrigued – wanting more than ever to find out what happens to them?
Answer in the comments, and on Wednesday Mary will pick one comment randomly and send a copy of her book to the commenter!
About the book: When the most famously lost manuscript of the 20th century unexpectedly turns up in the home of a Boston blueblood, its stories will be unfortunate for the deceased. And deadly for the living.
Follow Mary on Facebook!