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.
A Widow in Pearls on Barnes & Noble
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I’m afraid I’m one of those people who really dislikes a protagonist doing something stupid. Since the amateur sleuth is supposed to be smart enough to solve a crime before the police do, why would she do something really, really stupid? I lose patience with such people.
Having said that, I find the premise of your book to be fascinating and am intrigued by the contents of the papers.
You have a valid point. However, the main character doesn’t really think she’ll find the missing papers — but since there is no way she can say ‘thank you’ to the murdered woman for leaving her a fortune in pearls — at least TRYING to find the papers and keep them out of the hands of the son will be the next best thing. And that’s why she goes. (Plus, and this is important, she is pretty sure she can get away with it.) But what the main character does find can point the police to a prime suspect, as well as be the lead story on every cable network, and on the front page of every newspaper in the country. If they are AUTHENTIC! Which sets the main character off on a path of discovery.
Welcome, Mary, and congratulations! TSTL (Too Stupid to Live) is risky, certainly, but I’m sure you pulled it off!
Thanks Edith! Figuring out the main character’s personality was fascinating. She is the ‘whatever it takes’ type. In this case, she had to force herself to go into the townhouse. What got her to finally do it, was that if she didn’t at least try — she knew she’d regret it for the rest of her life
Hi Edith: Thanks for the congrats! Please forgive any mistakes I have made on this most excellent blog! When it comes to social media, I am all thumbs, plus I seem to have two left feet as well!!
That’s a great question! I think the context matters more than the action itself.
Context is everything! Which means knowing your characters inside and out!
Well, I know one thing – I would LOVE the opportunity to read “A Widow in Pearls”! It sounds amazing and definitely something now on my TBR list.
I enjoy reading about a character I like does risky or bad acts because it shows they are human just like me. We all make those kind of decisions to some extent or other – hopefully not where dead bodies are concerned. The difference is that in books the end result usually works out for the best where in life it’s not always so. Some times the characters act like we would love to if we only had the nerve or how we hope we would handle a situation if in the same situation (without coming to harm).
Thank you for the opportunity to win a copy of “A Widow in Pearls”. Congratulations on getting published.
2clowns at arkansas dot net
Thanks for your comments. And yes, coming up with action for the character is fun!
It really depends on the bad decision and why it’s made.
I’ve had characters make bad decisions. Even really smart people make bad decisions. Sometimes they make them for the best of intentions. So if the bad decision is logical – it flows from who the character is, what she believes in – I can go along for the ride, if only to see how she gets out of the resulting mess. Sounds like that’s what you’ve done here.
But a truly TSTL decision? Mmm, I don’t know about that.
Congrats on the book!
Yes, she does get herself into a mess. But she doesn’t see it as a mess. She sees it as a responsibility — which she would love to get out of, but she can’t. The problem is if she doesn’t continue to act, then the murderer will get away with it. So she soldiers on. (Her business partner tells her she’s crazy to be involved
in a murder — at any level — but the main character doesn’t listen.)
Congratulations on the publication of A Widow in Pearls and welcome to the Wickeds.
Thanks for the congrats, and for giving me the opportunity Sherry! I am definitely feeling ‘wicked’ this morning. I think it becomes me.
Thanks for the welcome. I was honored that Julie asked me to be a guest!!
I love it when a character acts on a bad and risky idea – it builds suspense as you sit there thinking, “NO, NO, DON’T DO IT!!” – and then of course you have to continue reading to find out what happens. Steve Martin’s The Pleasure Of My Company is a wonderful book about a neurotic man whose neuroses get him into trouble and then out of the same trouble throughout the book, which make the story very entertaining. I think I would really enjoy A Widow In Pearls – sounds like my kind of book!
Thanks Alison! I agree, there is nothing like trouble. And Big Trouble is the best!!
Congrats on your book, Mary! I’m fine with characters making bad decisions as long as they had a reason for doing so. After all, I’m sure all of us have done things that seemed silly in retrospect.
Thanks Marla! There is nothing like the question “What were you thinking?” Which personally I’ve had occasion to hear before. I always have an answer, but not always a good one. The solution I guess is to come up with a stock answer, like, “I did it to save the world.” No one can argue with that.
Hi Mary! Congratulations on A Widow in Pearls. I think the hook sounds marvelous and I would definitely keep reading. Characters can do anything–risky, foolish, impulsive–as long as the writer has the talent to “sell it.”
Thanks Barbara! It was great fun to write.(Other than the times where I was reduced to pulling out my hair.) And yes, the main character does get herself into more jams — not intentionally. She is just trying to do the right thing. Unfortunately, that can involve the ‘crazy.’
I think this is a clever marketing approach on the part of a first-time novelist. Stupid ideas are not new to the cozy genre–that’s why we have amateur sleuths getting into all kinds of trouble. Sometimes I want to reach into the pages and shake this or that woman (usually young, often in a romance she stubbornly botches). But authors rarely publicly recognize these bad ideas, let alone capitalize on them. My hat’s off to Mary Stibal. I’d like to see she handles it, and how it works out.
Hi Judy! Yes, it really was a very bad idea for her to go into the townhouse. But her motivations were strong. And yes, she did know it was crazy, and decided not to do it a couple of times. The problem was that it was something she had to do that night, or it would have been too late. She felt better about going though once she began to think of it as a ‘caper’ rather than a ‘crazy-bad’ idea, so she gritted her teeth and set off.
Thank you for having me as a guest Wickeds!
I”m more willing than some to forgive characters behaving in ways that would normally be stupid. But if they do it too much, it can become annoying.
I agree that ‘stupid’ can be annoying. But if done with strong motivation, it can get the reader engaged. And yes, once should be limit. Any more than that and the protagonist will come off as an idiot.
I do get frustrated when a character does something seemingly stupid. If I like the character, I’m much more forgiving. And I also think to myself, “if they didn’t do that stupid thing, there would be no story!” Thanks for the chance to win!
Hi Autumn: You are spot on — to make this work the reader has to like the protagonist! Otherwise the reader won’t care what happens to her.
Hi Autumn: Stupid can be dicey — But if there is a really good reason (and there is!) then it is more of an insight into her soul rather than a personality defect.
I can handle a “stupid” character if it fits into the storyline and as long as it’s not prevalent in the storyline.
Hi Dianne: You are so right about not overdoing the stupid part. And no, she’s not basically a stupid person — just practical. It was the only thing she could think of to do. So she did it.
Depending on the character I will probably try to find out why she decided to take this particular way. So it would be interesting to see what happens. I know the author is trying something out and as a reader try to figure out the reasoning.
Hi Sherrie:In the book the reasoning is well laid out before she goes into the house. So it makes all kinds of sense, if one ignores the danger. (And there is danger. Which she ignores.)
Thanks for visiting the Wickeds today, Mary! Congrats on your release! I am always up to follow a character regardless of strategy if I find her or him to be engaging and someone I would root for no matter what.
Hi Jessie! I appreciate the congrats. You are so right, the key is to have a protagonist that the reader really cares about.
To me, it depends on how it’s presented. I don’t like when a character does something stupid just for the sake of doing it, but if the author can give them a purpose, a “this is the only way” moment, to help another or bring about justice then I’m all for a little ill-advised adventure. Makes a book exciting.
Yes, stupid just for the sake of it is…stupid! My story falls more into the “this is the only way” camp. A dramatic place to be!!
No, I don’t lose interest. I wish them luck and keep reading.
That’s the key isn’t it Doward — to figure out a way to hold the reader’s interest?
I find it intriguing and I want to just keep on reading! I love books that are intriguing and good page turners, and this book sounds just like that! I love the sound of this book and I think the cover is Beautiful! Thank you for the chance. Thank you so much for sharing about this book.
I appreciate your kind words!
And yes, the cover absolutely ROCKS doesn’t it? My publisher, Level Best Books, really knocked it out of the park didn’t they?.
I’m okay when the MC dies something stupid sometimes, but other times, it drives me crazy. It depends on what they are doing and why. If it’s done correctly, it makes the book more intriguing and I want to find out what happens.
It’s when they just overlook the obvious that I can get annoyed, maybe not the right word, but close. Congratulations on your new book!
Thank you for the congrats Susan! And yes, I knew I had to handle the motivation for my protagonist very carefully. And I admired her for going to the townhouse. At night! To be honest it gave me the shivers just writing about it.
The writing skill and the likability of the characters determined whether or not I stick with a story through uncomfortable situations like breaking into a house that is also a murder scene!
Hi Lisa! My protagonist had a couple of strong motivations for going into the house, even though she knew it was crazy-dangerous-stupid. Mostly though she knew she would regret it for the rest of her life if she didn’t. And that’s the kind of reasoning I can relate to!
I do have minor frustration when characters do something stupid (usually dangerous), but of course I want to know what happens to them. Legallyblonde1961@yahoo.com
Hi Karaleigh! Stupid and dangerous do seem to go hand-in-hand don’t they? To be honest I got goose bumps myself just writing that scene, since it was an anxious mix of nervous and frantic, with every sense on high alert! The good part is — it turned out to be worth it!!!
Doing something stupid happens to all of us. So, in a story, the flaws of a character are revealed slowly and then I can’t wait to find the redeeming qualities. Doing stupid things is an experiment in action that may not be tried again, unless you want the same effect. This also reminds me of locked boxes and the search for the key that when found ups the tension. Looks like a tense journey and of course, the box will be opened and the door opened to another conundrum.
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