Whose Mystery: Our Characters’ or Ours?

“Who done it?” Why do we get so caught up in solving mysteries? I have several readers—whose names I shall not divulge—who regularly e-mail me demanding to know who killed Chris, and whether she’s really dead, and when the crime will be solved! And I thought I was the only one who couldn’t sleep at night wondering about the characters of Milford-Haven!

My accomplished friend Margaret Coel  has equally marvelous stories about the obsessive nature of readers and how involved they become with her characters. At our event last weekend, she recounted some of the “helpful suggestions” she receives regarding her two protagonists, and how their life-dilemmas might be solved. We loved hearing our audience laugh, and appreciated so much their warm reception. And it was a thrill to share the spotlight with Margaret, a writer I admire so much.

What are some of the key elements that make a mystery work? For both Margaret and me, it always starts with characters. In Margaret’s Wind River Mysteries, Arapahoe lawyer Vicki Holden can never resist helping her people, nor can her friend Father John O’Malley. In my Milford-Haven Novels, I begin the series not with a sleuth, but with the strong, vibrant broadcast journalist Christine Christian.

During my recent blog tour, I had the honor of being hosted on the terrific blog The Lady Killers—run by a group of highly skilled women who specialize in mystery. If my guest shot was going to work, I had to come up with something challenging enough for this savvy group. So I went back to my character Chris. She’s smart. How does she manage to get into such serious trouble? (To find out, read the Prologue of What the Heart Knows. . . .)

“When Smart Characters Do Stupid. Things” That was the title of my blog post. You know the kind of moment I’m talking about. It’s when you want to shout out loud at the character, “Don’t go over there!” You know she’s about to do something stupid. How come she doesn’t know? Well, this is what my character Chris taught me. She taught me that listening to her head wasn’t enough to protect her. Because what was the one thing she failed to do? She failed to listen to her heart. Really? It’s that simple? Well, let’s say it’s that profound. Listening to your heart—your instinct, your intuition—can not only keep you on track in life, it can actually save your life. True, this is a literary device. But it’s also a metaphor. And that’s what a good mystery is all about: the thrill of a difficult case and the satisfaction of solving it.

What keeps authors like Margaret and me returning book after book to the same characters? We’re not the only writers to admit that sometimes it doesn’t feel as though we’re making these characters up; it feels more like we’re taking dictation as they tell us what they’re up to. Perhaps what’s really going on is that with our research into history, place, and human nature, we’ve dug deep enough over the years to have found veins of gold. And every time we bring the ore to the surface, we get confirmation that we’ve found something of true value.

Interesting characters have issues—deep-seated fears; battle scars; unrecognized childhood imprints; thwarted dreams; delayed ambitions; and at least a few moments of glory. As we work through these issues in our characters, we’re also working through them in ourselves. And though we use our heads to map our outlines and organize our chapters, the sudden insights that make a manuscript sing come from our hearts.

Indeed the gold in a character must be separated from the dross, and that happens in the initial sifting of rough drafts, and ultimately in the refining editorial fires. And it’s not only the fictional characters who are thus improved. It’s the author. Maybe that’s the greatest mystery of all—that by giving ourselves to our art, our art gives us the keys that unlock our deepest mysteries.

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