Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Why Ever Did You Go Into That Dark Barn Alone?

My advice to anyone about to write a mystery series: don’t (!) Just kidding. But do think twice before you choose an amateur sleuth as a protagonist. As the author of ten mysteries featuring equine veterinarian Gail McCarthy, I’ve become all too aware of the perils of such a choice. Its not a problem when it comes to the first book. No, its quite believable that a poor innocent vet might stumble upon a murder victim. These things happen, you know. Its not even stretching the bounds of credibility too much to think that she might get involved in another such situation in her lifetime. But lets see, how many horse vets do you know that discover a body a year? And would you want such a person to come out on a call to your place?

You see my dilemma. I’m now writing book number eleven in my mystery series, and I’m wracking my brain to come up with yet another way poor Gail can get involved in a murder investigation. Believe me, I’ve tried em all. Stumbling on a body in the course of a vet call, family member caught up in a problem, neighbor murdered, best friend a suspect in a murder investigation, another friend the object of a stalker, horseshoer murdered in Gail’s own barn…etc. Unfortunately, in the end it becomes rather ludicrous, if you take a step back and survey her life. Sort of like the Angela Lansbury character in “Murder She Wrote”. Would you want to invite that lady over for dinner?

Poor Gail. She hasn’t exactly had a quiet life. Besides finding all those bodies and being drawn into all those investigations to help friends and family, she’s been shot at numerous times, warned off by bad guys more often than I can count, tied up, bashed over the head, had to escape on horseback at least once in almost every book, and captured a few nasty villains single-handed. Is this believable, I ask you?

Well, no, its not. However, we who write amateur sleuth mysteries are taking advantage of the conventional suspension of disbelief that is routinely practiced by those who like such stories. Ever since Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, we are allowed to pen these tales of the amateur who becomes involved, over and over again, in murder and mayhem, and incidentally, escapes virtually unscathed every time.

I do think that most writers who begin writing a manuscript about a character (just as I selected Gail, the horse vet, as my protagonist roughly fifteen years ago) don’t give a lot of thought as to how that character will work out over the course of many books. I know I didn’t. I somewhat envy my friend, author Laurie R King, whose two series protagonists are a cop and the wife and partner of the famous Sherlock Holmes. Of course these two women will be involved in numerous murder investigations. Its their business, for heaven’s sake.

But in my own case I must keep stretching the bounds of what’s credible. Not only must my poor horse vet keep finding bodies and enduring a lot of rough and tumble, she also must do things like poking around the dark barn where the murderer is sure to be lurking in the middle of the night, all by herself. Over and over again my editor, or someone who was reading one of my manuscripts, would point out to me that Gail wouldn’t do this, not if she had half a brain. I, of course, would reply that Gail had to do this, in order to get to the thrilling horseback chase scene finale, and after all, she was an amateur sleuth and what’s believable about that, anyway?

The truth is that I work like a dog to come up with reasonably believable reasons why Gail might go down into that dark barn. Since she’s a vet, I frequently give her a call she has to make there. (Though this begs the question of why she wouldn’t take someone with her if she’s a bit suspicious of the owner of said barn.) In my latest book, Chasing Cans, just out this spring, Gail once again traipses into yet another dark barn, innocently unprepared for an ambush, despite the fact that she knows that two women have been victims of suspicious horseback wrecks there recently. I mean, I ask you (!) Yet, in the context of the story, it comes off quite believably (or so I’ve been told). I’ll certainly welcome any input from those of you who have read this book, or any of my other books.

Yes, the perils of writing an amateur sleuth mystery series are a bit greater than they appear as one blithely begins the first manuscript. Do give serious consideration to a private investigator, cop, or any such person who has a reason to be involved in the regular melodramas of life. Medical professionals, arson and insurance investigators…the possibilities are endless (and have all been used before, I know). Anybody have any new ideas? Perhaps I can start another series.

As for the book I’m working on, though, I must once again concoct some believable way for my horse vet to get involved in a drama (and I’ve thought of one, too—I just can’t give it away. After all, I wouldn’t want to spoil the book for anyone.) And since horses are integral to this series, I also need to create some thrilling horseback scenes and quirky equine characters. These characters are the easy part—the horses in my life give me plenty of material. Since I’ve owned and trained horses for over thirty years, and currently own eleven of the critters, you can see that this isn’t a challenge. As for the horseback scenes, well, once again poor Gail doesn’t lead an easy life. The number of times she’s had to gallop flat out to escape a villain on horseback, often bareback, sometimes by the full moon, occasionally through rough country, oh, and did I mention jump a few gates and fences along the way? (Though as a western rider, she doesn’t know anything about jumping.) Well, it boggles the imagination.

At times, it boggles mine, as when I think I can’t come up with even one more thrilling horseback finale. But I always do. And the reason is standing in my corrals, a stone’s throw from the house where I’m typing this blog. I can always bring to mind some exciting moment aboard one of my own horses that I can use as a springboard for yet another wild ride. After all, its not as if I haven’t had a few gallops over the years (not quite as wild as Gail’s adventures, perhaps). In the end, what gives my amateur sleuth some degree of believability (I hope) is that the books are based on real life. Real adventures I’ve had with my own horses are the underpinnings for Gail’s life. It’s the horses that bring my books to life (or so I feel), even as its my real horses that bring magic into my own life.

Here’s horses and the joy they bring us.

Laura Crum

PS—NY Times bestselling author Laurie R King will be posting a guest blog here on equestrianink this Friday, May 2nd, on the subject of quirky equine personalities in her fiction. Don’t miss it!


Margaret said...

I love your Gail McCarthy books. Don't worry, we readers of amateur sleuth books always suspend disbelief. If we didn't, we wouldn't be reading this type of book. I also like police procedurals, P.I. novels, and all kinds of thrillers (legal, political, business, etc.) Whenever necessary, I suspend disbelief. All we readers want, I think, is a believable character and an interesting story. "Chasing Cans" was great! Keep writing.
Margaret F.

Jami Davenport said...

I love your books and have no problem suspending my belief. So don't worry, if you keep writing them, we'll keep reading.

Anonymous said...

Somewhere in the Ameliaa Peabody serie her Egyptian foreman exclaims in dismay "Every year another body Sitt!" So if even the recurring characters see the problem...why shouldn't the writer just go with it?