Becky Levine is a writer, freelance manuscript editor, and book reviewer. Her first children’s mystery is currently doing the agent hunt, and she is the co-author, with Lee Lofland (yes, that Lee Lofland) of The Everything Kids I Want to Be a Police Officer Book, for Adams Media. As an editor, Becky helps other writers with their projects, critiquing and copyediting both fiction and nonfiction works. Becky lives in California’s Santa Cruz mountains with her husband and son. You can read more about her at her website, http://www.beckylevine.com/, and her blog, http://beckylevine.livejournal.com/.
“I…do not approve of murder,” says Hercule Poirot.
In that one line, you have Poirot’s motive, his reason for investigating and solving any murder that comes his way. Yes, he was a police officer, and he is now a private detective, but his real reason for catching killers is that they offend him.
For Agatha Christie, and for her hundreds of thousands of readers, that has always been enough. We don’t need anything else; murder is Poirot’s, and Miss Marple’s, job, and we’ll follow them through any number of pages with pleasure.
So, of course, what works for Christie can work for us, right? Wrong. First, Christie was a genius. Most of us aren’t. Second, she started producing books over fifty years ago, gathering her first fans from a very different set of readers than the ones we’re writing for.
Today’s readers and, I’m guessing, today’s agents and editors, want a stronger motive for crime-solving than an abstract sense of justice. They want a specific reason why a detective gets involved in a case.
Okay, let’s back up a minute. I can hear you now. “I’m not writing about an amateur detective. My protagonist is a police detective. She has to solve crimes.”
Sure she does. She’s collecting a salary, she’s wearing a badge–when her boss says to go investigate, she goes.
It’s not enough.
These days, your readers want a second story thread. They want a detective, whether he’s a professional or the curious boy next door, to have a concrete, personal motive for stepping in. They want the detective to have something at stake.
So what do you do? Well, there are the standards: The victim is a personal friend of the detective. The detective’s brother is the primary suspect. There’s a child involved. And you can use these. I firmly believe there are few, if any, new plots, but the most familiar plot can be made new by individual details and captivating specifics.
Why not push yourself, though? Sure, it’s possible every idea has been used once, but you haven’t read them all. Go for something you haven’t seen on another page, a problem you haven’t watched a hundred times on the big screen. Maybe the murder was committed with an historical artifact that was stolen from a museum where your detective is the guard. Maybe the killer left a “treasure” map leading to another body, and the “X” is marked on your detective’s great-grandmother’s farm.
Maybe your detective’s prime suspect is her own chief-of-police, and she wants to be the one to a) prove him innocent or b) hang his badge from the nearest yardarm. Maybe, as my son would surely suggest, you throw in a space alien or two!
Just make sure you pick something. Set up your hero with a strong, solid goal, one that is his alone, and help him pursue it. Throw up obstacle after obstacle, so he’s tested, and give him the tools to push through all the barriers and get there in the end. Weave this personal thread in with the professional, mystery-solving one, and you’ll keep your reader hooked. He’ll read the book cover to cover and, when the story is finished, he’ll get to see your detective solve the crime.
Does that detective solve her personal problem, too? That’s up to you. Maybe it’s time to write that sequel!
Comment away-I’ll be checking in all day and will get back to you. For more thoughts on writing, books, and life, check out my blog at http://beckylevine.livejournal.com/. Come on over this week, and enter my first blog contest http://beckylevine.livejournal.com/37253.html: a chance to win a signed copy of Terri Thayer’s mystery, Wild Goose Chase.