Becky Levine: Poirot, Marple, and Aliens
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.
Yes! That’s the difference between a detective detecting because that’s their job and one detecting because they HAVE to, emotionally. This is kind of up there with Poirot’s “offense” motivation, I think. Lawrence Block’s burglar series uses the same premise–the burglar who just loves doing it. If you’ve ever read one of the scenes where Bernie first steps into someone’s apartment, you totally believe his pull toward being a burglar. I think you could make this work with a police officer, but still–for each novel in the series, there has to be another specific reason they get involoved!
Kim, can’t wait to see you! We can always get rid of that carnation! 🙂
I’m not sure why this seems to fit this discussion on motivation, but I couldn’t resist quoting Willie Sutton’s reputed response when he was asked why he robbed banks: “Because that’s where the money is.”
Except first I did a Google search and found out he didn’t actually say that. He claimed a reporter made it up. In his book, “Where the Money Was: The Memoirs of a Bank Robber,” Sutton wrote:
“Why did I rob banks? Because I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life. I enjoyed everything about it so much that one or two weeks later I’d be out looking for the next job. But to me the money was the chips, that’s all.”
Not as witty, but it makes him a more complex and interesting character.
Becky- Nice post!
I’ll introduce you to Dave on Saturday, but only if he isn’t wearing a carnation.
Can’t wait to meet you in person!
Those name tags will definitely help!
I’ll be easy to spot, Becky. I’ll be the mysterious dark stranger with the white carnation in his lapel. Oh … and a name tag.
Ha Ha Ha. Where can I get one of those happy faces with the tongue sticking out?! 🙂
Becky – Just start talking to the pilot about DNA. I guarantee he’ll let you off the plane. He probably won’t even stop to do it, either. 🙂
Oh, good–one person in the audience! 🙂 When you get there, come up and say hi, so I’ll know who you are.
Joyce, you HAD to add Pittsburgh after I just printed out all my maps & directions. (I am seriously navigationally challenged.) Oh, well, the pilot probably wouldn’t stop the plane for me anyway. 🙂
I’ll be there, Becky. I’ll be sure to catch that lecture. Sounds fascinating. See you there.
Anyone who is going to the Mad Anthony conference should take a detour through Pittsburgh on Monday. Monday is the annual Festival of Mystery sponsored by the Mystery Lovers Bookshop (www.mysterylovers.com). It’s a chance to meet and talk with over 50 mystery authors. It’s lots of fun!
I think I’m supposed to say hi to you in a couple of days–at the Mad Anthony conference! It should be fun. 🙂
Yes, authors do get tangled up in all the directions they have to go. That’s where weaving the story lines together gets so important. One of the things I’m going to talk about at the conference is the important of strong scene goals–not only do they give a scene structure, they do help the author stay more on track with what there hero should be doing at any given point.
Great blog, Becky. That’s the good thing about fiction, a story can take any direction it wants. The good thing about obstacles is that they can send you story in another direction.
But, do you find that some authors get bogged down in “other directions,” to the point that the story gets confusing?
When you get that alien-thriller finished, let me know. My son will DEFINITELY want to read it! 🙂
When I was a child, I wanted to write like Phyllis A. Whitney (who, sadly, just passed away at 103!). She wrote the best mysteries for girls. Now, my goal is to write anywhere near AS WELL.
The unique part, I think, is making it YOUR story. We all have that ability, if we put in the time and the work.
WAY more than cogent! This is one of the writer’s most important jobs. Sometimes, I think we spend too much time trying to find two threads that are related, though. I believe (such faith!) that a writer can do anything, including weaving together a personal goal and a mystery goal that seemingly have nothing to do with each other. In many ways, writing is about extremes–bringing disparate elements into a cohesive whole works with that!
Maybe, as my son would surely suggest, you throw in a space alien or two!
Note to self: consider putting space alien in thriller. lol
Great advice, Becky, especially talking about what the greats like Christie could get away with, but now it’s a whole differerent ball game – you’ve got to have something about your book that’s unique.
Thinking over my favorite mystery writers, which includes Dame Agatha, it seems to me that to weave the two parts tightly requires that they actually be related in some way – maybe indirectly, but so that neither part is totally complete without the other.
Does this seem like a cogent observation?
Yes, sometimes having the personal quest does help writers come up with conflict. Sometimes, I even get so caught up in that journey, I forget about that silly mystery one. Then its back to the drawing board.
One of the things I see when I edit/critique is the two paths treated too separately–the writer deals with the personal goal for a while, then switches over to the mystery goal, then back, and so on. The tricky part is to get both paths weaving together tightly and at a fast pace!
Oh, yeah, the obstacles are biggies, but a necessity. The only way I can even start to come up with enough is to get really focused on my hero’s specific goal right at that moment. Then I start playing with what could get in his/her way.
I have one writer friend, Beth Proudfoot, who can come up with a zillion “bad things” at the drop of a hat. She’s wonderful for brainstorming with!
Claire & Carla–
It seems to me you guys have some great characters right there. I love the guy who thinks first about overtime. You could so turn this into either a flaw or a strength–whininess or determination to work, no matter what someone else would say about too-long hours…
For me, it’s just plain easier to write a mystery/crime/suspense when the protagonist has a personal stake in it. Built-in conflict. That’s something I learned pretty fast back in my romantic suspense days.
Hey, everybody–we’re JUST up out here in California. I wanted to say a quick “hi,” I’ll check back in after I get my son off to school and pour some caffeine into me!
Great advice, Becky!
I think one of the hardest things to do for most writers is to keep putting those obstacles up for our protagonists. (Sometimes it feels like I’m torturing a friend!) But we have to do it.
As for overtime–if cops were paid what they’re worth in the first place, they wouldn’t have to squeeze in as much overtime as they can to make a living wage.
I agree with Clair. A detective came to visit my RWA chapter and someone asked what was the first thing he considered when investigating a crime scene. His answer was, “How much overtime is this going to generate?” (So much for noble causes.) I suppose it varies by detective, but that was this one’s answer.
Thank you, Becky, and Lee, for sharing her with us!
Good advice! And I’ll throw in here that just because it’s someone’s job (or otherwise expected of them) does NOT mean that they will work very hard at it or make that EXTRA push past any obstacle. (Think of your average friendly McDonald’s employee…)