Thursday, April 10, 2014

Kill Thoughtfully

By Elaine Viets   

    In my first mystery, “Backstab,” I had a character named Lee the Rehabber. I killed him. In fact, in that book I slaughtered folks like a serial killer on a rampage.
    Then I had to write the second book in the series. That’s when I discovered I needed Lee again. He was smart, funny and city savvy.
    Too bad he was dead. Not only dead but autopsied. I had to come up with another character, and he wasn’t as good as Lee.  
    That taught me a lesson about writing a series – kill wisely and with restraint.
    I also learned not to nail down the family details. In my Dead-End Job series, Helen’s father is dead. She has a disapproving mother and a younger sister. But how many uncles, aunts and cousins does she have?
    I’m not sure. I just finished my 13th Dead-End Job mystery and I may need a long-lost relative.

    One of my friends discovered she had a half sister. Her mother – a homemaker –  confessed that she’d had an unwanted teenage pregnancy and given the baby up for adoption. Forty years later, Mom broke the news to her bewildered daughter. My friend went to meet her half-sister at her mother’s insistence. She decided the woman was nice enough, but the only thing they have in common is DNA. They may exchange Christmas cards, but they’re not going to be best pals.

    I tucked away that tidbit for future reference.
    I was equally vague with Phil Sagemont’s past. He’s Helen’s PI husband, and he has an ex-wife named Kendra, but that’s all we know about him. Phil’s extended family could be useful for future mysteries.
    I was really glad I never made up my mind whether Margery Flax, Helen and Phil’s seventy-six year old landlady at the Coronado Tropic Apartments, was married or divorced and if her husband was dead or alive. Helen and Phil weren’t sure either. The two private eyes noticed Margery never displayed any photos of her husband, but felt they had no right to investigate a friend.
    Good thing I kept Margery’s marital status vague. In “Catnapped!,” my 13th Dead-End Job mystery, Margery’s husband walks back into her life. Here’s the scene.

    Helen and Phil barely passed the umbrella table when an older man appeared at the back gate. He didn’t walk up. He seemed to materialize.
Helen stared at him. He was Margery’s match in every way: dramatically handsome with an unconventional edge. Six feet tall, slender, with broad shoulders and thick hair like fine white silk. Blue eyes. So blue Helen could see the color from this distance. He wore Florida dressy casual: crisp, blue fitted shirt, rolled at the forearms, white linen slacks and boat shoes.
    His bouquet of purple flowers belonged in an Impressionist painting.
    “Margery!” he said, striding toward her with the flowers. “Margery, my darling, I’m back.” He knelt at her feet.
    Margery jumped back as if she’d been attacked, and knocked over her chair. Her lit cigarette rolled across the concrete. “You!” she said. Her eyes were fierce with rage.
    “I love you, Margery,” he said. “I always have. I know purple is your favorite color and brought you these.” He held out the bouquet. Helen could see velvety lavender roses, pale fragrant lilacs and star-shaped asters.
    “I don’t want your damned flowers, Zach!” Margery said. She hit him in the face with the heavy bouquet.
    “Get out!” she said. “Get out and don’t come back!”


    But Zach does come back, until he’s murdered and Margery is jailed for killing him. The man’s definitely dead. But this time, I’d killed thoughtfully.

Check out the book trailer for “Catnapped!” here

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  1. Sounds like Helen and Phil are going to have their hands full! Cannot wait to read it!

    1. And I can't wait until CATNAPPED! is out, William. Folks, William is one of the good guys, a PI who tracks down children's predators and a mystery writer. Highly recommend his short stories.

  2. The book I'm finishing writing deals with my sleuth's husband and his long-lost cousins. These unknown relatives or secret babies can come in handy.

  3. I come from a large Catholic family, Nancy, so long lost relatives are highly probable.

  4. Elaine, how do you keep track of the family histories of all your characters? Do you have a spreadsheet or do you just keep all that in your head?

  5. I have notes on each character about eye color, hair, family history, cars, children's etc.
    but after 22 books, it's confusing, Eric. I felt better when I found out Charlaine Harris needed help organizing all the characters for her Sookie Stackhouse series.
    Don't follow our example. Start it right, from the first novel.

  6. The other side of killing off an important character is the new character who laments his lose or even better wants revenge. How about a twin that looks like the original but is __________.

    1. The evil twin. Good one, Brian. And now that twins are increasingly more common, a more believable device, too.

  7. Oh man...this is so important, what baggage and relatives you give your character. Especially if, like Elaine's Helen and my own guy Louis, they are luck enough to have a life after just one book. In Louis's second book, he takes in a stray cat. It was a nice the moment. Now he's still dragging that cat around in book 13. I think the cat is now pushing 30. Just kidding. But barely.

  8. Pets are even more dangerous than relatives, PJ, and can slow down the plot. Even a so-called easy care cat has to be fed, watered and have the little box cleaned. Pets add major complications.
    I like how Janet Evanovich handles her pet, a hamster, in her mysteries.

  9. I may have to assess which relatives/friends to save in my stories.

    1. It's even more fun to figure out which ones to kill. Imagine them all at Thanksgiving dinner. That helps.

  10. There's a wise saying in romance writing, "Never waste a perfectly good hunk." In other words, don't have the hero's best friend die because readers may want him as the hero in the next book. The saying fits most other genres with series.

  11. So true. And that's waste in all senses of the word for mystery writers.