Monday, April 3, 2017

I Didn't Want to Write a Mystery: Guest post by Michelle Cox

Michelle Cox is the author of the Henrietta and Inspector Howard series. The second novel in the series, A Ring of Truth (April 4, 2017, She Writes Press) is releasing a year after the release of A Girl Like You. Cox is the winner of the 2016 Beverly Hills Book Award and finalist in the 2016 USA Best Book Awards, Next Generation Indies and Chanticleer Mystery and Mayhem Awards.

Michelle Cox:
I Didn’t Want to Write a Mystery . . . 

I’ll admit it. Writing a mystery was not my first inclination when I decided to try my hand at a novel.

Originally I wanted to write a straight-up historical fiction piece based on the story of a woman I had met in a nursing home a couple of decades ago. At the time, I was the nursing home’s admissions director turned social worker, and one of my jobs was to collect stories. They were supposed to be only a paragraph or so, the basic facts of a person’s life, but I couldn’t help but expand them, taking my own notes and often spending several weeks with just one person, talking and listening and asking.

 One woman—I’ll call her Adelaide for now—took a particular shine to me after our lengthy interviews were over and would follow me about the home, often reminding me in a querulous voice that once upon a time, she had had “a man-stopping body and a personality to go with it!” It made me smile every time I heard it, imagining her as a buxom, auburn-haired young woman making her way in the 1930’s Chicago. Even then I could see this story had potential.

So when I did start writing my novel, A Girl Like You, almost 25 years later, I naturally turned to Adeline’s story and began to borrow many of the details: her exquisite beauty, her long string of strange jobs in Depression-era Chicago, her family history, the neighborhood boy that followed her around town to protect her, and even the gang of lesbians who befriended her at a burlesque theater. I put all of these real-life elements into the book and out of them sculpted my heroine, Henrietta Von Harmon, and a few other characters to boot.

But while it’s all fine and good to have great characters sketched out, they need a plot to drive them. And while a mystery was not what I had set out to write, it occurred to me that said genre would provide the perfect vehicle for the characters to have something tangible to do—solve a mystery! And as I examined my early outlines, I had to admit that I already had all the makings of a great thriller: a young, innocent girl trying to make her way in the Depression-era Chicago; a string of strange, seedy jobs; a burlesque theater; a neighborhood stalker.

All I needed was to add a few essential details:

The crime: Murder? Naturally. The dance hall matron obliged.

The suspects: The disgruntled band members? The foxy bartender? The creepy owner of the burlesque theater?

The motive: Blackmail? Robbery? Prostitution?

Check, check and check. Yes . . . these could work, I thought, rubbing my hands together with an evil grin.

But even as I was beginning to plot, I realized that something else was lacking . . . like a love interest, let’s say. And as Adelaide had not revealed this part of her life to me despite my questioning (another mystery?), I needed to invent one for poor Henrietta. Should it be the neighbor boy? Or someone older and more mature, like, say, the Detective Inspector? Yes . . . that could be interesting, couldn’t it? The older aloof detective who perhaps has some other interest in Henrietta beyond that of solving the case. Just what exactly are his motives, anyway? This could prove suspenseful in and of itself, I deliciously realized.

So I decided to proceed, structuring the story as a mystery but garnishing and gilding it with historical details, fitting the pieces together like a big jigsaw within a frame. It was intriguing (and dare I say, fun?) to rearrange them until I made them fit just right, shockingly discovering who the killer was along the way.

As I began to write the scenes in earnest, breathing life into the characters as they sifted through the clues and red herrings I cleverly (I’d like to think) sprinkled throughout the book, they became almost as real to me as the original Adelaide. I felt like I was stepping into their world with them and delighted in seeing Chicago in the 1930’s through their eyes—the smoky, corner bar where Henrietta works as a 26-girl, the grimy dance hall filled with taxi-dancers and lonely men, or even the church festival where Henrietta stumbles upon one of the suspects.

In fact, the characters became so real that I couldn’t bear to leave them, and I quickly deduced that the only way to stay with them would be to write them into a series. Hence, A Ring of Truth was born, in which Henrietta and the Inspector’s story continues to twist and turn around a whole new mysterious event, the loss of a servant’s ring on an estate on Chicago’s wealthy North Shore.

And so, as I typed “the end” on one story and feverishly began the next, I happily reflected that I had somehow managed to write both a historical fiction piece as well as a mystery and hoped that my readers would enjoy unraveling it as much as I enjoyed weaving it together. I also hoped that Adelaide, wherever she had gone to from this world, felt that I had done justice to her stranger-than-fiction story, giving her a slice of immortality in the process. Naturally, it was a woman with “a man-stopping body and a personality to go with it” could reasonably expect.

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