Figuring out the Why Dunit

Next year’s Liss MacCrimmon novel has been turned in and accepted and it’s time to start thinking about the next book in the series, the one that will be out in 2014. I’m in the fortunate position, after writing seven books in this series, of being able to get approval of an idea with only a couple of pages worth of proposal. On the downside, that means I don’t have a very clear picture where the new book is going while at the same time I’m already committed to certain elements of the plot, elements that may not be as easy to pull off as I first envisioned.

Nothing like a challenge!

The story involves Liss doing a favor for an old friend and checking out her inheritance, a Christmas tree farm that hasn’t been operated for eight years. What Liss soon discovers is that the place shut down after the former owner was questioned about a murder. Then the owner himself vanished. And now that Liss and Dan are staying in the house on the property, the first ones to occupy it since the mysterious disappearance of “Old Man Snowe,” strange and suspicious things begin to happen again. All that is well and good, but what I neglected to think about before I proposed the idea was the reason all this happened. In other words, I haven’t got a clue who killed that man eight years ago or why. Nor do I know whether Mr. Snowe (no first name yet) disappeared because he had a guilty conscience or because someone killed him, too.

I envy those who can plot out an entire book in advance, deciding early on who dunit and why and setting up other suspects with viable motives. Many writers develop their story scene by scene, paying careful attention to building suspense, where clues will be revealed, and how the character arcs play out. I’ve never been able to do that. I pretty much just start writing. But it really helps to know who the villain is ahead of time, and why he (or she) acted in a certain way. After all, to be an effective foil for the sleuth, the villain has to be well-thought-out and well-rounded, too.

Compounding the problem is the fact that I’ve written too darned many mystery novels and short stories. My villains have poisoned, bludgeoned, and stabbed my victims. They’ve pushed them off cliffs and into pits and down flights of stairs. All these crimes have been committed for believable reasons. Greed. Revenge, Jealousy. Covering up another crime. All those are “good” motives to kill someone. Sometimes simple stupidity works, too. The character doesn’t mean for something to happen, but once it does it starts a downward spiral. Things just get worse and worse. He or she commits more crimes in an effort to escape the consequences of that first foolish action.

Ordinarily, I’d just plunk myself down in front of the computer and start writing. I might end up making discoveries right along with Liss, although usually I’m able to figure things out before she does. Just at the moment, however, we’re busy with our own Christmas tree season here at Mystic Valley Farm. My job is to keep an eye on the dooryard and go out to lend a hand whenever we have more than one customer. This makes retreating to my office and getting involved in writing a scene impossible. From now until just before Christmas, I won’t even try to do any concentrated writing. Instead, I’ll just noodle ideas. And because I was given a new tool at a conference I recently attended, I’m going to try out something called Story Forge cards (

What, you ask, are Story Forge cards? According to the box, these are “88 cards packed with story elements, character archetypes, twists of fate & reversals of fortune.” They come with a 32 page booklet giving instructions on how to lay out the cards to suggest character motivation and backstory, plotlines, and conflicts. Each card can be read two ways, depending on how it is placed in the spread. The user is advised to start with a clear mind and let the cards suggest ideas.

It could work.

I figured the “Character Backstory” would be the most useful. It’s also one of the ones using the highest number of cards. What’s interesting is that the instructions advocate adjusting the results. Turn a card the other way around if it works better that way. And since some of the cards are blank, you can write whatever you want on them. Here’s the  hand I drew and the official interpretation of it.

For card one, information about the character’s mother, I turned up The Trickster: “The Trickster is winning, successfully obfuscating the line between the real and unreal.” Card two, the character’s father, was Alliance. “There is strength in numbers and much comfort to be found in taking on a challenge in concert with one’s most trusted comrades.” Hints of organized crime? Card three, to do with the strength of their relationship, was Compulsion. Card four, an indication of the problems between them, was Wealth. Hmmm. They had to get married (remember that Mom was The Trickster) and then quarreled about money? Card five had to do with the circumstances of the character’s birth. I turned up Demolition: “Though something important is destroyed, the loss clears the way for something new.” Obviously the character’s mother died giving birth. Card six, complications in the backstory, was Despair. That fits. Card seven, the universe’s influence on the character’s nature, was Industry. Apparently my villain is a hard worker who takes satisfaction from a job well done. Card eight, early strengths, was  Sacred: “This person, object, or situation is sanctified by God, pure and holy. Supernatural powers or protection may surround it or come from it.” Okay, that one’s a puzzler! Unless it’s only the character who sees himself this way. Or he’s hearing voices telling him who to kill, as in “the devil made me do it.” Tricky to make that work in a cozy, though. Card nine, the character’s early weaknesses, works a little better. Maybe. I drew Lust. Card ten, the character’s education, is The Counselor, a “Doctor, priest, or shaman, this person is able to heal emotional or psychological illnesses.” Well, that does sort of go with card eight. Card eleven, having to do with belief foundation, is The  Threshold: “Someone is being drawn into other realms, beginning a voyage that largely takes place outside the normal world.” Maybe I should swap that one with card ten! Card twelve, life experience, is Turmoil: “Nothing is still or at rest, all is drowned out in noise and chaotic action. Even if things are going well, they are progressing frenetically.” Card thirteen deals with “a shaping experience in recent times” and I played Red Tape, which is pretty self-explanatory. Trouble with the IRS, maybe? Card fourteen indicates an experience that left scars on the villain. I drew Sanity. I’m thinking I should take the option of turning that around, because the other side of the card is Madness. And  finally, card fifteen represents the character’s situation at the beginning of the story. The card I drew is Misfortune: “Fortune frowns when it is most needed, dealing a crushing blow.”

Did all that help me create the character of a villain to go up against Liss in her 8th adventure? Maybe. I’ll need to think about it some more. Plus I always have the option of shuffling the cards and dealing again.

Beats playing Solitaire while I’m waiting for the next Christmas tree customer to drive in.


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5 Responses to Figuring out the Why Dunit

  1. Joan Emerson says:

    Well, I suppose it was only a matter of time before some author came up with a clever way to sell plotlines and character traits . . . I hope you’ll let us know how this works for you and whether or not you find this process at all helpful as you pen Liss’s next adventure . . . .

  2. Lea Wait says:

    What fun, Kaitlyn! I have to admit that after you showed me the Story Forge cards at Crime Bake I was intrigued enough to order a set for myself. So far I’ve played with them a little … but I’m working on a new book, too (mine’s a book for young people, not a mystery, but a plot’s a plot,) and I’m just waiting for the right moment to test them out seriously. We’ll have to compare notes in a few months on what creative juices they churn up!

  3. Lil Gluckstern says:

    This is charming, and an interesting idea!

  4. Paul Doiron says:

    I guess are there are worse ways to plot a book. Truthfully, though, whatever works. If story cards help then why not?

  5. Fascinating, Kaitlyn… can’t wait to hear if you think the cards truly help spark some good plot ideas.

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