The Ups and Downs of Living with an In-House Expert

When I first began to write contemporary mystery novels, I figured that I had a big advantage when it came to research—a husband who worked in law enforcement. He had been a deputy sheriff, working first at the county jail in corrections and then on patrol, and then had taken a job as a probation/parole officer for the state. He’s retired since but, with that background, he continues to be a great resource. He can answer my questions on the spot, saving me valuable time. I can toss around plot ideas with him and he can tell me if what I have in mind will work or not. And he has always been my first reader, his primary mission to catch any law-enforcement-related bloopers that might have crept into my manuscript. He also spots typos and continuity problems and gives me feedback on the story as a whole.

For eight books in the Liss MacCrimmon Scottish-American Heritage Mystery Series, including the WIP, he has done all those things . . . and more. It’s the “and more” part that is sometimes disconcerting. He wants me to get it right. I appreciate that. But the part about saving me time—that doesn’t always work out.

Take, for example, the fourth book in the series, The Corpse Wore Tartan. In that one I stranded a number of people at a luxury hotel in the middle of a snow storm. There’s a murder. In Maine, where the series is set, murders are investigated by the state police, but the state police can’t get to the hotel because of the storm. On the spot because of an earlier report of a robbery, is Sherri Willett, my amateur sleuth’s sidekick. At this point in the series, she’s a local, small-town police officer in her first year on the job. I figured this would give her (and me) some leeway. Sherri could be excused for not getting everything exactly right.

I wrote the book, throwing various complications at my characters, including what to do with the body, which would have to be preserved until the proper authorities finally arrive on the scene . . . a couple of days, at the least. This is a major blizzard. Power is out. Phones are out, both cell and land lines. Police radios aren’t working, either. There is a generator, but it only keeps the basics going. The corpse goes into a walk-in freezer.

Then my in-house expert read the manuscript. I could see him shaking his head. He didn’t say anything for awhile. He’s a sensitive guy, plus he knows I tend to get defensive about my writing at this stage in the process. After all, I’ve just spent six to nine months, on and off, creating this plot and these characters. In the end, though, honesty won out. He informed me that if Sherri handled the murder the way I’d written it, she’d be fired for incompetance. Ooops. If she loses her job, there goes my sleuth’s “in” with the police.

After the ritual automatic protest on my part, I had to admit that what he said made sense. Unfortunately, correcting the problem involved a major rewrite. Fortunately, I build time into my writing schedule for my manuscripts to “cool” after each draft and even though the real deadline was fast approaching, I had time to fix things.

I bit the bullet, took the plunge, and three weeks later I had a new version of the book. A better version. One that wouldn’t have people who know something about real police investigations gnashing their teeth as they read or, worse, tossing my book across the room. Once again, the in-house expert came through for me.

Now he’s done it again.

This time the book is number eight in the series, the one set on a Christmas tree farm. He did double duty, also serving as in-house expert on the Christmas tree business. To my great relief, he had no problem with the tree farm details or the villain’s motive or the plot in general. He did suggest that I expand the scene where I resolve a subplot. No problem there. On the negative side, he spotted a place where, once again, Sherri is about to put her job (she’s chief of police these days) in jeopardy by using police resources for personal matter, but he also suggested a way around the problem. Whew!

“Anything else?” I asked, crossing my fingers.

He hemmed and hawed and finally spit it out: “The book is kind of dark.”

“What do you mean dark?” I asked, immediately on the defensive. Dark is not good. I write humorous mysteries.

I’ll spare you the entire dialogue. The upshot is that, unlike previous entries in the series, comic relief is in short supply in this one. It usually comes from judicious use of eccentric characters combined with character humor of the gentler sort—the quirks and foibles all of us are prone to. There are eccentic individuals in this one, but none of them do anything to lighten the mood.

So how do I fix a problem like that? Right now, I haven’t the slightest idea. The manuscript needs another few weeks of “rest” before I sit down to reread and revise. I’ll do that a bit earlier than I’d originally intended. When I do, you’d better believe I’ll be looking for subtle ways to perk things up.

After careful consideration, however, I plan to keep the husband just the way he is.


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4 Responses to The Ups and Downs of Living with an In-House Expert

  1. Lea Wait says:

    Bravo for Sandy! And loving this post – especially after a trying week in which I basically tossed the first 100 pages of my work in progress because I felt in my gut it was (dare I say) BORING – not enough action – not enough at stake – and I was at my wits end. It was my husband (and, like your Sandy) first reader, who, crushingly, agreed – but — brilliantly — after letting me vent and talk through the characters on my stage – came up with what I think (hope!) will be the perfect solution. So — sending positive vibes across the state, Kaitlyn — and cheers for involved husbands! Not — all WE have to do is write those @#$## improved books!

  2. Lea–thank goodness for supportive spouses indeed, especially those who offer helpful suggestions. I’m sending good thoughts right back at you. I have no doubt at all that we’ll both come up with new and improved versions of our books well before deadline. But wouldn’t it be nice if, just once, to sit down and write a novel from start to finish and get it right the first time? In my case, I figure that will happen about the same time the house-cleaning elves show up to wash my floors and windows.

  3. Send the elves down to me when they’re done with your house Kaitlyn. Love this post! I’m in the writers with supportive husbands club too, though mine knows nothing about law enforcement:). Oddly enough, I’m thinking my latest is a little darker too–but it comes from following the characters and telling the truth about what led to the murder. I hope my editor sees things the same way:)

    • Thanks, Lucy. And good point. The continuing characters are supposed to mature, at least a little, as a series goes on. And in this case, there’s even a long time gap between the end of this year’s book (Vampires, Bones, and Treacle Scones–in stores the end of July) and the beginning of the Christmas tree farm book. Still, a little comic relief couldn’t hurt. I’m thinking it doesn’t have to be anything big. In VB&TS it’s (mostly) a teenager who deliberately uses malapropisms.

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