By Maureen Milliken
I’m not a fan of April Fools Day. I don’t know if that puts me in the minority or not.
I’ve never liked pranks or jokes that make people look stupid. I also — and this is weird for a mystery fiction writer to say, I know — don’t like things presented as real that aren’t. So those April Fool’s Day spoofs — fake news reports, people who pretend they’re Oprah calling to say she’s picked your book for her show, Candid Camera-type substituting dog poop for the plate of fudge — irritate me.
I’m not sure if that’s because I’m a journalist, or I became a journalist because I prefer grim reality.
I don’t like to read or watch much related to sci-fi, fantasy, time travel, unicorns, supernatural powers, parallel universes (except that one episode of Lost in Space, because evil Don West was kind of sexy), zombies, vampires, wizards, superpowers…well, you get it.
I’d rather watch a well-done documentary about a real-life crime than a movie about a real-life crime. Really good movies about real crimes — Zodiac, In Cold Blood — I love. But I like documentaries more than a movie about something that really happened. Documentaries with re-enactments? Not so much.
That said, I love mystery fiction. I know it’s not reality. I know there are elements of mystery fiction, like the amount of murders in a small town or the newspaper editor helping to solve those murders and being in life-threatening situations, are not reflections of reality.
I love writing mysteries, particularly dealing with my characters and what happens to them. But this whole week as I “finished” my mystery novel No News is Bad News, that little voice in my head kept saying “Are people really going to buy into this is happening after what happened in the last book?”
No News is Bad News is the second in the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Bernie (short for Bernadette) is the 40-something editor of a weekly newspaper in Franklin County, Maine. She has no mad self-defense skills, doesn’t like guns and can’t shoot one well when she is forced to, isn’t a genius in any way shape or form. So she’s more or less “normal.”
Somehow, though, she and the police chief get in these situations…
So that voice that hates non-reality, pranks, unicorns, dog poop fudge and all that other stuff said to me as I joyfully killed people and did all sorts of mean and nasty stuff to my characters, “Really?”
I attributed that voice to plot-tweak overload (a blog subject for another day) and kept writing.
On top of all that is the realization, never more clear than when you’re trying to make a plot work, that everything has to be tied up and explained. What can be less like real life than that?
As a journalist, that’s another thing that’s clear every day. No one will ever really know just what happened to Kim Hill, for instance, the woman who fell/jumped/whatever out of the cab of her boyfriend’s pickup truck on U.S. Route 201 at 2 a.m. on a Sunday a couple weeks ago. Missing Waterville toddler Ayla Reynolds? What would have been her 6th birthday is April 4 and police are no closer to finding out what happened to her than they were when se was reporting missing December 17, 2011.
So, in a mystery series, you can kill off more people in a town than the entire state of Maine does in a year, you can rain all kinds of havoc down on the heads of your “normal” protagonists, mysterious strangers can do all sorts of nefarious things, but you damn well better explain it.
In No News is Bad News I try to play a little with perception versus reality, with what happens when perception and reality clash and how questions get answered in light of that. Don’t worry, I know that makes it seem like something they made you read in college Comparative Literature, but it’s not nearly as heavy as it sounds.
Still, it was a fine line to walk. If there are questions that remain, the possible answers still have to satisfy readers.
I understand that, because even though I am not entertained by all the stuff listed above (no I won’t indulge my need to write dog poop fudge one more time), I rarely question the body count, broken bones, mysterious strangers, or anything else in mystery series. I just enjoy the ride.
Writers will tell you — at least ones who writer the way I do — that writing is a wild ride and you never know where it’s going to take you.
If readers have half as much fun reading my first two books as I did writing, I’ll consider it a triumph and try not to worry too much about the horrific twists and turns of book number three. And that’s no joke.
Maureen Milliken is the author of Cold Hard News, released in 2015, and No News is Bad News, due to be released this summer, the first two books in the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter: @mmilliken47 or on Facebook at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com. Maureen will be at the Lithgow Library in Augusta, Maine, 1-3 p.m., April 14 as part of a Sisters in Crime New England Speakers Bureau panel speaking on “The Modern Heroin.” On April 27, from 6-8 p.m., she will speak at the Belgrade Public Libary, Belgrade, Maine, on “Journalism and Writing.”