Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, today writing about conflict. Most people aren’t crazy about encountering conflict in real life. It’s much more pleasant to avoid acrimonious clashes. But in fiction, especially mystery fiction, a plot without conflict is apt to be pretty darned dull.
I was reminded of this truth just recently, when I started work on the rough draft of the fourth Deadly Edits Mystery. I had a sketchy plot in mind, enough to get me started, but as I created the early scenes, in which my protagonist learns of an unexpected inheritance and the conditions she must fulfill to claim it, I realized that things were rolling along much too smoothly. Yes, she had a obstacle to overcome. She’d encountered mysterious elements. She’d even discovered that there was a murder, but it took place many years ago. Overall, not much was happening in the present. The story I was telling was, to be blunt, a little boring.
Since I never plot in detail in advance, this didn’t worry me too much. In fact, I already had an idea about where things would start to get more lively. Unfortunately, that point was not until halfway through the book.
I’m writing a cozy mystery, not a novel of suspense. Even so, it’s never a good idea to wait too long before something exciting or unexpected happens. Readers, especially readers who have already read the first books in a series and want to know what will happen next to the continuing characters, are patient, but not that patient. If I fail to hold their interest, they’ll put the book down. I don’t want to run that risk that they might not pick it up again.
What my plot needed was conflict. The problem was how to get it. I didn’t want my protagonist to alienate other characters by quarreling with them. Even without having worked out all the details, I have in mind a definite progression of discoveries to get me to the heart of the mystery. Then it dawned on me: aside from conflict, what was lacking in this novel was a subplot.
Most mysteries have at least one and often two distinct subplots to keep the action moving along and provide the continuing characters with opportunities to grow and change. Sometimes one of the subplots is a romance, although not necessarily a romance between the amateur sleuth and another character. I already have an inkling of what I’ll use for a romance subplot in this novel, a developing relationship between two secondary characters. What I needed was a second subplot with real possibilities for conflict. Something to liven up the early chapters while allowing the mystery to unravel more slowly.
Here’s how ideas are born. My amateur detective is a freelance editor. I already established, in Crime & Punctuation, the first novel in the series, that before she retired she was a beta reader for a fellow teacher who writes romance novels. At the same time I was noodling ideas for this storyline, having just turned in the third book in the series (A Fatal Fiction, to be published in June 2020), I was listening to the audiobook of a mystery novel (Die for Love by Elizabeth Peters) about a murder at a romance writers’ conference. I’d also just received an email from a reader, complaining because she’d found two typos in my last book. I replied politely, as I usually do to such messages. I get a lot of them. People just love to point out errors. The audiobook and the email together inspired a character who accosts my heroine in the supermarket. She found Mikki’s name on the acknowledgments page of the romance writer’s latest book and erroneously blames Mikki for the typos she found in the novel. As things stand now (this is a work-in-progress, after all), this self-proclaimed “biggest fan” will keep popping up, to the point where it’s necessary for the local police to step in. Mikki will have good reasons to worry about the situation. She won’t be terribly concerned about her own safety, although perhaps she should be, but she will worry that the fan will somehow discover her idol’s secret—the glamorous “Illyria Dubonnet” is as much a fiction as any of her characters. The last thing the real writer wants is to be outed by one of her readers.
At this point, I have no idea how much this subplot with affect the main plot of the book. I’ll find that out as I go along. But no matter how it turns out, dreaming it up has certainly livened up my early chapters. Combined with that long-ago murder, the conflict between Mikki and “Illyria’s biggest fan” looks promising as a way to keep readers turning the pages, although I won’t know for certain if it works until I’ve finished the first draft of the book. And if it’s not enough? No worries. That’s what revisions are for. After all, I still have another seven and a half months before the manuscript is due on my editor’s desk.
With the June 2019 publication of Clause & Effect, Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty books traditionally published. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries and the “Deadly Edits” series as Kaitlyn. As Kathy, her most recent book is a collection of short stories, Different Times, Different Crimes. Her websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com and she maintains a website about women who lived in England between 1485 and 1603 at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women.