by Scott D. Parker
It's funny how various things show up at around the same time.
I'm reading the February book from Murder by the Book's Cozy Corner, MURDER AT THE BEACON BAKESHOP by Darci Hannah. It is the kind of book I expected when I thought of cozy mysteries: a woman discovers her cheating fiancee, leaves her cushy New York financial job, moves to Michigan, buys a lighthouse, and opens a bakery in a small town.
The story is good and there is a lot of talk about the buying of things needed for the bakeshop, the meeting of the side characters, the preparing for opening day, and things like that. But there was a thought in the back of my mind: this is a mystery, right? Isn't there supposed to be a murder?
There is, of course, and it came more or less around the two-hour mark (I also checked out the audiobook from the library and listen to it when I'm doing home things and return to the physical book at night). I remember frowning. The murder didn't take place until the one-quarter mark? That's interesting, especially in light of the seeming penchant for modern novels to kill off a character really quickly, usually in chapter one.
Compare that with your average Perry Mason TV episode. After I read a great article about the joy of Perry Mason, I ended up watching a few. Instead of laboriously reading all the descriptions over the nine seasons and the twenty-five plus episodes per season, I let the random number generator help me. It spit out a random number between one and nine to get the season, and then another random number between one and thirty to get the episode number. And I didn't even read the description. I just let the chosen episode play.
I watched three Perry Mason episodes this past week, all from the latter part of the series. In each, Perry barely, if at all, showed up in the beginning. Instead, we get what amounts to a twenty-minute build-up to the murder with all of the new characters. Only after the murder occurred does Perry swoop in and defend the accused. Heck, these episodes don't even bother with the hiring process. It's just a fade-in to the courtroom.
So, by reading this one book and watching a trio of Perry Mason episodes, I discovered something new to me: the murder doesn't have to occur on page/chapter one. It's perfectly acceptable to introduce the characters and show their interactions before things get dire. In fact, in some styles of books, it might even be preferred.
All of this played into my current manuscript. I reached a natural stopping point and I printed it out. I gave it to a pair of early readers and asked them to read strictly for flow. It seemed like the story was flowing well, but the exciting parts, while the legwork was being built, were still a little bit in the future. Did the slow build work?
One of the early readers came back with a question: where was the next chapter? "Not written yet," was my reply. Well, get to it then was her last remark. She enjoyed the story so far and she understood the flow. We talked over my outline and I realized many of the next few scenes really didn't have to occur on screen. My main character--and reader--can experience those scenes from afar.
It was a huge boost of confidence for the manuscript and a coincidental bit of learning from Perry Mason and Darci Hannah. A new wrinkle in my ongoing and never-ending writer's education.
What about y'all? Do you hold off killing off characters until deeper into the book or do you have them early in the book?
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