Managing Multiple Viewpoints in a Cozy Mystery
by: Carolyn Rose
One reason I’ve forgotten most of my high school math is that I’ve had to apply so little of it (except for balancing my checkbook, figuring square yardage for carpet, and computing miles per gallon).
But when my husband and I sat down to plot The Big Grabowski, we got a refresher course in the concepts of direct and inverse proportion. With every character we created and tossed into the mix, the plot became more complex and the page count grew. (That’s direct proportion.)
After a few days of brainstorming, it became obvious that this was a book where planning and coordination would be critical to completion. The less work we put in before we got to our keyboards, the more difficult and frustrating the writing process would be. (That’s inverse proportion.) Too much flying by the seats of our collective pants could doom the mission.
So, in addition to the fictional greedy developer we killed off at the beginning of The Big Grabowski, we also sacrificed several hundred index cards. Avid recyclers and the proud owners of two working compost heaps, we didn’t do that without pangs of conscience. But it seemed the only logical way to develop characters and character arcs, keep track of action, and litter the tale with red herrings without getting sidetracked and then stuck in a plotting cul-de-sac.
To allow readers to get to know the suspects better and to give them that smug feeling of knowing things the protagonist didn’t, we created fifteen viewpoint characters in addition to our sleuth. Those fifteen are presented in third persons points of view, while amateur sleuth Molly Donovan speaks in first person. If we’d asked the experts, chances are we would have been warned off, told that we had too many viewpoints, and assured that readers would be confused.
But we didn’t ask. And, in “texting talk,” as we named and developed our characters, we became BFF (Best Friends Forever) with each of them. We found we couldn’t silence a single one, although we did discover that some wouldn’t shut up and others had to be coaxed into talking.
So we forged ahead, using 5x7 index cards to list character attributes—physical descriptions, traits, turns of phrase, and attitudes. 3x5 cards, each labeled with the name of the viewpoint character for that particular scene, listed setting, action, and outcome.
Using the cards allowed us to generate ideas individually and as a team. And, because we knew we’d winnow them later, the sky was the limit when it came to what might happen in the fictional town of Devil’s Harbor, Oregon.
We stashed the 3x5 cards in a plastic recipe box for safekeeping until we felt we’d exhausted our imaginations. Then we laid them out on the dining room table so we could see the big picture.
To my delight, this served two purposes—it allowed us to see all of the events and recognize what was missing, and it made a sit-down dinner impossible. That, in turn, made the process of cooking said dinner pointless. And that made me one happy, dialing-for-take-out, camper.
We laid out the order of scenes for Molly first, then worked the others in around that. By using cards, we were able to recognize when a character hadn’t appeared for a long stretch, or was popping up far too often. We were also able to see where we needed more foundation for specific scenes or where we needed to plant clues and suspicions.
When we had that together, we separated the action into chapters and then created a master calendar, establishing time and date for each scene. That calendar became the roadmap that made the journey less daunting and more manageable.
The calendar enabled us to write from milepost to milepost, scene to scene. Instead of looking ahead hundreds of pages to the final destination—the ending—we were peering down that empty literary road only a few pages at a time. And at the end of that few pages was another character waiting to hitch a ride or, as characters sometimes do around the middle of a book, try to slide behind the wheel and take over.
The system worked so well we used it for the second book in the Devil’s Harbor series (due out in 2010). Last month we went all out, bought cards in a variety of colors, and began plotting a third mystery. We’re not ready to lay those cards down yet, but I’m already collecting take-out menus.
Carolyn J. Rose grew up in
In addition to The Big Grabowski, she has authored two mysteries with her husband, and three on her own. A sequel to The Big Grabowski will be released in 2010 through Krill Press and a mainstream mystery,
To find Carolyn on the 'net, go to:
Krill Press - http://www.krillpress.com
Deadly Duo Mysteries: http://www.deadlyduomysteries.com