A MODERN MYSTERY WRITER’S DILEMMA
I never meant to be a mystery writer. A Slippery Slope, the first in the Sarah McKinney series, was sired by Procrastination out of Laziness. I avoided the daunting task of extensively rewriting the draft of a World War 2 novel by undertaking what I thought would be a “fun” and “easy” project. Ha!
It was fun, especially when I realized the lifelong dream of seeing my book in print. Very soon, the inspiration for a sequel came to me; then, after two more years, I published the third Sarah McKinney mystery. I had written a series!
But I didn’t think this through—unlike Sue Grafton, who published 25 novels in the Alphabet Mystery Series between 1982 and 2016. Grafton died in December, 2017. As her daughter said in the death announcement, “The alphabet now ends at Y.”
Grafton’s novels have increased in complexity over the years, with a variety of plotlines and a multiplicity of characters, interspersed with descriptions of private investigator Kinsey Milhone’s now-familiar living arrangements, and references to her previous adventures. Grafton weaves all these elements gracefully together to reach a satisfying conclusion every time.
But what strikes me is the narrowly-circumscribed timeframe and setting in which the novels take place. Although published over 35 years, they span a mere six years in Kinsey Milhone’s life from age 32 to 38. Almost all the action takes place in Santa Teresa (a thinly-disguised Santa Barbara) or neighboring burgs.
Confining the stories to the 1980’s enabled the author to avoid the trappings of the Information Age: rapid DNA results, universal GPS tracking, instant messaging, and the ability to “just Google that.” Kinsey must rely on old-fashioned sleuthing: prolonged surveillance hunkered down in her Ford Mustang; hand-written notes on index cards; hours in the library searching through street directories. All this permits a pace that builds tension gradually, extending the reader’s enjoyment over 300 pages.
In my Sarah McKinney mysteries set in the current day, I’ve dodged the expectation for instant gratification of a TV-schooled reader by variously isolating my heroine on the high seas, imprisoning her in an underground dungeon, or losing her in a blizzard. Inevitably, she is separated from her smart phone, or in a “no service” area, or out of charge, and there’s a power cut. Sarah is not a police detective with access to crime scene scientists. She’s not even a private investigator, although her journalist boyfriend Dykstra uses similar investigative methods. She just falls repeatedly into dangerous situations where a combination of stubbornness and intuition lead her to rescue and resolution.
I can’t go on like this. Much as I love the mystery genre, and enjoy creating engaging characters in interesting settings, I’m stumped on how to construct a convincing plot and sustain it for the length of another novel without the tech-savvy reader throwing up their hands. So, at least until she masters time travel into the past, Sarah is on hiatus.
Instead, I’m working on a collection of stories set in Britain. They are loosely based on family anecdotes, and the most recent setting is the nineteen-fifties. No internet or email, just intriguing narratives with characters that I hope will speak across the years to a modern audience.
The first of these, centered on my grandfather’s longing to emigrate to Canada in 1912, will be published in September in an anthology called So Much Depends Upon . . . Watch this space for further details.
And my World War 2 novel? The manuscript still reproaches me every time I open that drawer. Maybe, when Sarah masters time travel . . .