by Oline H. Cogdill
Now is the time of year when we make resolution after resolution for the New Year.
These promises we make to ourselves sometimes survive, and oftentimes do not. That vow to lose weight often comes up against the most perfect chocolate chip cookie…and sometimes has to give. My money is on the cookie every time.
So I would offer a few New Year’s resolutions for authors. Little bits of business that I would like to never see in a mystery novel again.
I am not saying that novels that include these situations are bad—but so many times these actions have become clichés. Our writers can do better.
And in no particular order:
A cup of joe: Sure, most people drink coffee. I didn’t start drinking coffee until about 10 years ago and now I am up to two cups a day. But too many times I have seen an author use a character’s act of pouring coffee, adding cream and sugar as a bit to give the character something to do during a conversation. I remember one novel in which the lead character must have drunk a cup of coffee per page. I kept wondering, how can he/or she solve the case with a case of caffeine jitters.
I couldn’t eat another bite: Here’s the scenario. Character A and character B are having a meal and they have just ordered a huge—often expensive—breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Words are exchanged, a new development in a case arises and suddenly character A loses his/her appetite and departs, leaving that huge meal untouched. Just think of all the characters who go hungry in books! Eat the meal…just eat the meal. Even when I have been most upset, if I have ordered a dish, I eat it. Having the character finish the meal might end up being more dramatic than having the character storm out. Solution—don’t have your characters sit down at the table unless they are willing to eat, or at least have them get a to-go bag.
Dog day afternoon, cats, too: We all know that killing an animal is a sure way to turn a reader against a book. But, don’t just introduce a dog or a cat and then never show the pet being taken care of. A character who comes home after two days and is greeted by a tag-wagging, happy, unwalked, and unfed dog is certainly living in a fantasy. Who was walking, feeding, and caring for that pet?
Child’s play: The same rules apply for characters with children. (See above note on pets.)
I have to take this call: You have a cell phone. Either you forget it or you neglected to charge it. We all do that. But if it rings, answer it. We all know the consequences of not answering it.
I’m bored, bored: Mr. Rich laments his lavish lifestyle in the song Bored in the underrated Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt musical Celebration. But that doesn’t work in mysteries. I have read too many mysteries in which the main characters wish someone would be murdered so she could investigate the crime mainly because she is bored. That kind of ennui cheapens the genre and, well, makes me mad. Even in the lightest amateur sleuth mystery—and this is where I usually see this gimmick—the death needs to be treated with respect and the utmost of seriousness. A comic mystery doesn’t need to make fun of the death. Authors such as Elaine Viets, Donna Andrews, Julie Hyzy, Leslie Budewitz, Susan M. Boyer, Rosemary Harris, Nancy Martin, Joelle Charbonneau, Dean James/Miranda James, Terrie Farley Moran, among others, know how to integrate humor in a light mystery without sacrificing the seriousness of the genre. These authors could teach a master class on how to do it right.
Dabbling in the dark arts: I would like to ban so-called “literary” writers who decide to write a mystery because they think it will be easy, and more lucrative. As a resort, many of these “crossover” authors don’t take the genre seriously and end up producing a substandard novel. Sure, they get a lot of press for their so-called “bravery,” but that attention soon dies down when the public realizes these novels are basically junk.
I gotta go: Please, please, please, do not let your character rush out in the middle of the night—often a dark and stormy one—to go down a mean street, descend into a basement, or start digging in a graveyard because they have a hunch. And, of course, this kind of character is most likely not carrying a cell phone, a gun, or even common sense. And adding to this silliness, the character, of course, tells no one where he or she is going. Unless your character carries a badge, these midnight runs can wait until daylight.
Violence: Yes, mysteries, even the light ones, must have some form of violence. But the “less is more” rule works great. We don’t need every bloody detail to understand what is going on. Authors who are overly graphic are just showing off.
Girl, you'll be a woman soon: Could we call a moratorium on mysteries with the word “girl” in them? I am so tired of these girls whether they are on a train, gone, interrupted, in a spider’s web, waiting with a gun, in a maze, good, bad, running, walking, skating, in the woods, wrong, or right. Unfortunately, I could go on.