HOW DO I WRITE NEW MYSTERIES THAT FEEL FRESH WHILE STILL PROGRESSING THE OVERALL ARC OF ALICE MADISON
When I started writing the first novel in the Alice Madison series – THE GIFT OF DARKNESS – the idea that one day I would have to pause and mull over the question of fresh mysteries versus character’s development would have seemed completely baffling. It is a question that can only be answered retrospectively because in my experience – more often than not – stories and characters do have a mind of their own and deeply resent it when a writer tries to shoehorn one or the other into a situation they don’t want. In short, I can see what I have done in the past but new books will pose new challenges which might need new and different solutions.
First, a question of my own: what is a fresh murder? In the history of crime writing victims have been poisoned, stabbed, shot, hanged, strangulated, variously chopped up, electrocuted, and even dropped from great heights to get the story going. I’m reasonably sure that in my stories I have not found new ways of killing people – but I also know that each death I have dealt had to feel new to grab the reader by the lapels and not let go.
Something in the murder of a character has to stay with the reader and propel the story forward: sometimes it’s in the manner of the killing, sometimes it’s about having a personal stake in the character. Sometimes it’s about simple, straightforward moral outrage – we are moral creatures after all, we want justice done and the killer caught – and sometimes it is the sinister yet satisfying notion of revenge that gives us a thrill.
Stories that end with a sense of closure are so much more soothing than the ones that leave us to contemplate the unfairness of the world. Alice Madison is a homicide detective in the Seattle Police Department and one way or the other all my stories begin with murder. She is now two years into her Homicide career and has been at least ten years in the department – the Seattle homicide detective I interviewed told me that in reality people rarely made it into the unit before they hit their forties but Madison joined the force right after college and if I squint I can just about get away with it.
When I start thinking of a new story I never start with Madison; I always start with the crime. She is at the back of my mind, of course, living her life and doing what she does, but first I need to find the crime and the villain.
How the first notion of an idea comes into being is a nebulous process. In the past I have been asked how I get my ideas and I wish the answer could be something more transparent and solid like well, I read the papers and something in the news will spark something off. The truth is that I do read the papers but every story idea I’ve ever had has come from a different place and has been triggered by odd fragments of thought coming together at the right time.
In the first Madison novel the hook that kept me interested was about having a criminal and a police officer working together to solve a murder; in the second it was about how assumptions about a crime had derailed an investigation and the bloody consequences of that assumption; in the third – BLOOD AND BONE – it’s about how the characters deal with present dangers and their own past mistakes.
Once I have a crime and a villain – I do want to have someone to root against from the start – only then Alice Madison gets involved and – in an organic way – she reacts to the situation with everything that she has and everything that she is. It is one of the nicest things about writing a series that I can play with and develop Madison’s inner life and personal life in each book. She started as a rookie eager to impress in THE GIFT OF DARKNESS and in BLOOD AND BONE she is leading the investigation in a brutal murder – everything in her personal life has shifted and progressed; with each story the reader finds out a little more of what made her who she is and why she does what she does. That’s what I consider progress.
What does the future hold for Madison? Much light and much darkness, I guess. I like her a great deal but I’m not about to make life easy for her.