By E.E. Kennedy
Of all the ways to make a little money, writing mysteries is about the “funnest” way I can think of. (I’m quoting a grandchild here.) Through my characters, I get to live in houses I’ve only dreamed about, visit places I’ve longed to go and have adventures that this home-loving sissy would never dare attempt; that, and many other things. On the flip side, I’m required to come up with elaborate mental puzzles and encounter villains I’d probably never meet in real life. And even that is kind of fun.
Right now, I’m putting finishing touches on the third book in my Miss Prentice mystery series, Murder in the Past Tense. Another neat thing about writing is I get to re-visit times in my life that I really enjoyed. One of those was when I was in summer stock theater as a teenager. In MPT (the book’s nickname—that’s how they do it in the writing biz), Amelia reminisces about her teen years when she did the same. It’s fun to see familiar characters in phases of their lives, and this time, the reader also meets a teenage Lily Burns (nee McKindrick) and a scruffy, sarcastic young hippie wannabe in the form of Gil Dickensen, or “Gilly,” as Amelia calls him. I had a romp planting little clues to their future relationships. (Hint: they aren’t star-crossed lovers at this stage.) The story doesn’t stay in the past, however, and a mystery begun years ago follows the characters into the present, where it puts them in real danger.
As soon as I’m finished editing and formatting, which should only be a day or two now, I’ll get back to thinking about the next book in the series, number four, with the working title, Incomplete Sentence.
Those of you who are familiar with the series probably have noticed that the titles reflect my main character Amelia’s calling as a high school English teacher. Coming up with related titles is another enjoyable aspect to this mystery writing gig. My sister, who taught college English and I, who subbed in high school, got together and came up with a treasure trove of possible titles. Here are just a few that I hope to someday weave into the Prentice saga: The Village Idiom, Ending with a Preposition, and To Brutally Split an Infinitive.
But that’s all in the future. Right now, I need to concoct a story that matches up with the title. I’m what is called a Pantser, which is the opposite of an Outliner. (The term comes from the expression, “by the seat of the pants.”) For the past several books, I’ve just sat down and written—then re-written, then added something and re-written again, then torn out whole hunks of story and streamlined the whole thing into a novel. It’s a kind of scary way to do things, but it fits my haphazard personality. I’ve never been good at outlining, even in English class, when I was required to. I tended to write my paper or essay first, then come up with an outline to fit what I’d written, just to satisfy the teacher. Is there anyone else out there who has done that? I feel sure there must be.
Instead of an outline, I do think I need a plan, which will be in the form of a list of items, aspects and issues I’d like to incorporate into the story. If you hate spoilers, you may want to stop reading here, because I’m going to show how I come up with stuff and it might spoil the surprise. Then again, if I’m careful, it might not!
The title is Incomplete Sentence, which fits the idea I have for the story. A few years ago, I saw a TV movie called The Unicorn Killer. It was the true story of a self-styled guru and media darling who charmed the intelligentsia of the Northwest US and even claimed to have come up with the idea for Earth Day. He was, essentially, a con man who used long words. Everything went swimmingly until his live-in girlfriend went missing. About a year later, her decaying body was found in a trunk in the guru’s apartment. Though he was about to be tried for an incredibly gruesome murder, people came out of the woodwork to offer character reverences for this man, and he was released on bail until trial, which he never attended, because he skipped out. He was found guilty in absentia and sentenced to life. Years later, he was located in France and after some legal wrangling, returned to the US to serve his sentence.
I mean to take elements of this sad tale and fictionalize them into unrecognizability while stirring in a little bit of Hitchcock’s chilling film, The Lodger, in which a landlady suspects that her tenant might be Jack the Ripper.
In my story, the Chez Prentice, Amelia’s B&B, has several new guests. Could one of them be the Something Killer? (I haven’t come up with an entertaining nickname for the guy yet.) A high school girl has been murdered. Could she be the Something’s victim? There are several young girls of Amelia’s acquaintance who might be at risk: Crystal and Courtney, the lovely Gervais twins; Serendipity Shea, Yvonne LaBombard and even perhaps Melody Branch, Vern Thomas’s current girlfriend.
I’ve come up with a unique way some of the younger characters can communicate with each other, but that’s one part of the story I’m not going to reveal. Needless to say, it involves something technological, which is a new and unknown quantity to Amelia, who only recently got her first cell phone.
Alec has launched a new project having to do with his passion, cryptozoology. Amelia is keeping her educational hand in by occasionally substitute teaching while baby Janet spends time with either Lily or with Hester at the B&B. Vern is still being a problem, but Melody is working on him, and I think he may eventually have an epiphany of some sort. I’m not sure what Gil will be doing during all this. Of course, Lily Burns will in some way tangle with Housekeeper Hester Swanson and Marie and Etienne LeBow, co-owners of the B&B.
Writers like to make use of their own life experiences, and since I had a memorable late-night automotive encounter with a very sturdy deer, I’m thinking of heaving that into the mix, also perhaps including having someone suffer with a bout of pneumonia.
Years ago, my mother (a sweet Southern lady to her very toes) read that author Jacqueline Suzanne wouldn’t show her own mother her books, because they were too racy. My mother said (and it has echoed in my mind, down through the years), “Hmph! I’d like to see one of my girls write something not fit for me to read!”
After all my efforts, gentle reader, the story must entertain you. And that’s my ultimate goal: to write an entertaining story I wouldn’t be afraid to let my mother read.