This week’s post is by Susan Van Kirk, who usually writes full-length novels, but decided to try her hand at novellas. Here she explains why.
Over the past three years, I’ve been writing a series called the Endurance mysteries. Three May Keep a Secret came out in 2014 from Five Star/Cengage Publishing. It led to a second Endurance novel, Marry in Haste, which will launch November 16, 2016. That book will be followed in the late spring of 2017 by Death Takes No Bribes. All three are full length novels.
This past January, I decided to try my hand at a novella. This would afford me three excellent advantages: (1) I could expand the character of my detective, TJ Sweeney, by writing a story around her instead of Grace Kimball, the protagonist of my Endurance series; and (2) I could give my readers a story to keep them in the small town of Endurance since my first and second novels are being published two years apart; and (3) I could mix up the tone a bit from cozy mystery novels to a slightly darker police procedural. My fictional town of Endurance would be in all of the books, but my main character, Grace, would only put in a brief appearance in the novella. I found that writing a novella is quite different from writing novels, but I really enjoyed the change.
Length is a prime consideration. My cozy mysteries run anywhere from 71,000 to 82,000 words. I discovered a novella should weigh in between 20,000 and 40,000 words. The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney, my novella, ended at 25,000 words. It may be read in one or two sittings, the perfect length for a spring afternoon reading break.
The second consideration is plot structure. A novel has multiple subplots that need to connect to the main plot and possibly be tied up at the end. But The Locket is a straight shot. Detective TJ Sweeney is called to the scene of a burial. A construction crew digging a new foundation on the outskirts of Endurance finds a pile of buried bones and a skull. The bones are decades old and raise a lot of questions. They turn out to be human, and the condition of the skull indicates a possible murder. Male or female? When did this happen? What happened? How can Sweeney identify a person long before DNA results were registered in databases? Who did this? Why? Sweeney must answer a series of questions to try to solve this case. During her investigation, the reader learns about the detective’s past, her family history, and why this case becomes so personal.
The point of view is also different compared to writing a novel. In my Endurance mysteries, I followed the main character, Grace Kimball. Much like me, she is Caucasian, a retired teacher, and a disaster in the kitchen. It’s easy to write a character who is similar to me. But The Locket delves into TJ Sweeney’s life, and she is thirty-nine, biracial, single, and a police detective. While Grace is a widow and single mother who is just starting to date an equally senior man, the single Sweeney goes through men like a high-speed commuter train. Uh, not like me. This is a stretch.
A novel may have several conflicts, although one in particular usually stands out. In Three May Keep a Secret, Grace Kimball is battling a terrifying ordeal from her past and also investigating a murder in the present. She only recently retired, so she is dealing with a huge change in her life. In the novella, TJ Sweeney is coping with some very deep feelings tied directly to solving a decades-old murder. One complicated conflict.
A novella is obviously shorter than a novel, but it is also more straightforward and leaves less room for description and details. If you’re looking for a mystery that can be read in a few hours, a novella is perfect. The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney is a good example of how a novella can fit between two novels in a series, but can also stand on its own for new readers. It is now available from Amazon.com as a Kindle e-book.
About the Author
Susan Van Kirk was educated at Knox College and the University of Illinois. After college, she taught high school English for thirty-four years in the small town of Monmouth, Illinois (population 10,000).
She taught an additional ten years at Monmouth College. Her short story, “War and Remembrance,” was published by Teacher Magazine and became one of the chapters in her creative nonfiction memoir, The Education of a Teacher (Including Dirty Books and Pointed Looks).
Her first mystery novel about the town of Endurance, Three May Keep a Secret, was published in 2014 by Five Star Publishing/Cengage. Marry in Haste is her second Endurance mystery, coming out November, 2016, also from Five Star Publishing/Cengage.
I recently went to see a community theater production of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. There are two endings to this theatrical production—Christie’s original ending for the novel and the ending she rewrote in 1943, when she adapted the play for stage (she and the producers agreed the book’s ending was too grim for theatergoers).
Our community theater alternates the endings; the night I attended, we got the grim ending (which I didn’t like). A quick Google search gave me the alternate ending, which I now envision as the end.
No matter. Watching Christie’s play, and the audience reaction, reminded me of how great a writer she was. Yes, there are some who criticize her wooden characters and say she wasn’t “literary” enough. Yet the Queen of Crime remains the top-selling mystery author and her books are only increasing in popularity, with sales growing 50 percent in the last 10 years, according to novelist Andrew Taylor in The Independent. Christie obviously did some things right.
Through the eyes of And Then There Were None, here are five elements that Christie got spot-on:
1) Gave us characters we cared about. There are two we especially care about in the play. As all the other characters are killed off, part of the suspense is in wondering whether these two will survive.
You can carry this lesson through to your protagonist. If you are writing a mystery or thriller, you need to put your protagonist through the wringer—either physically or emotionally (or both). You may feel you need to protect the protagonist, but in doing so you may be sucking the tension out of your novel. A reader identifies and empathizes with a character who faces difficult choices or a hard journey (either external or internal). You may need to step back and ask yourself whether your character has faced enough conflict.
2) Provided plenty of suspense. One after another, the characters are killed off in Christie’s play. Can the killer be caught before all are dead?
From the beginning, we know that the killer (unrevealed) has plans to kill off all 10 of the guests, who have been brought to an isolated island. The killer believes—rightly or wrongly—that all of them have caused the death of someone else and gotten away scot-free. As if that’s not bad enough, a raging storm outside keeps everyone from leaving, or anyone from coming in to rescue them. And then the guests realize that the killer has to be one of them. Christie not only introduces a mystery, but she continues to ratchet up the suspense through the ending.
In traditional British mysteries, by the way, there’s the initial murder, but then that’s followed by another (or a few more others). This may be formulaic, but it does keep the suspense high. You don’t always need multiple murders in a mystery, but if your action is lagging, look to the classics to see how tension is kept at a high.
3) Kept the whodunit front and center. During intermission, the theatergoers batted theories back and forth. Everyone had a favorite for the role of villain (a great thing about the play was that every character was both potential villain and potential victim).
Christie was brilliant at constructing puzzle plots—who was with Character X when he was killed? Who was out of the picture? Since there were several murders by intermission, this truly was a puzzle with many different pieces. The audience, from their conversation, enjoyed putting these pieces together.
If you are writing a traditional mystery (rather than a thriller, for example), your reader may be the type who wants a puzzle she can play along with. Make sure you sprinkle in enough clues, as well as the occasional red herring.
4) Played fair with the audience. The clues were all there—at one point, a little light clicked on for me, and I knew part of the solution, though not the who. When the villain was revealed, it was so simple and made so much sense. Of course that person was the killer!
5) Made sure to misdirect. While she played fair, Christie was the master of misdirection. There have even been academic papers written about her use of misdirection. Like a magician, she has the playgoer focused on one thing, while something else is happening right in front of our eyes. Christie also did this very successfully in her books, which may be the greatest reason for her continued popularity.
Misdirection may be the hardest element for a new writer. I often see beginning writers get everything else right—wonderful characters, enough clues, even a red herring or two, yet the mystery itself is transparent. That’s because, in planting the clues, the author has failed to employ misdirection. A reader who figures it out midway through the story might wade through to the end, but they will still come away dissatisfied. And they won’t buy your second book.
Look to Agatha Christie for misdirection. In Five Little Pigs (aka Murder in Retrospect), two characters are having a conversation that is overheard by a third character. But the third character misinterprets, drawing the wrong conclusion—as does the reader.
Mystery writer Margot Kinberg, who often gives workshops and classes on Agatha Christie (and other writing topics), says Agatha Christie remains popular today because her novels deal with “essential human characteristics, faults and virtues.”
Says Kinberg: It doesn’t take a bizarre plot or a serial killer to move the action in a story along. Christie’s stories (well, the best ones, anyway) don’t make use of a lot of gore, explicit sex, or some of the other things you so often see in a modern crime novel. But nor are they too ‘sweet and frothy.’ They simply tell human stories of greed, fear, and some of the other motives that real people have for murder. Everything in each story serves the plot. It’s not there for shock value.”
That sounds like another very good lesson we can take away from Agatha Christie’s works!
Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and copyediting instructor.