Writers in the Storm

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August 19, 2011

Mysteries and Me by Linda O. Johnston

Welcome to another installment of Sensational Summer Fridays, here at WITS with Linda O. Johnston!

I write both mysteries and romances.  My mysteries contain romantic elements, and my romances contain suspense or mystery.

Why?  Because I love them both!

But there are, of course, other elements in mysteries besides relationships, or they wouldn’t be mysteries.  What are they?  And how do I address them?

I’ll be talking here primarily about cozy mysteries, since that’s what I’m writing, but a lot of the same elements appear in traditional suspense stories, too.

First, you need a protagonist--someone the reader will like and, hopefully identify with.  Because cozy mysteries often have themes, the protagonist is always involved with that series theme.  For example, in my Pet Rescue Mysteries, my protagonist is Lauren Vancouver, who runs a private no-kill pet shelter.   My theme is pet rescue.  In my Kendra
Ballantyne, Pet-Sitter mystery series, Kendra is a pet-sitter, so the theme again involves pets.  Cozies are about amateur sleuths, so the protagonist just happens into a lot of murders that she has to solve--and, yes, most cozy protagonists are female.  In other kinds of mysteries or suspense, the protagonists can be professional law enforcement types, including cops or even private detectives.  Whoever the protagonist is, there needs to be at
least something likeable about them or readers won’t want to read about them.  Kendra’s a bit quirky, and Lauren is one dedicated animal rescuer who doesn’t let anything stand in her way.

Choosing Your Protagonist

How do you decide on the right protagonist for your story--or series of stories?

A lot of that depends on you, and the kind of book you want to write.  As I mentioned, if you want to write cozies, choosing a woman who has a career, hobby or other interests that could attract a lot of readers makes sense.  I’ve been blogging weekly on KillerHobbies.com for quite a while, and my sister bloggers there write about protagonists who are experts at
scrapbooking, quilting, rubber stamping and crocheting--and of course they’re amateur sleuths, too.  And one of my blog sisters is about to start a new series with Jane Eyre as her protagonist!

Of course, Killer Hobbies supports the premise that people who engage in hobbies can be amateur sleuths.  But my protagonists have jobs and interests that involve pets--and pets aren’t hobbies, they’re family!

How did I decide on my protagonists?  They just came to me.  Or maybe my Cavalier King Charles Spaniels Lexie and Mystie planted the ideas in my head.  Both Kendra and Lauren were natural choices for me,
of course, since I’m a real pet lover.

When you’re thinking about your theme or background, consider your own likes and hobbies.  Just remember that you’d better enjoy your choice, since, when you sell your series, you may be living with it for quite a while.  My Kendra series ran for nine books.  So far, there are three books in my Pet Rescue series.  BEAGLEMANIA was published in March, THE MORE THE TERRIER will be out in October, and HOUNDS ABOUND will be a 2012 release--April, I think.  No problem with my maintaining my enjoyment of
writing these stories.  They all contain animals!

Do you like to cook?  There are quite a few mystery series about cooks, chefs, and different kinds of food stores, restaurants, and coffee shops.

Or do you like to engage in any of the hobbies I’ve mentioned--or
other hobbies involving crafts or anything else?  You can jump right in and create your own series based on what you enjoy--and what you decide your protagonist does with her life.

Is it a problem that there are already series that use that
theme?  No--it just shows that the subject is popular.  Of course you
need to come up with your own twist on it.  Maybe make your protagonist a
psychic, too, or add a ghost, since they’re popular, too!

But what if you prefer not having the Jessica Fletcher syndrome in
your story (from the old TV show Murder She Wrote)--where an amateur sleuth
keeps tripping over bodies no matter how small the town is in which she lives
or how few people she knows?  Maybe cozies aren’t for you, so consider a
protagonist who’s already in, or about to enter, law enforcement or a related
career where she may actually look for dead bodies or other mysteries.
She can be a cop or sheriff or government agent, but can possibly get
away with skirting the law more if she’s a private investigator.

And of course, since I’m a lawyer by background, I can always recommend
that you make your protagonist an attorney.  Love those legal thrillers!

Making your protagonist have some kind of background where it’s
natural for her to know and enforce the law--or be aware when she’s doing something that’s not quite legal--is always a great way to go.   It’s
your decision.

Whichever way you decide--cozy or pro--you’ll need, in your first
story, to set that protagonist down into the middle of a terrible situation where she has to solve that murder.  Fast.  And correctly, despite all the
possible suspects.  And if it’s a cozy, she may be the main suspect.

Hey, you can do that if you do a suspense story with a law enforcement protagonist, too.  Why not?

I want to finish talking about protagonists with one final thought.  Make your character someone memorable!  She doesn’t have to be nice all the time, or perfect, but she needs to be a person readers can identify with--and will want to read about again and again.  Easy?
Not always.  But one way to do it is to think about your own favorite characters in others’ books and why you like them, then give similar traits to your protagonist.

More to Come

Okay, enough about protagonists for now.  Here are some more elements of mysteries.  I’m just touching on them here and will focus more on each of them in future posts.

First, there has to be... a mystery!  In cozies, they’re always murders.  The protagonist has to have a reason to get involved with solving them--such as being a major suspect.  In my Kendra stories, Kendra was always upset because she realized she had become a murder magnet. Lauren is becoming one, too, but she’s dragging her feet and resisting... to no
avail. She was a major suspect in BEAGLEMANIA, and her former mentor is the
main suspect in the upcoming THE MORE THE TERRIER.

Coming up with a mystery involves plotting, and I’ll be discussing how I plot one day soon.

And of course, in a mystery, you need a villain.  In cozies, that villain could be a very likeable character--preferably one the reader doesn’t suspect until the very end.  Same goes in other kinds of mysteries.  In suspense novels, the reader may know who the bad guy is even if the protagonist doesn’t, which can ramp up the suspense and danger,
depending on how the story is written.

So... in cozies, the protagonist solves the mystery and catches the villain.  Sounds easy!  But there must be clues and red herrings and more.  I’ll address some of those, too, in future blog posts.

What is your favorite kind of mystery or suspense story?

Linda O. Johnston is the author of 27 published novels, with more
to come.  She currently writes the Pet Rescue Mysteries for Berkley Prime
Crime, a spinoff series from her Kendra Ballantyne, Pet-Sitter mysteries, also
for Berkley .   The second Pet Rescue Mystery, THE MORE THE TERRIER,
will be an October release.   She additionally writes paranormal
romance for Harlequin Nocturne--the Alpha Force miniseries about a covert
military unit of shapeshifters. The latest one, GUARDIAN WOLF, is an August

0 comments on “Mysteries and Me by Linda O. Johnston”

  1. Linda,
    One other reason to choose a hobby or something else you're passionate about - Platform! You know other pet lovers, I'll bet (or have met them at the dog park!) It not only gives you an instant audience, it certainly helps you network - I write about Pro Bull Riding, and I've gotten involved with a group of fans on Twitter, and Facebook. I'm making relationships, so hopefully when my books are published, I'll have instant readers. And in the meantime, I'm enjoying arguing my favorite bulls and riders with other fans!

  2. Excellent point, Laura. I've made a lot of friends both online and otherwise because my stories involve pets, and there are a lot of pet lovers out there. Many of them are readers, too.
    BTW, I love, love, love the picture of the basket of Cavalier puppies that was included with my post!

  3. Great post. When we choose a protagonist for a new series, we need to think ahead. We need a character who's quirky and has issues of her own, but not to the point of being unsympathetic or annoying.
    That basket of puppies is too adorable for words!
    Just discovered this blog, and found Sharla Rae gave my blog a shout out last June (why are Google alerts so erratic?) Thanks to all of you. Looks like a blog I will revisit often.

  4. Thanks, Ann. I agree with your comment about having a quirky protagonist with issues. I checked out your blog, too--and love your assessment of the publishing industry.

  5. Linda, I'm so excited to see these blogs! I feel like mysteries are a huge hurdle that I don't understand how to tackle. You are going to help me. 🙂

  6. Mysteries are my first and forever love beginning with good old Nancy Drew. I especially love the cozy and the antics of the MC. Rita Mae Brown and a host of others feature animals solving crimes or being the center of the crime and I love them all ... not to mention the baseket of adorable puppies 🙂

    Love your post. I was introduced to WITS by Laura Drake and look forward to reading more

  7. I just stumbled on your blog today; wish I'd seen it earlier! It would have helped me a great deal. I found this entry on protagonists useful and I am looking forward to what you have to say about plotting. Thank you for this forum.

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