What are the ingredients of a good mystery? And what is their perfect proportion?
There are many ingredients to a good mystery, but in my opinion the one super important element is plot. Plot is structure and that’s the thing that everything else hangs on – character, settings, descriptions, emotions – everything. It’s like building a house. First comes the plan and then the framing. Once that’s secure, everything will find its place.
My very first editor required an outline, long before the book itself was submitted. At the time, I groaned at the thought of all that detailed work, but actually it was a great lesson. Having a solid structure, which is what an outline forces you to create, allows you to catch any sagging parts, any missing clues, any problems with timelines, any subplots that need to be woven into the story. Once that structure is in place, it’s a road map. Not to mention that it saves an amazing amount of re-structuring or re-writing time. Pacing will take care of itself too if you’ve done a good job with the outline. I like books that offer danger and threats and CONFLICT. Essential! And just as important, rest stops where a reader can take a deep breath and say, “Whew, I’m glad that’s over.”
Readers need to identify with characters and root for them. If a reader doesn’t like a character, can’t connect with her or him, then that reader won’t really care what struggles a protagonist contends with in pursuit of a murderer.
Mysteries, whether traditional or hard boiled or noir, have a certain format, certain requirements that the reader expects. First of all, the puzzle, the whodunnit aspect and of course red herrings. A good mystery must be fair to the reader, giving him or her just enough that it’s possible to solve the puzzle. It can be as simple as a small clue dropped early in the story, or an inconsistent fact that doesn’t jump off the page immediately. It’s only later when the reader says, “Ah, ha! I didn’t see that coming. I should have caught that!” That’s a phrase that warms the cockles of a mystery writer’s heart.
What do Julia and Connie have in common?
Well, we both find astrology fascinating, but Julia’s a professional, I’m not. We both love San Francisco and think it’s a great place to set a mystery – as have many, many other writers. We’re both very outgoing and compassionate people, at least I like to think I am. Julia, I know, definitely has those qualities. We’re both insightful and analytical and spend a lot of time wondering what makes people tick. We’re both terribly suspicious but I guess that’s a plus when solving a mystery. Those are the similarities. But the differences? She’s a free spirit. No day job, no kids, no chores or cooking. She’s younger than I. She’s 36 at the start of the series. I didn’t want an ingenue. Julia’s old enough to know who she is, has gained some wisdom, but young enough that she’s not afraid of walking into dangerous situations. And she puts herself in danger in every book. She’s much more physically courageous than I and I envy her that.
I’ve been asked what Julia eats and if she has any recipes to offer. The answer is ‘no.’ She doesn’t cook. Her grandmother’s a wonderful cook and sends her delicious care packages, like boeuf Bourguignon or homemade lasagna. Julia’s idea of a meal is a can of soup or a sliced tomato in a taco shell. Nothing fancier than that.
How do you keep the freshness of the stories of Zodiac Mysteries series?
I do hope I’m keeping things fresh. Each book can be read as a standalone, even though Julia evolves a bit more after every adventure. And with every book, I try to send Julia to a new place and a new set of circumstances based upon the crime. In The Madness of Mercury, Julia unwittingly becomes the target of an evil cult because of her outspoken opinions in her astrological advice column (Ask Zodia) in the Chronicle. In All Signs Point to Murder, she’s the unwilling witness to a murder within a tight family dynamic. And in this book, Tail of the Dragon, she’s pulled into investigating death threats at a law firm for her client.
There are so many books…What do you do when you find out that your very personal and new idea was already used by another author? Or what do think you’ll do?
It’s been said there’s nothing new under the sun and the motives for murder are fairly obvious – hatred, jealousy, fear, greed, survival. If you boil down every plot you can find it comes down to something as basic as that. So even if another writer came up with the same plot, another book could tell that story in a totally different way. With this series, I thought I had come up with a completely unique character in Julia. So I was taken aback when I learned of Sunny Frazier’s Christie Bristol astrology series. Fools Rush In is her first book. I thought, oh no, someone’s already doing this. Then (online) I met Karen Christino, a New York astrologer, who also has a wonderful book, The Precious Pachyderm, an historical mystery featuring the famous Evangeline Adams. So, I guess there’s plenty of room for all of us in this genre. And then by a complete coincidence, I “met” Sunny via Kings River Life magazine where she’s a regular contributor. I was so excited to connect and share ideas with another astrologer! Astrology is a lonely occupation, as is writing, and happily we decided to hold an online conversation – “Two Astrologers Chatting.” This links to KRL for our whole conversation. I think it would be great if we could all meet in person some day and share notes!
What are the genres that you will never write and, of course, why?
I can’t see myself writing romance. Although I’ve used romantic elements in the Soup Lovers’ Mysteries (written as Connie Archer) and may use them in the Zodiac Mysteries, but all in all, romance really isn’t my thing. There’s a certain trope: “I’m so into you I can’t wait for this case/crime/story to be over and we can get married and live happily ever after.” I’m more of a Girl on the Train aficionado. Now, I’m not criticizing the craft of those writers, I admire that very much. They have the ability to tease and delay and drag a romantic thread through one book or several books without boring the reader. It’s a real skill. Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight series (which is a mystery series) is a wonderful example. Her characters are attracted to each other from the beginning but the first real kiss doesn’t happen until probably (I’m not exactly sure here) the tenth book. Oh, and literary fiction. Also not my thing. I need bodies – preferably dead ones.
This interview first appeared at Mythical Books on July 18, 2018.