Whack me upside the head – go ahead.
I was putting together a presentation recently for a workshop about writing mysteries and I wanted to make the point that the variety of ideas for mysteries—setting, characters, plots and themes—is endless.
I thought it might be insightful and instructive (maybe even interesting) to look at recent Edgar Award Winners.
So I made up a nifty PowerPoint slide for three books and included, verbatim, the description of each story.
The first was Lou Berney’s The Long and Far Away Gone, winner of the Edgar Award for best paperback original.
(What a great title.)
Summary: In the summer of 1986, two tragedies rocked Oklahoma City. Six movie-theater employees were killed in an armed robbery, while one inexplicably survived. Then, a teenage girl vanished from the annual State Fair. Neither crime was ever solved. Twenty-five years later, the reverberations of those unsolved cases quietly echo through survivors’ lives. A private investigator in Vegas, Wyatt’s latest inquiry takes him back to a past he’s tried to escape—and drags him deeper into the harrowing mystery of the movie house robbery that left six of his friends dead.
The second was for Lori Roy’s Let Me Dies in His Footsteps, winner of the Edgar Award for best novel. (Best novel!)
Summary: On a dark Kentucky night in 1952 exactly halfway between her fifteenth and sixteenth birthdays, Annie Holleran crosses into forbidden territory. Everyone knows Hollerans don’t go near Baines, not since Joseph Carl was buried two decades before, but, armed with a silver-handled flashlight, Annie runs through her family’s lavender fields toward the well on the Baines’ place. At the stroke of midnight, she gazes into the water in search of her future. Not finding what she had hoped for, she turns from the well and when the body she sees there in the moonlight is discovered come morning, Annie will have much to explain and a past to account for.
The third was Lori Rader-Day’s Little Pretty Things, winner of the Mary Higgins Clark Award. (Love this title, too.)
Juliet Townsend is used to losing. Back in high school, she lost every track team race to her best friend, Madeleine Bell. Ten years later, she’s still running behind, stuck in a dead-end job cleaning rooms at the Mid-Night Inn, a one-star motel that attracts only the cheap or the desperate. But what life won’t provide, Juliet takes. Then one night, Maddy checks in. Well-dressed, flashing a huge diamond ring, and as beautiful as ever, Maddy has it all. By the next morning, though, Juliet is no longer jealous of Maddy—she’s the chief suspect in her murder. To protect herself, Juliet investigates the circumstances of her friend’s death. But what she learns about Maddy’s life might cost Juliet everything she didn’t realize she had.
I haven’t read any of these books—but I want to read them all!
In putting together the presentation, it was easy to spot the fuel for each fire.
Berney: Twenty-five years later…
Roy: Two decades before…
Rader-Day: Back in high school…
I know it’s obvious.
It’s a simple point.
But characters are nothing if not for their backstory.
Characters don’t walk onto the page without having been bruised or beaten or worse. They have had a life.
If your character’s past is dull, gray, bland, flat, flavorless, vanilla, and drama-free, you may not have a character. Or much of a story. Sure, it’s what happened to your character but it’s also how your character responded to those key moments. That’s where character—and your story—is forged.
Now I see backstory everywhere I look. “Happy Valley”—the best Netflix thing I’ve seen in a long, long time. The writers backed up a dump truck full of backstory and piled it on West Yorkshire sergeant Catherine Cawood. (The "happy" in Happy Valley isn't so happy.) And I just read a taut novel called Brighton, by Michael Harvey, and backstory drives “front” story like a seamless Mobius strip of tension and action.
As I said, an obvious point.
But if you’re struggling with a plot or the “now,” you might take a look at the past.