Writing a mystery piece is like playing an intricate game with the reader. While the writer might know how the cards will fall, they have to keep a poker face and leave the reader in suspense. This week’s Killer Nashville guest blogger Debra H. Goldstein is well versed in both strategic games and mystery writing and uses that to her advantage in her newest book, Should Have Played Poker: a Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg Players Mystery. Goldstein pours her real life experiences into character development, making the plot feel that much more natural to the reader. Her blog details some methods of balancing character traits with an intense murder/mystery plot.
Fun and Games – Plot and Characters
By Debra H. Goldstein
I love to play games. Whether cards, Mah jongg, board games, it doesn’t matter, my competitive streak comes out. Can’t help it — besting my opponents becomes my goal. Not only do I accomplish this through strategic moves, but by observing and taking advantage of the other players’ body language while maintaining a poker face. It’s a perverse kind of entertainment. I use the same techniques in writing mysteries because I believe readers want mysteries to be engaging and FUN.
On a personal note, I am part of a regular Thursday Mah jongg game. After months of playing with the same women, I know their quirks. When one has a good hand, she tends to lean forward in her chair, eyes intent on the tiles being thrown. Another, when frustrated by her tiles or unable to settle on a hand, picks up her ever-present beverage and sips at it while glancing aimlessly around the room. If they watch me when I’m waiting for one last tile, they would notice I tend to rest my left arm on the table while I pick and discard with my non-dominant right hand — the only time I use that hand during the game. It is a subconscious giveaway habit I consciously am trying to break.
When I plot a mystery, I give my characters their own particular features to help advance the plot. The plot is simply the tale with its twists and turns. The addition of the character’s individual characteristics puts meat on the plotline.
In my new book, Should Have Played Poker: a Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg Players Mystery, the protagonist, Carrie Martin is a young lawyer whose mother reappears in her life after a twenty-six year absence. She leaves Carrie with a sealed envelope and the knowledge she once considered killing Carrie’s father. Before Carrie can fully process this information, her mother is murdered at the retirement home where her father resides. Compelled to solve her mother’s murder, Carrie’s efforts put her in danger and show her that truth and integrity aren’t always what she was taught to believe.
Carrie is a serious protagonist. At twenty-nine, she doesn’t know everything which allows other characters to educate her in ways that may or may not be true. She can be impulsive, but tries to appear polished. This image is repeatedly shattered when she does things like blurting out to the Detective assigned to her mother’s case, Carrie’s former live-in lover, that except for when she visits her father, she works nonstop seven days a week. As she notes, “Great, I’ve just told him I am a workaholic with no social life.”
A serious protagonist must have moments of humor for the reader to identify with her, but the plot itself requires a greater amount of comic relief. The pink-haired Sunshine Village Mah jongg players are Carrie’s comic foil. From the ring-leader whose hair, nails, and lipstick are the same shade of pink to the one who is either sharp as a tack or completely out to lunch, each player has an identifying characteristic that moves the plot forward. It may be something the character says, a physical action involving a prop like a cane, or a way of behaving. Each identifying quirk helps establish red herrings and definitive clues.
The key is to work the trait into the story so that it amuses the reader, but also subliminally triggers the reader’s mind. The outcome may result in believing something false is true, ignoring a blatant fact, or understanding the link to the next part of the story. It also serves to distinguish each of the characters.
Without individual characterization, any story would be one dimensional which translates to boring. By contrasting the humorous characters against my more serious protagonist, my hope in Should Have Played Poker is to make its reading FUN – sort of like playing a game.
Judge Debra H. Goldstein is the author of Should Have Played Poker: a Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg Players Mystery (Five Star Publishing – April 2016) and the 2012 IPPY Award winning Maze in Blue, a mystery set on the University of Michigan’s campus. Her short stories and essays have been published in numerous periodicals and anthologies, including Mardi Gras Murder and The Killer Wore Cranberry: a Fourth Meal of Mayhem. Debra serves on the national Sisters in Crime, Guppy Chapter and Alabama Writers Conclave boards and is a MWA member. She lives in Birmingham, Alabama.
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