For me, a story begins when a character wanders into my head and demands my attention. Kat Voyzey arrived one winter while I was writing my masters thesis and stressing out about my decision to start a consulting business. I was way too busy to write a novel, but she wasn’t interested in my excuses. Kat told me that she was an HR Director, that a woman had been shot in the hospital where she worked, and that she got involved because the victim was being unfairly blamed for her own death. She was persistent and weird and she swore a lot. And even though I was too busy to give her much attention, she hung around for the decade it took for me to tell her story.
Kat was more than a protagonist. She was also one of my teachers.
What Kat Voyzey Taught Me
Completing my third novel feels like a graduation day of sorts, and in the absence of a hat to throw into the air I’ll settle for feeling giddy. In a way I feel like Kat and I have been walking the same road, figuring things out together. Kat went from being an incompetent sleuth to a becoming talented investigator. And I went from a clueless wannabe novelist to an author of three wonderful books.
Here are some things I learned along the way:
Write Your Own Story
When I wrote Involuntary Turnover, I was told by several (lovely) people that Kat was “not relatable” because she was childfree, non-religious, and she liked to swear. Feeling unsure of myself, I took that advice hard and tamped my character down. As a beginner writer, I lacked confidence, and I was really worried about screwing up.
I’ve revised that novel, now that I’ve got a bit more experience, and I’m happier with the results. One thing I’ve learned is that I don’t need a novel to appeal to all people. Some people will love a cussing, upbeat, irreverent protagonist. Others won’t, and that’s fine!
Twist the Tropes (But Don’t Reject Them)
I love a good puzzle, but most cozy mysteries are too cozy for my tastes. I don’t want cupcake recipes, or endless girl-talk, or the inevitable requirement that my sleuth fall in love with some sexy sheriff or FBI agent. Therefore I was determined to avoid writing those kinds of things into my stories. My mysteries would stick to the crime, thank you very much.
But I was being naïve! Characters are people, and if you want them to be real they need to exist in an emotional world. Kat got her romantic subplot, and she was happier for it, despite my earliest intentions. In fact, if she were here, she’d be rolling her eyes and telling me she’s entitled to personal relationships, just like anyone else. But we managed to avoid the cliché aspects of the romantic subplot. Her guy wasn’t a member of law enforcement, he didn’t show up at the crime scenes, and he didn’t do that “I’m the big strong manly man” thing that drives me batshit when I read it in other novels.
Use a Light Touch
I spent the month of December revising Involuntary Turnover to remove some of my beginner mistakes. And I laughed several times during that process because I made the murderer so freakin’ obvious! I mean, I practically walked over to the clues and wink-winked at the audience, out of fear I wasn’t being clear enough. I was such a noob.
There’s a balance between revealing too much and too little in a mystery novel. If the clues are entirely hidden, the reader may feel cheated because they never had a shot at figuring it out. And if the clues are too obvious, readers may get bored. And where’s the fun in that? Over time, I’ve learned to trust my readers. I don’t need a flashing light stationed above every clue.
Throw More Rocks
Vladimir Nabokov once said “The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.” My first three novels are short, similar in length to a Hercule Poirot mystery, because I enjoy a murder-mystery you can finish in one sitting. Partly this was by design, but it’s also true that I wasn’t throwing enough rocks at my heroine.
While Death by Team Building is still a quick read, I did a better job at throwing rocks at Kat. And in future works, my pile of rocks will be bigger. I’m ready to try some longer and more complex stories, having gotten a handle on the shorter ones.
There’s Magic Here!
I saved my favorite lesson for last. I’ve learned that creative writing is a strange process, full of the unexpected.
Characters walk into my head and tell me stories. I hear snippets of dialog when I walk down the street. And there are times when I’m writing a well-plotted scene and it goes an entirely different way than I had anticipated. That feeling of delight when you’re surprised in a story? It happens to writers during the process, and it’s the coolest and weirdest thing.
Here’s an example: At the end of book three, Kat makes a small discovery. And while that moment fit perfectly in the context of the series, it was as if I’d planned for it all along, I had no idea it was happening until it did. Imagine creating a story, then at the very end you discover something tiny and perfect, only you didn’t make it. It’s waiting for you, like a gift. Where do those things come from?
Magic, my friends.
Thanks for everything, Kat! I hope we get to adventure again, and soon. And if you’re interested in a fun series of corporate murder-mysteries, check out Involuntary Turnover. It’s the first in the Kat Voyzey series and a great place to start.