Emily Listfield is a writer, editor, and single mom living in New York City. A former magazine editor in chief and author of six novels, including the New York Times Notable It Was Gonna Be Like Paris and Waiting to Surface, her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, Redbook, Parade, More and many other publications.
Emily’s new novel, Best Intentions, stars best friends Lisa and Deirdre, who live, love and work in fast- paced Manhattan. Single boutique owner Deirdre comes from money; married Lisa works long hours to ensure her daughters get a good education. Then the company Lisa works for is sold and her job hangs in the balance. Over coffee with Deirdre, Lisa admits she suspects her husband is cheating. Events escalate when an old college flame of Deirdre’s comes to town with more disturbing news for Lisa. As Lisa’s world begins to unravel, someone in their circle is murdered, apparently by a person they all knew and trusted. The novel brilliantly blends engrossing women’s issues with something darker–and deadlier.
I recently had the opportunity to ask Emily about how to plot a perfect murder–on the page, of course.
Cindy: What first appealed to you about writing mysteries? Do all your novels contain an element of mystery?
Emily: In as much as there is a mystery in the elemental question of how well you can ever really know another person, I do think all my books contain an element of mystery. Best Intentions is the first, though, to have a real whodunnit plot. I loved the way it gave me bones, a structure, to hang the themes I wanted to explore on.
Cindy: Did you outline the characters’ stories, including their secrets, goals and motivations, before you wrote Best Intentions or did you discover the plot along the way?
Emily: I spent a couple of months just taking notes in a spiral notebook about the characters, their desires, their appearance, their backgrounds, their fears. Of course, new aspects reveal themselves as you get into the writing, but I did feel I needed to know who they were and their basic motivations before I started.
Cindy: Did you find you had to go back after drafting to plant clues or fill in some blanks?
Emily: Absolutely. The first draft got the basic structure down but I had to back a number of times to fill in events, find better ways to illustrate characters and keep the plot moving.
Cindy: Why the prologue from nypdcrimeblotter.com? I thought it was very cool, but wondered if you debated using it or not and why you finally decided to go with it.
Emily: I actually went back and forth continually about whether or not to include the prologue until the day I sent the manuscript to my editor. In the end, I thought it added suspense and I was glad when everyone else agreed.
Cindy: Yes, at first, all I knew was that one of the characters in the story would be killed, but no identity. You have three suspects in Best Intentions, each with an excellent motive for murder. How do you assemble that package so tightly?
Emily: From the start, I knew what each of their motivations would be – even if I didn’t know how precisely they would play out. I made sure to include the reasons each might have as I went – and worked out the specifics later on.
Cindy: The setting of New York on the verge of economic collapse is so timely. What made you focus on that aspect of the story at just the right time?
Emily: When I started writing the book I was interested in exploring economic differences and the effects of financial anxiety as well as money envy on individuals and a marriage. As time went by, the economic crisis deepened I was able to adjust the manuscript to reflect that.
Cindy: How did you achieve that balance of page-turner urgency without losing the heart and soul of Lisa in the process?
Emily: I knew all along that was my goal with this book – to write a deeply personal account of a marriage, friendship, motherhood but combine it with a fast page-turning mystery read. Once I discovered Lisa’s voice, it all fell into place.
Cindy: In the last 25 pages or so of the book, plot twists and surprises come fast and furious. How much time did you spend crafting those final sequences of events?
Emily: Actually, I found that the first part of the book took much more time because you are establishing the voice and your characters’ personalities. About half-way through they really do take on a life of their own. I did spend a bit of time trying to figure out the intricacies and timing of the last part to make sure the clues were all there without being too obvious.
Cindy: What advice can you give to new mystery writers who know everything about their plot except how the murderer reveals himself? Do you ever have such missing links in your drafts?
Emily: I didn’t know how the murderer would be discovered until the end. I tried a few different scenarios and none of them rang true until I settled on the one in Best Intentions.
Cindy: What writing books or websites do you find helpful? How do you get your police information, for example?
Emily: I actually went to my local police precinct and had a detective show me where they interview suspects and go over the procedure with me. The web is invaluable, too: I did research on DNA and the law that way.
Cindy: As you started your writing career, where did you learn craft? Any practical and/or inspirational guides?
Emily: In college I studied both literature and journalism, which helped. In fact, I’ve gone back and forth between the two for my entire career. I think each form of writing informs the other.
Cindy: Do you have a particular practice of writing scenes? For example, does every scene need to move from positive to negative or does every scene need to push plot forward? Does every scene need a goal?
Emily: I do think every scene need a goal but can vary from being a way to explicate a character’s personality to a more plot-driven need to introduce a cliff-hanger.
Cindy: The theme of collapse seems everywhere in this book: Lisa’s marriage, her job, her city, her sense of herself. Even her relationship with her children is collapsing and remaking itself. Did you intend to write a book with this kind of thread running through it or did the idea of collapse simply present itself?
Emily: Well, I’d like to think things are on the brink of collapse without quite getting there. The point is how to pull yourself back from that precipice – and how to deal with that anxiety in a more positive way. In the end, I do think there is a sense of redemption without being Pollyanna.
Cindy: You pull it off with panache, Emily. Thanks!
See Emily’s blog Brunch Babble, started in honor of Deirdre and Lisa’s weekly breakfasts, where she tackles all the topics hashed out over a cup of coffee between girlfriends.