The current writing project is gathering steam. It will be my third mystery and I hope to have an easier time with it than the last two. They say third time’s the charm, right? To that end, I have been doing a lot of plotting and planning. I’m finding Writing & Selling Your Mystery Novel by Hallie Ephron a blessing, particularly when it comes to fleshing out my killer.
I wanted this killer to be unique to St. Pete, where the book is set, and where I’m lucky enough to be currently holed up alone while my husband works in Detroit. Al should be here soon, but I want to nail down this bad guy (and it usually always is a guy, in books and in real life) before my good guy gets here.
My main character and her sidekick have been fleshed out for ages. I know almost everything about them. I know all about the murder victim, too. But I only have the slightest inkling of what makes my villain tick. I know the motivation for the murder, what drove him to do it. I’m fairly new to writing crime fiction, but it seems to me there are so many ways to be wicked.
Acting out violently when experiencing negative emotions like hatred or jealousy is one way. Covering up a lesser crime by getting rid of a witness is another, more cold-blooded way. Revenge is an evil motive for killing if ever there was one. It brings me to the mind of the killer: sometimes the bad guy is psychologically damaged. Sometimes he’s without empathy, a sociopath. Not all sociopaths go psycho. Many sociopaths get along just fine in the world without murdering anyone, but everyone has to be a little crazy, at least in the moment, unless it’s self-defense or in the line of duty, to kill.
I’ve heard it said that we all have it in us: the ability to kill. Is that true? I’m not sure. A mother might kill if someone is harming her child. As a mom, I would not hesitate. A soldier will kill in war. A society may deem some crimes punishable by death. There’s the crime of passion. That one got a lot of men pardoned for murdering their cheating wives, and not so long ago. Here in Florida, “Old Sparky” is itching to get the Parkland school shooter in his electric chair.
If our president has his way, teachers would get “little bonuses” for carrying guns and shooting domestic terrorists who prey on schoolchildren. I’m a former teacher and find that a chilling idea. But it might make a good story. Think of all the ways arming teachers and paying them bonuses to kill could go wrong. Two teachers having an affair, one or both are married to other people. One, let’s say the guy, pressures the woman to leave her spouse and she refuses. She breaks up with him, even. He pulls the fire alarm and says he saw a woman wearing a red sweater and carrying a semi-automatic weapon heading to his ex-lover’s classroom. He shoots his ex, who’s wearing a red sweater and is also armed, because that’s what teachers do in this new world when the fire alarm goes off. Spurned lover claims he believed she was the intruder intent on harming kids.
That’s a pretty lousy plot and I won’t be writing it. I’ve got my own murderer to try to understand. Peeling back the layers of a killer’s life, dwelling on the evil within, is not exactly my favorite part of mystery writing. I like everything else better: pulling the plot together, fleshing out the other characters, getting the setting just right, having a theme or two humming under the surface. All of these are cake compared to writing a killer. But having a believable murderer, one who is exactly right for the book, who feels real, is high priority. He needs to scare the crap out of me. And readers, if I get lucky and get it right.