Saturday, August 05, 2006

August and mysteries

These are truly the dog days of summer. I know Texas isn't alone in enduring extreme heat--this year, a heat wave has held the whole country captive. You'd think in Texas we'd handle it better than someone in, say, New England, where they aren't used to it. But I don't think that's true. Every August there comes a day, one day, when I am suddenly very very tired of summer. It's the day you know the lawn and garden are fried, and you don't even care. And this year, it was yesterday. I declared myself officially frustrated by the heat, though there's not much I can do about it and we've got four to six weeks to go. I find, though, I'm a lot more inclined to read for fun than to do some of the things I ought to be doing. It's like ambition has been melted by the heat. And once I give in to the heat, my conscience stops bothering me.
I just finished a Catherine Coulter mystery, Target, one of her earlier ones but still featuring FBI Agent Savich. This is a particularly poignant one because it involves a child molested and then stalked by her molester. But since I'm trying to be a little more analytical in my reading of mysteries these days, I thought about why I was so riveted to this book that I sat on my front porch reading at 6:30 at night when the temperature was still over 100 (the front porch is the best ever place to read!) It was because the people were so very real to me. I was drawn into their lives, as though I knew them intimately. I laughed with them when they were happy, trembled with them when they were afraid, felt their anger and their joy. It's why many of us are reluctant to finish a book--we don't want to let go of the characters. Which says to me, character is the place to start--not plot. And maybe it says give up thoughts of writing pieces set in the 19th century, which I have long done--readers don't identify as easily with people who lived in the late 1800s as they do someone who lives today.
TheOutfit--A Collective of Chicago Mystery Writers recently had an interesting post about characters taking over a novel. If they're strong characters, of course they do--and an author is foolish not to listen to them. So it's come to me that the best mysteries are character driven, not plot, just like the best of any kind of literature.
Question is, who's my character? I think she's a woman. Today I think maybe she's a doctor, because I've been around medicine a lot, working in hospitals and medical schools years ago, marrying a doctor, with many other doctors, including my father and brother, in the family. But the other day I thought my character was an academic, because Ive spent my career mostly in a university setting. And I often think she's a dithering little old lady who blunders into mystery--a self-portrait? Oh well, it's something to think about at 3 a.m. when even the a/c doesn't seem to cut the August heat.

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