Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Who, What, and Where of Characters and Story--By Sandra Gardner

by Sandra Gardner

book coverSince character and story are major elements in a novel, your primary concern as a novelist is to figure out who your characters are, what their motivations are, and where your characters – and your story – want to go. Exactly how they get there can be dealt with later.

For me, it began with a vision of my mother standing over me while I was sick, lying on the couch. Without worrying about whether I was hallucinating, I dragged myself to my computer and ended up with 20 or so pages. So far, I had a mother, about age 70, in a contentious relationship with a daughter, who was in her late 30s. The only other thing that was clear to me was that the mother was dead, a fact that did nothing to alleviate their contentious relationship.

Okay, now what? I didn’t think a mother/daughter relationship alone, even a conflicted one, was enough to carry a whole novel. As soon as my head cleared, I typed 20 more pages, this time adding the murder of the daughter’s longtime psychotherapist.

Now I had an M.C. (main character), a ghost, and a murder. A ghost, by the way, with loud opinions on just about everything, especially her daughter’s actions. I could see the potential for humor in the narrator/protagonist’s view of things. This has been borne out by readers’ responses.

But what was the reason for the ghost-mother to come back? Continuing to annoy her daughter wasn’t enough motivation. Aha! The mother knew that her daughter was about to get into big trouble, so she came back to help. She also imagined herself as the next Jessica Fletcher, from “Murder She Wrote.”

The trouble she came back to was the murder (of course). This involved her daughter, the M.C., in several ways. She soon became the prime suspect of the detective on the case. Why? Because one of the members of the therapy group – or someone else connected with the therapist – framed our M.C.

The involvement of the therapy group, plus several other people, produced a cast of not-very-nice suspicious characters and red herrings. Then our M.C’s. – and her ghost-mother’s -- sleuthing to find the killer and the person framing her, got her almost killed.

Meanwhile, our M.C. had to go work every day, deal with her tyrannical, incompetent boss, find her way into a relationship with a new boyfriend, and occasionally do lunch or aerobics with her best friend.

To up the ante, I added another murder -- this time, a member of the therapy group. Our unfortunate M.C.landed herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. She ended up charged with both murders and thrown in jail.

Now we have two murders, one attempted murder, and our M.C. locked up. How was she going to solve the murders and clear herself, when she was in jail? Besides her mother-the-ghost-detective, she enlisted the help of her best friend and a member of the therapy group.

To keep upping the ante, I put our M.C. in even more dire straits. There was a second attempt on her life, while she was in jail. After a few more red herrings, the killer finally revealed him or herself, with a third attempt on our M.C.’s life.

What happened next? Well, to find out whodunit, you’ll have to read the book: my newly published mystery, MOTHER, MURDER AND ME. After all, it is a mystery novel! Hopefully, this little article will help you deal with the who, what and where of characters and story, when you start thinking of your first – or next – murder mystery.

my facebook pictureSandra Gardner’s mystery novel, MOTHER, MURDER AND ME, was a winner of Sawyers Publishing’s First New Author (fiction) Contest 2011. It was published by Sawyers in spring 2012, and is available on; Barnes &;; and from the publisher. Sandra may be contacted via email:; or on her Facebook page: Sandra Gardner (