Saturday, November 5, 2011

How to keep dead bodies sweet

How to keep dead bodies sweet
By Gunnar

There’s a dichotomy in the very idea of a cozy mystery. See, most cozies (or any other mystery) involves solving a murder or other violent crime, and murder is a messy, ugly, grotesque affair. There’s all that blood, bodily fluids, violence, and after a while the stench—okay, okay, you get the idea. And that’s the problem: readers who like “sweet” stories don’t want all that nasty stuff, even though it’s inherent in murder. So what’s a writer to do?

Focus on the characters and the puzzle, not the crime. Readers of cozies aren’t here for the gore. They want to meet interesting characters who do interesting things, and track the clues, watch the plot unfold, as the mystery is solved. They want to match wits with the writer, hoping they’ll lose. If you have an overwhelming urge to write every detail of the murder in progress, consider trying your hand at a thriller or police procedural, where such in-depth violence is accepted and even sought.

In the same way, keep ugly descriptions discreet. Don’t spend too much time telling readers about the spray of blood, the savage injuries, or the victim’s terror. Heavy descriptions weigh down cozies, which are supposed to be lighter reading. Instead, try using suggestion when a description of violence is necessary. Here’s an example from my historical mystery, Deal with the Devil:

“Not as bad as the other.” Arnussen indicated the mush that had once been a young girl’s chest. “Not as much bruising on the face, either.”
“Still a lot of rage, though. How many times do you think he stabbed her? Twenty, thirty?”
“Something like that.”
Hackney forced himself to examine her nude body, the blood splatters on the headboard, the bruising and overkill, and implant all of it into his memory. The only thing he touched was her dark hair spilling over the pillow.

Through the imprecise nature of the detectives’ dialogue, the reader gets the impression of a brutal crime scene, without having to endure the details. Even though Deal isn’t specifically a cozy, the technique is the same.

Explore the emotions rather than the actions. In the example above, did you get the impression Sergeant Arnussen isn’t as affected by the crime scene as Detective Inspector Hackney? Well, that was my goal, at least. Arnussen’s not hard-hearted or unfeeling, by any means. But every time Hackney examines a murder victim, a little piece of his soul dies. By demonstrating his sadness, by inviting the reader to experience that emotion with him, I keep the focus on the characters rather than the crime scene.

With romances, writing “sweet” generally means keeping any sex scenes offstage. With mysteries, it’s the violence that requires discretion. Handled properly, even the grisliest murder can be turned into a cozy, by keeping the reader’s attention on the characters, the puzzle, and the emotions, rather than the ugly stuff. Such subtlety can keep the worst dead body sweet.

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