Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Mystery of the Missing Character: a guest blog by Jill Edmondson

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: The descriptions for Jill Edmondson's Sasha Jackson series include words like "classy madam," "fetish party," "naughty sex" and "talking dirty," so you KNOW the Reds are all over this like gin on olives. 

Ahem. Because, of course, we're fascinated by the way Jill has set the traditional PI story on its head. In a field crowded with flat-foots and and gumshoes, her sleuth has a penchant for high-heels and phone sex. When a unique character like Sasha Jackson pops up, it's easy for other writers to say, "Why didn't I think of that?" Well, you're in luck, because Jill is going to tell us exactly what sort of research and planning goes into "thinking of that."

Attention All Aspiring Crime Writers!!!! Here’s a $1,000,000 dollar whodunit idea, and it’s yours this week for free! That’s right: FREE! You just have to read the rest of this post and then act on the advice contained herein...

First some background...
Quite some time ago, long before I was published or before I had even finished my first manuscript, I attended a seminar for wannabe mystery authors. The speaker emphasized that a writer should know – really and truly be familiar with her genre (whatever it may be). Get to know the best-selling and most prolific mystery authors of that genre. Get to know the characters, the settings and the conventions of whodunits. In addition to being a sort of training - which reading the genre most certainly is - a great degree of familiarity with whodunits will also help you to figure out WHAT’S MISSING FROM THE GENRE. And that’s what you should write.

Let me explain...
If there are few-to-no police procedurals, then you should write one. If there are few-to-no gay detectives, then you need to create one. If there are no visible minority private eyes, then that’s what you must invent.

Some more background (but this time it’s nerdy...)
As part of the course work for my MA, I did a number of papers on Crime Fiction, and in particular I looked at women in crime fiction. After reading something like 728,351 mystery novels featuring female main characters, I could safely say I knew what the genre had to offer when it came to female lead characters. There are bodacious bounty hunters, ingenious investigators, cunning caterers, awesome attorneys, terrific taxi-drivers and so much more.

It is interesting to note (and I’m not the first one to notice this) that crime fiction, overall, has mirrored and embraced demographic shifts. Verisimilitude is contemporary mystery fiction’s word of the day. Crime fiction protagonists are no longer overwhelmingly male (let’s give a round of applause to Marcia Muller for this). Whodunit protagonists are no longer isolated loners walking down those mean streets.

Modern sleuths now have families and close circles around them, whether those bonds are with traditional families or chosen ones, such as a “little sister”, an elderly landlord, a niece, or someone else. Indeed, many sleuths have children of their own, which is cool. It’s nice to see art imitate life.

In fact, there are even a number of single parents in the world of crime fiction. Two of the first hardboiled dicks to have offspring were Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder and Michael Z. Lewin’s Samson, although neither of these divorced dads has custody of his children. Les Roberts’s Milan Jacovich mysteries has dad taking the kids on alternate weekends. Then of course, there is the Harry Bosch series by Michael Connelly: full time cop and full time single dad with teenaged daughter. 
Single moms (more specifically: custodial single moms) abound in mystery as in real life. According to Parents without Partners, single mother families numbered 10 million in 2000, 46% of which have more than one child. Mystery readers can check out single moms like Elaine Viets’s Josie Marcus, Marianne MacDonald’s Dido Hoare, Diane Mott Davidson’s Goldie Bear, and Anne Underwood Grant’s protagonist Sydney Teague. What’s interesting to note is that these characters are a mystery shopper, a bookseller, a caterer, and an advertising agency owner respectively.

I’m almost at my point...
What you may have begun to notice is that the male single dads (whether custodial or not) are all officially employed in law enforcement on some level or another. They may not all be cops or licensed PI’s but they make their living from solving crimes. The female single mothers on the other hand, are all amateur sleuths – shopkeepers stumbling over dead bodies, chefs happening upon a cadaver. For too many of the single moms in mystery fiction, crime solving is an accident, a sideline, a by-product of their “real job”. 

So here’s the idea (and YES, I know!)...
If you want to write the character that the genre seems to be missing, then you should write a single mother who earns her living as a cop or an investigator or something along those lines. There’s room for a new series in which a female protagonist is employed in an official crime solving capacity, and not simply an anthropologist or a photographer who tripped on a corpse. She should have at least one kid her who lives with her full time.

Yes, yes, yes. I know about the Joanna Brady series by JA Jance (and, indeed, Joanna Brady is not the ONLY single mom who solves crime for a living, but given the number of titles in the series, she definitely stands out). The widowed Joanna is the Sheriff Cochise County in Arizona. Great series, love the character. But the genre has room for another Joanna, and mystery readers (you already know that more women buy mysteries than men do, right?) would most likely be happy to have one or two female versions of Harry Bosch.

So there you go: Create a supermom-supersleuth who juggles badges and baby bottles, handcuffs and homework, guns and gummi bears, and my guess is that you’d have a winner.

You’re welcome!

You're going to be thanking Jill for more than her clever writing tips. Dead Light District, the second book in the Sasha Jackson series, is available as a FREE Kindle download today and Sunday, the 14th and 15th of July. The Lies Have It, the third book in the series, will be available as a FREE Kindle download on Wednesday and Thursday, Julia 18 and 19. No e-reader? No problem!  Jill has three signed copies of her first mystery, Blood and Groom, to give away! Leave a comment letting us know what you'd like to see in an original sleuth, and you could be one of the lucky winners.

You can learn more about Jill Edmondson and her books at her website. Jill also blogs, and is on Twitter as @JillEdmondson


  1. Michele Martinez's series features a single, custodial woman police detective, although she stopped writing them after four books. And doesn't the detective in the Rizzoli and Isles series have a baby at one point? Is Tess Gerritsen still writing those? But your point is still valid. Fiction is not overrun with the kind of impediments to work that so many of us have in real life.

    It seems that women-centric books are generally (not always, but usually) written by women, and we tend to know how very complicated it is to have such a job with children.

    I want to know more about Sasha Jackson! She sounds like a very interesting sleuth. Is this a series, or so far only one book?

  2. That's what I was thinking Karen--it's hard to figure out the logistics of a full time job with kids on the side. even walking the dog can be hard to fit in.

    but such an interesting post, Jill. and we thank you for the free downloads!

  3. Fascinating post, Jill! My protagonist, Skeet Bannion, is a single law enforcement officer who ends up with a teenager and an ailing father on her hands in the first book. Basically, because I wanted to show her with the difficulties that many of us deal with daily.

    Thanks for the free books!

  4. Hi Karen in Ohio: Sasha is a fun character to write. It is a series, three books so far & numbers 4 and 5 are half in my head and half on the computer.

    Cheers, Jill

  5. Hi Lucy Burdette,

    You're welcome and enjoy!!!

    The blog post is VERY short and very revised version of the MA paper I did on crime fighting moms. In the paper I do a lot of analysis of WHY the genre seems lacking in this respect. Think of real life societal & demographic shits and how readily crime fiction has reflected these (ethnic/gay/handicapped and so forth) but the genre hasn't caught up yet in terms of PAID or PROFESSIONAL depictions of single moms.

    Thanks for joining the discussion, Jill


    Thanks so much. I'm glad to know that you and your books are out there!!! I will get myself a Skeet Bannion book ASAP!

  7. I like the sound of this series. The list of books I want to read thanks to Jungle red is getting very long.

    I'd like to see a female protagonist who has to deal with cramps once in a while. I know I'm probably in the minority.

  8. So interesting, Jill! I thought about this twenty years ago when I started my Kincaid/James series (not knowing that it would be a series, but just in case...) I didn't see women, especially police officers, dealing with children and family issues the way real women cops have to do, so I made Gemma, who is very determined to make a career as a police officer, a single mother of a toddler. It's grown more complicated over the course of the series, but I still love the fact that both my characters deal with juggling real life family issues.

    I'll bet your MA thesis was fascinating!

  9. To Darlene Ryan:

    I'll get right on that (I actually DID have something like that in a much earlier draft of book one...)

  10. To Deb (and Gemma):

    Where were you when I was doing my MA???? I was starved for single mom cops (or similar)!!!

  11. Great idea to read mystery novels in your favorite sub genre and look for what kind of character and plot lines are missing, then write them.

  12. Thanks Nancy C - yeah, there is a lot of great stuff out there!!!

  13. Oh, Deb, sorry to have forgotten Gemma! She is my hero, too.

    Blame it on old age. Tsk, tsk.

  14. Thanks, Jill! I need lots of good advice!

    I love Linda's Skeet Bannion, a good current example of single-parent, full-time professional woman - much too rare in the genre.

    Most mysteries I've read that feature a single-parent law-enforcement woman, seem to include the children as drop-in features much like some insert sex scenes.

    What I enjoy reading are those books where the family is important to the story, not the plot necessarily, just integral in understanding character and setting. For me they must move the story along and give depth. And I do like that depth.

  15. Thanks, Reine, ever so much. Deb's Duncan and Gemma books also make the family obligations part of the book's story and the overall arc of her series.

  16. Linda, yes... so glad to have that reinforced, because I must read Deb's Duncan and Gemma books now that my own family stuff is loosening up a teensy bit... grateful, grateful, grateful.


  17. Thanks to everyone for joining in! It's nice to see that crime fiction has come such a long way from the days of yore - see what Chandler once said about detectives:

    Raymond Chandler “The Simple Art of Murder”:

    "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. … He must be a complete man and a common man, yet an unusual man. He must be …a man of honor. He is neither a eunuch nor a satyr. I think he might seduce a duchess, and I’m quite certain he would not spoil a virgin... He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He is a lonely man, and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him."

    It's the "lonely" and the "man" that get me. No partners, no children...

    Things sure have changed, eh? But se still need more women cops who are single moms!!!

  18. The post reminds me of our Halloween bash months back. We hired a catering company for the food and drinks. By the way, I love the bloody bride getup. Winner in my book.

  19. I am able to learn more and this I will do. Thanks, your blog is a great succes.