Thursday, September 14, 2023

Lucy Burdette Ponders the End #amwriting


LUCY BURDETTE: A couple of weeks ago, as I was drawing to the end of my good first draft of Key West food critic mystery #14, I discovered a problem. I’d never actually had my heroine come face-to-face with the bad person. Lest you worry too much, there was an exciting scene at the end involving Hayley and the murderer; but there was no discussion of why that person arrived at the conclusion that the only way she could stay safe from discovery was to murder someone. There was no denouement with Hayley Snow questioning this bad person about why, why, why.

John and I were having dinner as I explained that I was going to have to find a way to build a scene like this into the ending so readers would feel satisfied.

‘But what will she learn?’ John asked.

‘She will learn why the perpetrator committed murder,’ I said.

‘But what will she learn?’ he asked again.

I could see that we weren’t communicating well so I asked him to say more. He explained that as we finished the final episode of Happy Valley with the astonishingly good actress Sarah Lancashire, the cop heroine comes face-to-face with the horrible, nasty, vicious bad guy who raped and murdered her daughter and fathered a baby. He lies in wait at her home and they have a rather long discussion in her kitchen. While it might have felt a little unrealistic, it wrapped things up in a very satisfying way. John reminded me that the protagonist did not only learn why he done what he done, she understood some new truths about herself. He hoped that Hayley and I could come to a conclusion as powerful as that as well.



Smart guy, right? So here was my first stab at having her ask herself that question. It may well change after revisions! (A=the murderer, B and C were suspects.)

Nathan asked, “Did A tell you why she did it?”

I told him about her feeling desperately in love with B. And how angry she was at C for seducing him. “She asked me if I’d ever had that experience, because then I would understand what she did.” Even though the question seemed absurd in this situation, I took a moment to think about it, and then explained. 

“You remember Wally, my ex-boss? He was a flash in the pan. A nice guy, but not the kind of guy I’d feel desperate over. Instead, it was a time in my life when I was generally feeling desperate about where I was headed, especially, if I’d ever find a mate. I kind of transferred that feeling to him, even if it didn’t quite fit.

“You, on the other hand, are a soulmate. It took us a while to wipe the cobwebs from our brains to be able to see it.” 

He grinned and the adorable dimple in his chin deepened. 

“Honestly, when I think of you, I don’t know what I might have done to someone who tried to get between us,” I added. “Not sure I would have stabbed someone with a pair of scissors, but it would have been ugly.”


Red readers, how important is it to you to understand fully a murderer’s motive? Do you think the detective must learn this directly?







80 comments:

  1. Although I want to know why the murderer did the deed, I don’t always feel that I need to know the whys and wherefores that led up to it. Sometimes, it’s enough just to know why; other times I want more explanation. I think the difference comes in how the story has played out up until that point.

    I think having Hayley come to understand something about herself adds depth to the character; it’s perfect. I am looking forward to reading the whole story . . . .

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  2. I'm one of those that wants to know the whys of the killer. Motive is a big factor. What would drive someone to kill? Even if I can guess at it when I set the book down, it doesn't feel nearly as satisfying as I like.

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    1. It's such an extreme act, you can't take it lightly as a writer, I think.

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    2. Mark, me too! I am one of these who wants to know why, especially when the killer explains why they did it. Their perspectives sometimes can be screwed up and though I cannot understand why they did it.

      Diana

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  3. I like to know why the murder was committed.

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  4. I like to know why the murder was committed also.

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  5. I like to know why the murder was committed.

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  6. I love the scene, Lucy. I've also had books where I forgot to reveal that kind of motivation. I think readers want to know it. I sure do!

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    1. thank you Edith, it falls flat otherwise doesn't it? We who write lighter books still need to take a murderer seriously!

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    2. Edith, I love that scene too. it sounds like it is someone Hayley did not suspect and was surprised? I will find out when I read the book. As a reader, I want to know the motive.

      Diana

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  7. I needed to hear this today. Has the hero learned something about themself during the course of the story? Now I need to ask myself that as I work on my second draft of my current WIP. And, of course, motive is important. Don't we all ask that when we hear of a senseless crime on the news? Not knowing the motive IS what makes the crime "senseless." In fiction, we get to explore the "why" part of the equation.

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    1. Exactly Annette--we get to figure out the why, both of the murder and the detective.

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    2. Annette, well said! As a reader, I want to know the motive. That is one of the things that I am learning in my mystery writing class. What is the motive? I am surprised when a murder mystery ends with no explanation of why.

      Diana

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  8. YES, like others, I need to know "why" the killer did what they did.
    I agree with Joan & Annette. I am often dissatisfied when I read about a senseless killing. The killer's motivations are an important part of the story.

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    1. We hate reading about senseless killings in real life too, but especially important in a novel. Garden variety mental illness is not very interesting as a motive. (And I do not read books about sociopaths and psychopaths! Too scary and meaningless.)

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    2. Yes, I want to know WHY the killer did what they did, Grace. And as a reader, I'm dissatisfied when there is a senseless killing.

      Diana

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  9. Agreeing with above and I think that knowing why for me makes it a "mystery" while not knowing puts in the "horror" genre (something I don't like) and adds some fear into my real life.

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  10. I do want to know why a killer did it. But, there are so many different situations in the mysteries we read that sometimes you already know the motive by the end of the book. The thing I don't really like is when the entire book has to be explained in the last chapter by the one person in the know ( whether that is the killer or someone else.) If that happens, it is disappointing.

    We have definitely seen Hayley grow and change over the course of your books, Lucy! I have witnessed her learning things about herself so I don't think it is necessary for her to tell us what she has learned. The last scene is lovely however, and the more Nathan, the better!

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    1. Agree, I don't like the use of the long monologue by the killer explaining why he/she did it!

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    2. thanks Judy! You are absolutely right about a final monologue--if that's needed, maybe the author didn't do what was needed in the rest of the book. However, if anyone is watching or will watch Happy Valley, look out for this scene. It's really astonishing, but some of that I chalk up to Sarah Lancashire.

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    3. I love her as an actor. Haven't watched Happy Valley - yet!

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    4. Have not watched Happy Valley. Where is it streaming?

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    5. There are two earlier seasons--not sure where to find them, but the 3rd and last is on Netflix. Do start at the beginning! It's dark, but so well done that I could take it.

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    7. Thx. Canada has different streaming access than the US. I found all 3 seasons of Happy Valley on Acorn TV or AMC+. I will try the free trial.

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    8. Love Sarah Lancashire in anything she does (ditto Nicola Walker). If you watch Happy Valley, you MUST watch the entire series in order! There’s a lot of character development and many years between seasons 2 and 3. Luckily they were able to get the actors in the main roles for all three seasons, which impressed me. — Pat S

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    9. Thx PAT S and ROBERTA for the feedback. Will watch Happy Valley in order from the begininng!

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  11. As a new writer working on mysteries, the first thing I need to figure out is who the murderer is, and why they did it. Thank you for this post because I now know there are places where it will really round out the story if the main character also learns something about themself.

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    1. Yes Becky Sue--and how much of that you need depends on what kind of mystery you write too. I always loved Michael Connolly's Harry Bosch because he had a tragic backstory that drove everything he did...

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    2. Yes exactly. But harder to pull off with a cozy...

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  12. Oh, how wise, and, of course! How much would it take for you to kill someone? It would have to be pretty massive motivation, wouldn’t it? To make it make sense to you? To make it seem like logical and reasonable, this thing that is one of the worst things you could possibly ever do? Even someone who is a really terrible person, that’s quite a step! In self-defense, maybe, or in defense of another, of course. But other than that, what is it in their lives that has made them so enraged or jealous or worried or fearful or power-hungry that they would actually kill someone else? That’s the whole story, I think. Not only who done it, but why done it.
    And then our intrepid sleuth gains in human understanding. And maybe even empathy.
    Such an important topic!

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    1. Yes exactly Hank, the why done it is crucial. But then the impact on the sleuth detective has to be important too for a layered story.

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  13. I do like to know some back story and have an understanding about the circumstances that led to the murder. This discussion reminded me of Elizabeth George's What Came Before He Shot Her, a devastating novel the describes the circumstances that led to a murder that had actually occurred in her previous book.

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    1. UGH, yes that book explained what led to the murder in the previous book, I really hated that senseless death!

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    2. I haven't read these books, but remember there being a big controversy over a character she killed off...

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    3. YUP, there was controversy! I tried reading the next few books but eventually gave up on the Lynley series.

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    4. I thought What Came Before He Shot Her was an important book in its depiction of racism and poverty and how even very well meaning helpers can be less than helpful. It was a very difficult book and some friends of mine couldn't read it. I too have never gotten over the death of Helen. Ugh.

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  14. For me it is absolutely necessary to understand the motive of the killer. Otherwise it becomes too random.

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  15. Agree with what Hank said above. What would it take for someone to kill?

    Last night I was reading a historical mystery set around 1870s England. There was a line about four motives for murder: Fear, Greed, Revenge and Passion ? I would add "self-defense".

    This reminded me of a Midsomer Murder mystery on TV where three people seemed to be killed randomly. Turned out that all three tried to kill the same person, who was trained as an Assassin and Spy in another country. This person was defending themselves. All three tried to kill this person and ended up getting killed themselves.

    Loved that scene where Hayley learns something about herself. I am curious about how Hayley comes face to face with the killer. I look forward to finding out when I read the book.

    Diana

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    1. thanks Diana, that's such an interesting example. I hope readers will end up satisfied with how Hayley confronts the killer!

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  16. So often in real life we don’t know the why, especially if the killer winds up dead too. I think I need to know the why in a book because I want life to make sense.

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    1. Yes I was thinking about the capture of the serial killer recently on Long Island. I still don't know why he killed those women, and I certainly don't know what the effect was on the police who tracked him down.

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    2. Lucy, I think serial killers of that ilk cannot really be explained. It is not a crime of passion that drives them. Not greed. Not fear. It is something so dark, I do NOT want to understand it.

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  17. I want to know the motivation for the murder(s) otherwise it feels like a unfinished ending for me.

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  18. I think knowing "why" is important. It brings a feeling of humanity to the villain. Even if the "why" is greed or revenge. Those are human emotions as well. In your case, Lucy, being thwarted in love is powerful. As Hayley says, it might not make her stab someone with scissors, but she'd be angry.

    And yes, I think it's important for the sleuth to learn something about herself, too.

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    1. Okay good. I'll have another crack at this too, when the edits come back:)

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    2. Liz, I think you hit the nail on the head (as the old saying goes!) Every murderer in a mystery has to have a motive (and it is the job of the detective or sleuth to figure that out in the end). But, I like that Hayley Snow is taking it one step further and relating it to how she would feel in a similar circumstance and has she learned something about the motive that would relate to her life.

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  19. The snippet you shared, Lucy, wraps things up tidily for the reader and gives a bonus--a deeper look into the protagonist. And you've done this very well, it comes naturally in the conversation. There's no big flashing arrow: "LESSON HAYLEY LEARNED." I find this kind of ending gives me something to think about myself, too. What would I have done? Very satisfying wrap-up!

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    1. Yes, at all costs, I want to avoid LESSON HAYLEY LEARNED! I bet Nathan has a different point of view about how important motive is...

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  20. The idea that the detective in a murder mystery learns something about their own life makes sense. But the most important thing is for the reader to be able to follow the clues and for the clues and the actions of the killer to make enough sense that the murder would have been possible.

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  21. oh dear I hope we don't know the ending of #14 now.

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    1. I think I disguised it well enough, and if you're like me, you'll forget by next August LOL!

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  22. Motive is so important. I’ve asked myself what would make me kill? Usually when there is no other way out. How did you marry such a perceptive husband? Brilliant. I do think it’s important that the protagonist grows in some way or has some insight during the book

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    1. Yes no way out is the only way! Even if the thinking is twisted. Ha ha, John will like to hear that--but your John is that perceptive too!

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  23. It's important! I much prefer villains who turn out to be human beings acting logically within their own circumstances. Makes it scarier. But it's critical, too, to understand *why* it's so important for the investigator to solve the crime.

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    1. Hallie, this is one of my biggest criticisms of cozy mysteries: "...it's critical, too, to understand "why" it's so important for the investigator to solve the crime." It doesn't matter in police procedurals, they are doing their job. Why is an amateur sleuth running after a dangerous criminal?

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  24. It seems that Hayley Snow shouldn't have to get involved in crimes in Key West after all she has her police detective husband. But each time the accused is someone close to Hayley and so I find myself urging her on - to protect the ones she loves and cares about. Otherwise it's so true what Hallie said above - there has to be a reason a normal citizen would get involved in solving a crime in their community.

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    1. Yes it feels crucial that the "case" have a personal connection to Hayley, otherwise, please turn it over to Nathan!

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  25. Oh, motive is so important. I always have to know the "why," both writing and reading. But I love the idea of the protagonist learning something important as well. I'm going to be thinking about this.

    Love the scene, too!

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  26. I have to know why! A person is murdered. Why that person? What event(s) led up to that action? Did death really solve the issue for the murderer?

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  27. Lawyer here. Unless it is a defense-- X has been abusing Y for years, or killed her pet bunny, etc.-- I don't care why. (Living in a senior apartment complex after living alone for half a century, I see neighbors ready to kill each other over imagined slights. To quote Rodney King, "Why can't we all just get along?") My job is to get you off-- are you being prosecuted in the right court? In the right state? Is the chain of evidence intact? Did someone drop the ball on a technicality?

    WHY did you do it? Over the past 55 years, I've heard it all. One of the reasons I don't do criminal or family law anymore is that everyone has a trigger point, and I just don't want to hear it. On the other hand, if an author can take you along on the perp's journey over the edge, hooking the reader into empathizing with a murderer (even if he/she ate the victim's liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti)--but that's a different kind of book, isn't it?

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    1. LOL, yes such a different book! Very interesting to hear your lawyer perspective on this...

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  28. Oh Ellen!! My dear hubby is a criminal defense attorney who does criminal appeals. People always ask (me included when we first met) why do you want to get a criminal off and back on the streets? Well one "friend" of mine with a young daughter never spoke to me again when she found out my husband was a defense attorney. Sadly we tried to kill her newborn baby as she suffered from depression right after giving birth. In those days (early 80's) it wasn't understood and of course she rightly so could have used a good defense attorney but she didn't have a good one. And was sent to a woman's prison leaving behind a newborn, a 4 yr old and a young grad student husband.
    Not only that but many young men of color are sent to prison for crimes they didn't do - and now DNA is proving this to be true. My husbands office (private non--profit indigent legal work for the State) had a man in prison for over 20 years for a rape he didn't commit and DNA exonerated him. So yes defense attorney's are there to make sure justice is served and sometimes that means they do go to prison after all when truly guilty.
    Most importantly a good defense lawyer also keeps the balance of power in check between the defense, the police, and the prosecutors.

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    1. That's a tragic story! thanks for your perspective too, I for one don't know the law so this is helpful.

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  29. " Sadly we tried to kill her newborn "
    Yikes I meant to type she...

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    1. Computers love to change our words. ;-) Full respect to defense attorneys, who give representation to those who need it. <3 -- Storyteller Mary

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  30. I do want to know the why - especially since the whole point of a murder mystery is for there to be layers, and subterfuge. I mean, most real life murders are committed because the perpetrator is 1) furious 2) drunk or 3) both. Fictional mysteries need to have more than that!

    Like Debs, I'm also intrigued by the protagonist learning something as well. I'm going to have to look for that.

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    1. Julia, Rick (as former cop) would add 4) stupid.

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    2. This is making me think we need another 'men of jrw' post...

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  31. Teaching teens taught me that often people don't even know WHY they did things, but it does help to try to figure it out, to avoid future missteps. I appreciate the insights and lessons, but will forgive if some remain a mystery (unlike cliffhanger endings, which I hate).
    -- Storyteller Mary

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