Please welcome back our Vice President, Kathleen Marple Kalb, to our SMFS blog today…
OLD STUFF, NEW ANSWER
Guest Post by Kathleen Marple Kalb, SMFS VP
Plot first or characters first?
It’s a question mystery writers are asked – and ask themselves – just about every day.
And almost every time, my answer is: characters first. One of my favorite things about writing is creating and living with these interesting people through their adventures. The whole reason I write, and love to read, series mysteries is the pleasure of hanging out with the characters.
Almost all my story ideas begin that way: what could only happen to my characters, and why are they the only people who could solve the crime? It might be their job, their life experience, or some quirk of their personality, but the story always begins there.
Or I thought it did.
Then, last December, while I was making final arrangements for my mother, the funeral director used the phrase “the custodian of the body.” It gave me the idea for a mystery set in a funeral home: an innocent person burying a loved one stumbles into a murder in the next viewing room. Before you condemn me as a hopeless ghoul, please remember that plenty of people use writing as a coping mechanism. I’m one of them.
The problem was, this great story idea didn’t fit my usual short-story characters, a divorced woman remaking her life at a little Vermont radio station and her colorful pals. Nobody was a good fit for serious grief. The idea simmered in the back of my head for a while, until I stumbled across something related to THE STUFF OF MURDER, my new Old Stuff series.
The main character is a widow, Christian Shaw, head of the Unity, Connecticut Historical Society. When we meet her in the book, it’s about two years after her husband’s car-crash death, and she’s worked through the initial devastation, building a new life for herself and her son with the help of found family and good friends.
I’d never used her in a short story because the cast is so large it didn’t seem workable.
But if it were just Christian and the person she’d bring with her to make funeral arrangements, her mentor/father figure Garrett?
Suddenly, the whole thing came together: step back in time to Christian burying her husband and stumbling across a murder in the next room – a murder only she recognizes and can solve because of her unique expertise with old household objects. Give her a little help from Garrett, his former state trooper husband Ed, and some obligingly nasty suspects, and there it was.
The end result, “The Custodian of the Body,” was my first story in Black Cat Weekly – with the help of an amazing edit by Barb Goffman. (Important aside: anytime you get a chance to be edited by Barb, the answer is yes, thank you – it’s an incredible learning experience, and so valuable to have her on your internal soundtrack as you build a story!)
And, after writing one short story with Christian, I’ve done several others – so expect to see her again. She – and I – are a little busy right now, though. Christian’s first novel-length adventure, THE STUFF OF MURDER, came out this week from Level Best Books. A fading movie star drops dead on a shoot in her little town, and she ends up using her knowledge of everything from pewter tankards to Colonial bayonets to embroidery to track the killer. If you met Christian in “The Custodian of the Body,” you might enjoy spending a bit more time in her world, and meeting everyone who was hovering just outside the edges of the short story.
I’m still a characters-first writer, but the experience of writing “The Custodian of the Body” convinced me that when a plot is good enough, you can find characters to fit. One more way to up my writing game.
THE STUFF OF MURDER: When Hollywood comes to small-town Connecticut, it should be the stuff of dreams – but when a fading movie star ends up dead, a whole different kind of stuff hits the fan. Unity Historical Society head and antique household items – stuff! -- expert Christian Shaw is on set when actor Brett Studebaker falls to his death from the pulpit in an old church. She, the “dads she should have had,” Garrett and Ed, her son Henry, who has a photographic memory and Type-1 Diabetes, and her colorful friends end up helping Assistant State’s Attorney Joe Poli in his investigation. Along for the ride: her giant tuxedo cat, Cookie, Ed and Garrett’s big red mutt Norm, and Joe’s tiny dog Cannoli! Woodworking, embroidery, old poisons, and vintage weapons all figure in the case, which comes together in a wild scene at the Historical Society on Fourth-Grade Field Trip Day.
Buy at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0CKWFXQ3S/
Kathleen Marple Kalb © 2023
Kathleen Marple Kalb describes herself as an Author/Anchor/Mom…not in that order. An award-winning weekend anchor at New York’s 1010 WINS Radio, she writes short stories and novels including The Stuff of Murder, and the upcoming Ella Shane mystery, A Fatal Reception, both from Level Best Books. As Nikki Knight, she writes the Grace the Hit Mom and Vermont Radio mysteries. Her stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Black Cat Weekly, and others, and been short-listed for Derringer and Black Orchid Novella Awards. She’s currently the Vice President of the Short Mystery Fiction Society and a co-VP of the New York/Tri-State Chapter of Sisters in Crime. She, her husband, and son live in a Connecticut house owned by their cat.