On writing for (and about) villains

On writing for (and about) villains
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I'm spending some time away from the news just the way I often do -- by writing. When I'm not writing these essays to post, I'm working on a detective story. (Regular readers will remember previous visits to and from my characters.)

But there's so much crime and violence in the world today. Why get involved with more, even fictionally?

I've made some important progress on my story in the past few weeks: I've written the first draft of the murder confession of the character I'll call Name Withheld.

I've been enjoying putting a lot of myself into Daisy MacDonald, my heroine/narrator, and facets of people I know into Mike Hossa, city cop and Daisy's bodyguard; Daisy's fellow students and teachers; and Daisy's parents.

Name Withheld has needed more work than these other characters. I got my best start on her when I was confronted by a particularly nasty person where I once worked. I realized that I felt the way I wanted Daisy to feel around Name Withheld, so I borrowed parts of the woman's actions.

I did that more than a year ago, but I was reminded of it recently as I read "The Golden Age of Murder," (Harper Collins Publishers, 2015), Martin Edwards' entertaining book about "the Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story" (as Edwards' subtitle puts it).

In Chapter 11, "The Least Likely Person," Edwards describes Agatha Christie's meeting with Max Mallowan, whom she eventually married. He was working as an assistant to Leonard Woolley in 1930 when Christie came to their dig at Ur in the Middle East.

Christie got along well enough with Leonard Woolley and his wife, Katharine, that (Edwards mentions) she dedicated "The Thirteen Problems" to them.  Yet the friendship didn't last.

"But," Edwards wrote, "behaving badly toward a crime writer carries risks. Christie started plotting revenge."

My own book gained that drafted confession on a day that just wasn't for me -- until then. Nothing in the news was appealing; all was appalling. My economic situation? Least written, soonest mended. I didn't even feel good enough to walk to the lake and go wading.

The world seemed to be behaving badly toward this crime writer. Even my novel notebook didn't have a confession chapter, I noticed. What kind of detective story doesn't have even that, I asked myself.

Then I realized that this was the time: I was mad at the world, upset by everything. At last, I could imagine Name Withheld confessing.

As usual, I set it up by thinking like Daisy, my narrator. She's been helping Sgt. Mike Hossa so much that when Name Withheld is ready to talk, she insists on talking to both Daisy and Mike.

I put a lawyer in the room without fleshing out his character, but I know I can do this in later drafts.

Once I set up the four characters, I let Name Withheld do most of the talking. Both Daisy and Mike get in some questions, because I'd gotten to a point where I'd have to check the confession (which is now Chapter 22) against the events of Chapter 1.

The other breaks in the dialogue were easier to do. I put in sensory detail by writing about how Daisy feels when she learns particular details about her friend and roommate's death.

It would have been great to have a real Mike to look after me when I finished writing. I was that drained.

I haven't edited the draft yet, about five weeks after writing it. But thinking of it gives me an important insight into how Mike handles police work.

It feels great to get a confession out of a murderer -- even a fictional one.


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  • Great post! Thank you for sharing your writing progress and process.

  • In reply to Weather Girl:

    Thanks for reading, so that I have incentive to keep writing -- someone to "report" to.

  • Does Mike Hossa get to attach electrodes to Name Withheld's genitals? Or is it pure fiction?

  • In reply to jack:

    It's fiction, Jack, and it's in what's called the cozy tradition, so that's a big no. Also, it's a confession I've drafted -- not an interrogation.

  • This is a great post. It's riveting to learn of unanticipated real-time events in a writer's life that wind up providing the necessary emotion, mood, language, and fuel for writing particular scenes! You never know what's going to inspire problem-solving. Thank you for sharing your process, and the Martin Edwards quote about the risks of "behaving badly towards a crime writer"!

  • In reply to folkloric:

    You're welcome. I'm glad to share how I (finally) managed to find the right mood. I recommend Martin Edwards' book highly... watch this space for more about it.

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