Once upon a time, a long time ago, when Bill and I were writing for the Hardy Boys series, we had a great editor named Bill McKay. Bill was a Hardy Boys fan from way back, and was wise in the ways of the series. Wise in writing mysteries, actually. He understood how a mystery worked, unlike some of the editors we worked with on the Nancy Drew series, who were sometimes more interested in Nancy's wardrobe and love life than in the mystery. He always gave us good advice about plots and characterization--helpful, back in those days when we were pretty much just starting out.
One of the things that sticks in my mind from those days was Bill McKay's smart advice about the detective's "franchise." Every detective, he used to say, has to have a very good reason for being involved with the case. He (or she) has to be motivated. The cop's franchise is simple, right? Solving the crime is his job. It's what he gets paid to do. Private eyes also get paid to solve the crime: somebody shows up in the detective's office with a mystery, slaps down a retainer, and the PI gets down to cases (usually a little more eagerly if he is broke or bored or both).
But amateur sleuths--the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Miss Marple, China Bayles, Kate and Charles Sheridan, et. al--have to have a different reason for being involved in the investigation of a crime, what Bill McKay called the detective's franchise. Miss Marple's friend is unjustly accused of murder, and Miss Marple has to find the real killer. Somebody is sending poison pen letters to Nancy's pal George, and Nancy has to get to the bottom of it. A man shows up and announces that he's China's brother and he thinks their father was murdered--what's she going to do about it? A baby is left on Beatrix Potter's doorstep: why? whose? who left it there?
Bill McKay used to insist that the franchise be believable (within the context of the story), and never let us get away with a sloppy, unrealistic franchise. That was twenty years ago, but to this day, I never sit down to start writing a mystery without thinking about the franchise. The mystery I'm writing now, for instance. For very good reasons, I want to set it in a Kentucky Shaker village, which I've named Zion's Spring. By what believable mechanism do I get China there? She and Ruby and Cass are busy on the home front--why will she agree to go to Kentucky? Who wants her at Zion's Spring, and why? The answers to these questions involve Bill McKay's "franchise," and answering them takes me the better part of the first two chapters, and I'm pretty well satisfied with the way they turned out.
I hope, when you read the book, you'll agree that it's a realistic, believable situation. I also hope that you'll think about this issue the next time you read a mystery--any mystery. Does the detective--cop, PI, or amateur--have a strong franchise, or a weak one? Do you find the situation credible? Maybe yes? Maybe no? Maybe sort of? I'll bet that the answers to that question will have a big influence on your reading of the book.
Writing log. Making progress: 12 writing days, 17,000 words. I worked on the back story today, trying to alternate between that and the main story (worked on that yesterday), to keep in touch with both. My big concern is that I have too much material, and that I won't be able to tie the two stories together (maybe that won't matter?) I ran across a mention of "gift drawings" yesterday, and hung one on a (fictional) wall, although I don't have any clear idea how I'm going to use it. Also ran across a novel called The Believers, published in 1957 and reissued by the University of Kentucky Press, which I am happily reading. Giles is a strong regional writer with a full understanding of the period and place (the South Union Shaker village in the 1830s). Wonder why I've never come across her before. I often learn more from a good novel than from a history book.
Reading note. Motivation means what-do-they-want-and-why? With strong motivation, you'll have strong conflict. Your main character, first of all, should be striving for some life-or-death issue. Perhaps literally; perhaps only because happiness is at stake. In the long run, happiness is always at stake.--Phyllis A. Whitney