The Lure of Secrets in Fiction

I have a confession to make. I’m guilty of flipping to the last pages of a book to find out the secrets at the end.

I’m better than I used to be. When I was in primary school, I was a big fan of the mystery series, The Nancy Drew Files, and used to cheat by reading the ending more often than not. These days, I appreciate the pay-off from exercising patience (I simply read faster to get to the big reveal).

In her popular blog, Helping Writers Become Authors, K.M. Weiland states there is only one reason that readers read, and that’s curiosity. A clever author will “milk that secret for everything it’s worth” if they want the reader to continue reading their book (or you could just do what I did, and skip to the end).

I realised that I’ve always preferred to read (and write) stories based around a key secret and the consequences of that secret being revealed. I even noticed that ‘Secrets’ is one of the most popular words in the titles of books I’ve recently read and enjoyed:

    The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge by Kali Napier
    The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
    Little Secrets by Anna Snoekstra
    The Secrets She Keeps by Michael Robotham
    Her Mother’s Secret by Natasha Lester
    The Secrets of Wishtide by Kate Saunders
    The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

I’m not the only person who can’t resist a story with a shocking secret.

At this year’s Brisbane Writer’s Festival (BWF2018), I attended a session with crime fiction writers Aoife Clifford, author of All These Perfect Strangers and Second Sight, and the prolific Denise Mina, currently promoting her true crime novel, The Long Drop. The panel was chaired by Brisbane author, Ben Hobson (To Become A Whale) who asked both authors about secrets in fiction (predominantly crime fiction). Aoife noted that at the heart of a crime novel is a secret, especially in a country town or a place where you think you know everybody, but you don’t. Denise agreed that almost all crime fiction is based on getting the reader to “wonder something”.

As demonstrated by my list of ‘secret’ books above above, crime fiction isn’t the only genre using secrets to lure readers. There’s crime fiction on that list, but also historical fiction, and another popular genre for secrets – domestic noir. In his blog post, The Secret to Secrets in Novels on This Business of Writing, author C. Patrick Schulze notes that almost every type of novel can use the power of secrets by creating suspense, and to enhance the climax by revealing a shocking plot twist. A secret also provides an excellent source of conflict between characters. As Aoife Clifford stated at BWF2018, secrets are great because there’s so many things that can go wrong. They affect the relationships of characters who wonder, ‘what else are you keeping from me?’

The secret may not always be the answer to a whodunit but could be a family secret kept private, or as in some popular classics, a hidden wife locked in an upstairs chamber or the identity of a mysterious benefactor. One of the most popular novels (and now television adaptations) of late is Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. The three main characters are all keeping a raft of secrets, each with their own potentially devastating consequences.

A writer with the ability to craft a well-timed secret is a bit of a secret in itself. At BWF2018, Ben asked Aoife and Denise about writing scenes where secrets are revealed. Aoife said this was the hardest thing of all. She stated that structure is really important and suggested delivering the message in small amounts by cutting away and then coming back, and telling the story of one important event from six different perspectives. Denise agreed with the idea of “parcelling information out” and asking yourself if you want the reader knowing before the protagonist. In her post, K.M. Weiland recommends writers reveal the answer at the latest possible moment in the story and at a time when it will be most devastating to the characters. Sometimes that may be halfway through the novel as in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

Secrets in fiction play on the reader’s desire to know the truth. A clever author will get the reader involved by reaching out to them, allowing them to become an active participant in the story. Finding out the answers can become a bit of an addiction. In the words of Aoife Clifford: “Secrets are delicious, we can’t get enough of secrets.”

What is the best book you’ve read with a secret? Let me know in the comments section below.

Buy Second Sight by Aoife Clifford here.

Buy The Long Drop by Denise Mina here.

Buy To Become A Whale by Ben Hobson here.

Mystery of the Month – Lethal White

Lethal White, otherwise known as Lethal Wait, amiright?

Since October 2015, I’ve been slowly turning to dust waiting for the fourth instalment of Robert Galbraith’s crime fiction series about Cornish detective, Cormoran Strike. The third book, Career of Evil, ended with Strike capturing the “Shacklewell Ripper”, crashing Robin’s wedding and receiving a death stare from her now-husband, Matthew.

Lethal White begins by tying off the loose ends following Robin’s “I do”. For those readers lamenting Robin’s decision to proceed with her marriage to the obviously unsuitable Matthew, and who have been wondering what she will do when she learns Matthew blocked Strike’s calls on her mobile phone (i.e. all readers); this gets answered in a lengthy prologue at the start of the book.

The novel then jumps forward to one year later. London is preparing for the Olympics. Business is booming following Strike’s fame as the man who caught the Ripper, and he’s distracting himself from thoughts of Robin with the beautiful and convenient Lorelei. Meanwhile, Robin has been experiencing panic attacks and comparing her marriage to the act of “moving chess pieces on a board that was vibrating in the preliminary tremors of an earthquake.”

The plot kicks off when Billy, a disturbed young man, bursts into Strike’s office and says he witnessed a child being strangled “up near the horse” and buried in a dell. An elaborate spiderweb of a story ensues. Strike discovers the dell is on an Oxfordshire property belonging to Minister for Culture, Jasper Chiswell, where Billy and his older brother, Jimmy Knight, grew up. Chiswell subsequently hires Strike and Robin to investigate a case of blackmail involving Jimmy, the leader of a radical left wing political group protesting the Olympics. Robin goes undercover as Chiswell’s goddaughter, working in the House of Commons to get dirt on Minister for Sport, Della Winn and her lecherous husband, Geraint. Here she meets Chiswell’s latest wife, the much younger, horse-obsessed Kinvara, his industrious daughter, Izzy, and disturbingly charming illegitimate son, Raphael.

There’s plenty of sordid activity amidst both groups – affairs, sexual harassment, deception, double crossing and betrayal which seem disparate but are somehow masterfully connected by the end of the novel. And at 650 pages, it’s a long time to wait for answers. However, I was so absorbed in the story that by the time we finally reached the end of Part 1, and the suitably gruesome and dramatic discovery of the dead body, I’d forgotten I was reading a murder mystery. In fact, there’s so much going on it’s impossible for the reader to correctly guess the answers to any of the novel’s questions – why is Chiswell being blackmailed? Why are they quoting Latin? What do all of these horses have to do with anything? Towards the end when Strike is encouraging Robin to piece together the solution, even she gives up and chooses instead to sip champagne and enjoy a warm breeze.

There’s an overarching theme of ‘pairs’ throughout the novel but as usual, the core of the story is the pairing of Strike and Robin. Amidst second-guessing their feelings for other and analysing each other’s romantic relationships, their discussion of the case and their banter as they bounce theories off each other provides the most enjoyable parts of the novel. Unfortunately, in Lethal White, much of this doesn’t occur until the final quarter when Strike and Robin are literally digging in the dirt for answers.

J.K. Rowling (we all know she’s Robert Galbraith, so I won’t digress) wrote the best-selling series of books in history so naturally, everyone has high expectations for her latest work. Lethal White doesn’t disappoint – it’s superior storytelling, balancing an entertaining mystery with the personal lives of its main characters, especially Robin, who has hit a wall and uses this novel to find her feet again. There’s some clever writing between the lines, themes with multiple interpretations and subtle political commentary including a statement Della makes during Strike’s interview about men’s crimes always being blamed on women “who should have stopped it, who should have acted, who must have known.”

Several other reviewers have stated it needs a good edit, but we’ll leave that up to the poor sod who has to turn it into a screenplay for the next television adaptation. This is a novel to savour while we eagerly await the next one.

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith is published in Australia by Hachette.

Standout Simile: –

It was no use trying to suppress the panic: that only made it fight back, trying to bend her to its will. She must ride it out, as though the fear was a bolting horse, easing it onto a more manageable course. So she stood motionless, palms pressed against the partition walls, speaking to herself inside her head as though she were an animal handler, and her body, in its irrational terror, a frantic prey creature.

Writing During My Pregnancy

I haven’t announced my pregnancy on social media with a photograph of baby booties or me standing in a meadow holding my belly and looking dreamy. One reason for this is because after two losses, I wanted to be certain this baby was a grower. Even now, at 37 weeks pregnant, I’m still cautious about referring to my pregnant state, despite the fact it’s obvious. I acknowledge other women who would love to have a child but who struggle or who simply cannot. I think about how they feel seeing other people’s happy announcements.

When I started my blog, I wrote two posts per month. One, a book review of a mystery novel – my chosen genre of writing. Two, a post about writing relevant to the stage of my ‘writing journey’. On this journey, I’m currently writing during my pregnancy. And it’s been different to writing during my not-pregnancy.

During my not-pregnancy, a period of my life which I recall now with some difficulty, I had a writing routine of evenings after work and weekends. Over the past two years, I’ve written the first draft of my cozy mystery novel and have nearly finished the first redraft. I’ve been efficient with my blogging, with last month (August 2018) being the first month I haven’t met my self-imposed deadlines.

The writing journey highlight of this year has been reading a piece from my work-in-progress at the launch of The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge – Kali Napier’s debut novel, at Avid Reader in February. (If you haven’t read this novel yet, you absolutely must). That evening, while I was reading my work in front of Kali’s sold-out audience, I thought I was having my third miscarriage. However, the next day, my husband and I visited our obstetrician and saw (and heard) something we hadn’t before – a heartbeat. And today, many months later, I have a foot poking me in the side of my abdomen.

The Write-Off Trimester

During my first trimester of pregnancy, I felt like crap. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t vomiting and I went to work most days. I was grateful for my healthy pregnancy. But once I got home from work, I didn’t feel like doing anything. Not a single thing. Couldn’t even read a book, let alone write. Bedtime was 8pm. I accepted that during this period, I wasn’t going to be able to maintain my usual writing routine. Or any routine. Productivity – zero.

The Baby Brain Trimester

I started feeling better around 16 weeks into my pregnancy. I was eating more food and had more energy at work. During the day, I used my brain a lot for process-driven work. But something was different. “Your brain is shrinking,” my co-worker helpfully informed me. Turns out ‘baby brain’ is a legit thing. When I came home from work and tried to be creative, I’d read back over what I’d written and realise I’d made some embarrassing mistakes. Things I found I could do were editing (requires less creativity) and flash fiction (shorter bursts of creativity). I made headway on my cozy mystery using the Hemingway Editor and made sure I entered Furious Fiction with the Australian Writers’ Centre every month. I even submitted my manuscript to a few competitions. Productivity – fifty/fifty.

The Quick! Catch Up Trimester

Three weeks ago, I started maternity leave! Look at all the free time. Look at all the free time FLYING BY WHERE IS IT GOING HELP?!

Along with getting my blog back on track, I’ve made some significant changes to my cozy mystery. A few months ago, I wrote a post about writing in different points-of-view, deliberating over whether or not my story would be better told in first person or third person. And I’ve made a decision! I’m currently halfway through changing my story into first person. The main character, Sylvie, is much more present on the page. A fresh point of view is also like a fresh pair of eyes – showing me where things can be cut and hopefully, leading me towards my goal of a snappier, polished story.

I’m engaged in writing again. It appears Baby is also engaged… in my pelvis. I could go into labour any day now. I don’t know what to expect from this new chapter of my life or how much time I will have for reading and writing. Maybe not much at first. The benefits of being an unpublished writer is that I’ve only got my own deadlines to meet, so I will be kind to myself – at least for the first few months. Wish me luck!

Mystery of the Month – April in Paris, 1921

Spring has sprung so why not start your September with April in Paris, 1921 – sexy historical fiction budding with romance, intrigue and mystery?

Former WWI nurse, Katherine ‘Kiki’ Button has shed the cocooned life her parents planned for her (marriage to a baron and babies) and emerges free as a butterfly in London, seeking employment from close friend and occasional lover, Bertie Browne, subeditor of The Star newspaper. He sends her to Paris to attend fancy society parties and write tongue-in-cheek gossip columns about bohemians, artists and aristocrats.

In the city of dreams, Kiki drowns her war memories in champagne, fancy cocktails and frequent trysts with a variety of lovers, including artist Pablo Picasso. Things get interesting when Picasso asks Kiki to find a stolen painting of his wife. At the same time, Kiki’s old spymaster, the enigmatic Dr Fox, blackmails her into tracking down a mole or else risk the release of secrets that will endanger her beloved Tom. Naturally, the two mysteries are somehow linked.

A debut novelist but an experienced writer, Tessa Lunney is well-researched on war and war fiction with an in-depth understanding of the political and social climate of the era and setting. Her depiction of 1920s Paris is sumptuous and vivid, from the fashions and food to its famous inhabitants. It’s easy to visualise Kiki sitting on the windowsill of her studio, smoking her cigarettes with her legs dangling high above Parisian streets, relishing her freedom. The residual trauma of the war is ever present, lurking in the background for many of the main characters. Lunney’s writing style is swift with bursts of snappy dialogue and poetic imagery.

A quick and easy read, April in Paris, 1921 is as bright and colourful as one of Kiki’s society parties – full of larger than life characters and over in a whirlwind of jazz dancing and purple cocktails. Kiki is an intelligent, modern woman, expertly decoding the clues in Keats poems planted by the confusing Fox and charming everyone she meets (often into bed). A refreshing leading lady, Kiki, ‘the blonde Australienne’, does what she wants, enjoys flirting with danger and relishes in the challenges she faces as a blossoming detective.

Devour this novel as you would a delicious pastry or rich piece of cake. And leave room for seconds as there’s unfinished business with Fox and Tom, as well as the first seeds of fascism paving the way for a sequel.

April In Paris, 1921 by Tessa Lunney is published in Australia by HarperCollins Publishers.

Standout Simile: –

The sky was purple like lilacs, like royalty, like a bruised mouth, as it slowly passed into darkness.

Why I Love My Online Writing Community

Social media can be a pitfall for writers. For the busy writer juggling home and work commitments with only a few precious moments to fit in writing time, social media is a black hole of distraction. By the time you’ve liked all the photos of your interstate cousin’s newborn baby portraits and watched that heartwarming video of the guy resuscitating a prairie dog, there’s ten valuable minutes you haven’t spent writing.

However, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms are also full of published and unpublished writers. As a writer using social media to connect with other writers, agents, editors and publishers, being part of an online writing community is a great motivator. Especially as writing can otherwise be quite a solitary pursuit.

When I first decided to write my novel, I signed up to do Year of the Novel Online with the Australian Writer’s Marketplace. I realised there were many other writers wanting to commit to the task of writing a novel and lots of them had great ideas for stories. I then discovered the So You Want To Be A Writer podcast, which has a huge following of writers and a Facebook group where writers can ask questions and share ideas. The Australian Writers’ Centre runs a course called Build Your Author Platform, which provides advice on how to use social media to promote yourself as a writer and to build a network with other writers and those in the writing and publishing industry.

I was soon following lots of other writers on social media – and some of them were following me back! Now when I open one of my social media accounts, my news feeds consist mainly of pictures of other writers’ laptops besides lovely tea cups, the latest book recommendations, writing questions and writing-related blog posts.

Even though I haven’t met most of these other writers, I know if I have a question someone will answer it. And although I haven’t asked anyone to beta read my work yet, I know someone would volunteer to do that if I did ask. And I would gladly do the same (and have done) for them. There is a strong feeling of support and encouragement from other writers and it’s so reassuring when you’re facing a roadblock or a rejection to find out that others have felt exactly the same way. We are also there to congratulate each other on our successes, and when one of us gets a book published, are the first on the pre-order list.

Several published authors are also active on social media and communicate with fans. A simple acknowledgement with a ‘like’ from an author when I’ve tweeted about enjoying their book makes my day. I will never forget when J.K. Rowling liked my tweet about her Robert Galbraith novel, Career of Evil. Sometimes it can be disappointing sharing your review of a book on social media only to find the author hasn’t acknowledged your review, especially if it was a positive review. But there are many authors, such as Natasha Lester, Louise Allan, Sarah Bailey and Lia Weston, who are lovely people to follow on social media because they support other writers, are grateful for the support they receive, and have lots of great advice to give.

Thank you to everyone in my online writing community for being wonderful and supportive. I wish you all the very best with your writing goals, whatever they may be, and I look forward to seeing you achieve them.

Mystery of the Month – The Other Wife

Clinical psychologist Joe O’Loughlin is back in The Other Wife – the ninth and possibly final instalment of award-winning author Michael Robotham’s series of crime fiction novels set in London.

Joe’s father, distinguished surgeon William O’Loughlin, is in a medically induced coma after being brutally beaten. Joe arrives at the hospital, expecting to see his mother, Mary, and William’s wife of 60 years. However, he finds a strange woman by his father’s beside, claiming to be William’s other wife. Joe thinks the woman, Olivia Blackmore, is lying, but soon learns she’s been living with his father in London for 19 years. Even more shocking is that Mary and several of William’s friends knew about Olivia.

When Joe discovers mysterious bruises on his father’s body, he realises someone deliberately tried to hurt him. He embarks on an investigation with the help of retired detective and good friend (and big fan of boiled sweets), Vincent Ruiz – everyone’s favourite character, who gets all the good lines.

There’s a solid cast of questionable suspects- Olivia’s troubled son Ewan, drug addict Micah Beauchamp and former soldier Ray D’Marco, who has a reason for wanting William both alive and dead. And can Joe really believe Olivia? She has a complicated history – a tennis star married to her much older coach who was suspiciously killed in a car accident. Could she be a black widow? And what’s the link with William’s best friend, retired solicitor Kenneth Passage, his wife Rosie, and their son, David?

Meanwhile, Joe has a lot going on his personal life. He’s been battling Parkinson’s Disease for thirteen years, his 12-year old daughter, Emma is still dealing with her grief following the death of her mother (Joe’s wife, Julianne), and his relationship with DS Kate Hawthorn might be more than professional.

While the mystery is top notch, it’s the characters who really make the story. Joe had a complicated relationship with his father – remembering a distant and disinterested man whom he always tried to impress, and he struggles to reconcile that image with this man who is a bigamist, and who may have been involved in fraud and medical malpractice. A scene in a graveyard between Joe and Emma is also beautifully written and memorable. Robotham has an in-depth understanding of his characters and their motivations, drawing on his own personal experiences.

There’s plenty of action – poor old Joe gets beaten about a fair bit, both physically and emotionally, his daughters get held at knifepoint, and more than one person gets killed. The mystery is cleverly plotted, with lots of twist and turns, making it a fun challenge for even the sharpest crime fiction fan to guess what’s really going on.

Whether you’ve followed Joe’s journey from the first novel (2004’s The Suspect), or if you’ve just picked up The Other Wife, it doesn’t really matter – Robotham is an absolute professional at crime fiction writing and this is a highly intelligent and entertaining novel. And if this does happen to be the last story for Joe, I hope you will enjoy the ending as much as I did. (It made me smile.)

The Other Wife is published by Hachette Australia.

Standout Simile: –

It’s a reasonable request, yet I feel like a kid whose party balloon has blown out of my hand and is drifting over the rooftops, never to be seen again.

Is Your Writing Meaningful Enough?

You know those books that stay with you long after you’ve finished reading them? Years later, you still remember how they made you feel because they affected you on a deeper emotional level?

I recently read the tweets of all the “Yes” votes for the Bath Novel Award 2018 (#BNA2018 on Twitter) and phrases such as “topical without being obvious or preachy” and “insightful, original and compelling with great emotional depth” had me panicking and questioning myself – what would they say if it was my novel? My novel isn’t particularly topical and it’s emotional depth is more fish tank than Pacific Ocean … so, is my novel shallow and meaningless?

I’m writing a cozy mystery, which, by definition, is a genre not typically known for being deep and meaningful. Cozy mysteries are light, fun and entertaining murder mysteries that leave you feeling satisfied, but usually don’t linger in your deeper subconscious or cause you to question the human condition.

In a recent podcast with Booktopia, writer Michael Robotham stated that the main objective for the author is to make the reader care. If the reader cares about your character, they will establish a connection with your character and will continue reading to find out what happens to them. This is particularly important advice if you are writing a series of books with the same main character (cozy mysteries are usually series with the same amateur sleuth).

But if my novel doesn’t explore any deeper themes, why would the reader care about my main character? What can I do to make sure the reader connects with the characters and doesn’t give up partway through the story?

I tried to think of books that really stayed with me after I read them, and why. The first one that came to mind is The Third Day, The Frost, by John Marsden, the third book in the Tomorrow, When the War Began series. As a teenager, this book had me in tears when (spoiler) Robyn saved the main character, Ellie, and their friends from a death sentence by activating a hand grenade to take out the villain, Major Harvey – but also ending her own life in the process. By this point, I really cared about Robyn as a character. Over three books, I’d gotten to know her and was rooting for her to survive. Instead, she sacrificed herself to save others – a truly heroic act. Of course, this is a YA novel, not a cozy mystery.

When I think of cozy mysteries I’ve read, I remember enjoying them but I don’t remember any stand out moments that hit a nerve or made me particularly emotional. They were entertaining, and it was fun to guess whodunit, but then I forgot about them.

Perhaps my real problem is that my desire to write a traditional cozy mystery is in conflict with my desire to write a story that stays with people.

But who says I can’t write a cozy mystery with characters that resonate with the reader?

Why can’t I, as the writer, put these characters through trials and tribulations that have the reader reaching for the tissues, the way I did when Robyn made the ultimate sacrifice? Or pausing to reflect for a moment after reading the final words, rather than casting the book aside to go put on a load of laundry, completely forgetting they’d even read the book by the time the washing machine is on spin cycle?

A recent article in The Huffington Post by Kristen Houghton says:

Today, authors no longer have to follow ‘rules’ and now set their own formula for success with their sleuthing women and men, including professional detectives and private investigators. Today’s cozy mysteries are popular because readers feel connected to the characters who seem like someone they would want to have as their friend. 

Perfect! I think my main character, Sylvie, is someone the reader would like to have as their friend, so perhaps all is not lost.

I also need to spend more time thinking about the themes in my novel.  An article on Novel Writing Help states that “all good novels, whatever the genre, should have a theme. This is what the novel is ‘about’.” My themes are becoming more apparent now I’ve almost finished the first full rewrite.

And themes don’t necessarily need to be topical or political to strike a chord with readers. Struggling to fit in and family relationships are themes used widely in novels because they are everyday issues readers can relate to.

Of course, meaning can’t be forced. It takes time, effort, consideration and many, many rewrites to make sure themes and subtext occur naturally within a story.

So my reader can still be entertained by the whodunit puzzle at the surface of my cozy mystery but underneath the surface, draw conclusions about aspects of their own life, or life in general. My novel may not win any literary competitions, but hopefully someone will care about Sylvie and be invested in her journey, the way I was with poor Robyn. (But I promise not to kill Sylvie off with a violent explosion).

Is your story imbued with a deep layer of meaning running beneath the surface? Is it full of subtext? If it is or isn’t, how much of that is due to the genre you are writing in? Or are you like me – worrying no one will remember your story if it doesn’t say something poignant about the human condition?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.