|Nancy Wood, Author|
Welcome to mystery author Nancy Wood. As a career technical writer, Nancy turned to fiction as an antidote to help buttons and user documentation. She lives in Santa Cruz, Calif – known for its Boardwalk and quirky politics. She produced Shelby McDougall in the first book of a series, DUE DATE, as an amateur sleuth who becomes a surrogate mother to help pay off her college debt.
In the following article, Nancy offers tips on how to create a compelling amateur sleuth. Her insight into the challenge suggests a truly interesting character in her own Shelby McDougall.
Creating a Compelling Amateur Sleuth
By Nancy Wood
When I was writing DUE DATE and developing my protagonist, Shelby McDougall, I thought a lot about the term “compelling amateur sleuth.” What did that mean exactly? I knew my character had to be likeable and sympathetic. She also had to be believable.
So, I did some research. First, I looked up the word compelling, defined as: “having a powerful and irresistible effect; requiring acute admiration, attention, or respect.” Then, I thought about the characteristics of an amateur: someone who’s new at something, inexperienced, unskilled. Add to that the notion of crime-solving, and it’s an interesting contradiction: How does someone who’s an inexperienced detective solve a crime that the experts can’t? And how does that stay within the realm of belief?
Finally, after weeks of background stories and plotting, I got to work. But, every so often, I’d sit back and inventory. Would readers accept a very pregnant surrogate mother as an amateur sleuth? Was my character, Shelby McDougall, trusting enough to stumble into a crime, but smart enough to see under the surface? What would motivate her? And how would she solve it?
Here are the guidelines I came up with as I wrote, based on simple advice I found, of all places, in an eHow.com post, not a site you'd typically go for writing advice! I’ll just give the overview here; I don’t want to delve into specifics and spoil it for those of you who haven’t read DUE DATE.
· Shelby had to be irresistible: nuanced, layered, funny, and insightful, yet a bit naïve.
· In addition to being irresistible, Shelby had to be likeable. Readers would have to have a reason to keep reading.
· She had to be smart enough and persistent enough to solve the crime. Yet, on the flip side, she had to be innocent enough to get involved in the crime in the first place.
· She had to have a compelling reason to stay in the investigation. Either she had to be the primary suspect or someone close to her had to be a suspect.
· She had to have a special skill that helped her.
· She had to have a weakness to make people resonate with her. She couldn’t be arrogant or snooty.
· The crime had to be set up so that it didn’t require DNA or fingerprints or police labs to solve. The clues had to be available to everyone; yet only Shelby, with her smarts and persistence, would be able to piece them together.
I had an extra layer of complexity when writing DUE DATE: I wrote it from a first-person point of view, so that Shelby had to discover all the clues on her own. On the one hand, this gave me the opportunity to introduce only clues that she would know. But this was equally limiting, as the clues couldn’t be too obvious. They had to be fuzzy and open to interpretation, so that the reader wouldn’t get too frustrated by Shelby’s inability to see what was right in front of her.
In the second book in the series, which I’m working on now, Shelby’s grown up a bit and is much more wary. It’s several years later, and she’s pulled back into the same type of crime she experienced in DUE DATE, with many of the same characters. But she’s still an amateur, and because this book is also from the first-person point of view, I’m struggling with some of the same challenges. But the end is in sight, and I’m hoping that this version of Shelby is as compelling and irresistible as her earlier self.
Nancy Wood lives in Santa Cruz, California, where she has made writing her career. For many years prior to her move to Santa Cruz, she made her living as a technical writer, working in software documentation. Laid off from her job about six years ago, she set up her own shop. Now, she is writing and is a business consultant, enjoying grappling with words and sentences.
DUE DATE, published by Solstice Publishing, came out at the end of May 2012. Wood started it about six years ago, and is now working on the second book in the Shelby McDougall series.
Surrogate mother Shelby McDougall just fell for the biggest con of all—a scam that risks her life and the lives of her unborn twins.
Shelby McDougall, recent college graduate, is facing a mountain of student debt and carting a burden she'd like to exorcise. A Rolling Stone ad for a surrogate mother offers her a way to erase the loans and right her karmic place in the cosmos. Within a month, she's signed a contract with intended parents Jackson and Diane Entwistle, relocated to Santa Cruz, California, and started fertility treatments.
But Jackson and Diane have their own secret agenda, one that has nothing to do with diapers and lullabies. With her due date looming and the clues piling up, Shelby must save herself and her twins, and outwit those who wish her ill... She learns the real meaning of the word “family.”
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