I mostly write murder mysteries, something entirely at odds with Jane Austen’s stories of manners and love in the 19th century. But I love Austen and have read every one of her stories as well as watched and re-watched every movie version of her books. In doing so, I couldn’t help but absorb some lessons.
Here are five things Jane Austen taught me about writing murder mysteries:
One: Readers love to hate someone. This one works for me and my stories, where there’s always a dead body lying around somewhere. I have great fun creating characters an audience can wish gone or dead or just for a little bad luck to befall them.
In Jane Austen, the hated person usually is rude, shallow or a conniving gold-digger. I love that feeling of catching on to Lady Susan’s ploys or Mr. William Elliot’s calculating intentions.
We want to cheer for the heroine, and jeer the villain. In fact, if there was no villain, in one form or another, there’d be no plot.
Two: Make your readers wait for it. Oh, Mr. Darcy, you were probably my first infatuation. I wanted him to sweep Elizabeth off her feet, but was so willing to watch this romance reach full bloom. If the path to requited love was quick or easy, we wouldn’t be nearly as joyful at the end. The reader wants the protagonist to struggle through roadblock after roadblock to achieve their goal. A satisfying end is made sweeter by the effort it took to achieve. A mystery is never solved in the first chapter. There are red herrings and other possible suspects to consider. When the culprit is finally unmasked, we get that satisfying “Aha!” moment.
Three: The main character needs to undergo a change. Think Emma and her know-it-all matchmaking, or Anne allowing someone else to tell her who she must or mustn’t marry in Persuasion. In the end, their core characters are changed.
Authors talk about the exterior and interior journey a protagonist needs to take. Some genres, primarily thrillers, don’t require an interior journey or fundamental change. Many mysteries don’t either. I tend to like having my character learn something about themselves by the end of the book, either by other characters or by the murder itself. My Wild Crime series, for instance, is fundamentally a story of an abused woman discovering her own inner strength, and I loved watching her grow.
Four: Let me see the scenery. Someone told me recently they don’t like a book with too many descriptions. Certainly, there’s a vast difference between the descriptive styles of sumptuous historical fiction and taut suspense thrillers. In either and all genres, however, you have to set the scene. Even Tom Cruise action films take us to the tops of mountains and skyscrapers for a reason. No matter the genre, we want to be thrilled, we want to be there with the characters. A book can’t be all action and dialogue and no scenery.
The trick, of course, is to inject the scenery into scenes appropriately. Jane Austen describes estates and clothing, hair styles and carriages. She does this as her characters are moving through the gardens, attending dances or sipping tea. The scenery becomes a part of the action and, to her millions of loving fans, another character in her stories.
My three Wild Crime books are set in beautiful Idaho and the remote nature of the state plays a significant role on the psychology of my heroine, Meredith Lowe. I want the reader to feel both the beauty and danger inherent in isolated places. Setting is sometimes referred to as another main character in a story – it’s that important.
Five: All must be nearly lost before it’s gained. Oh Mr. Darcy, (yes, you again), I love you more because you almost slipped away. Jane Austen kept you at bay for the entire book and only delivered you up toward the end of the eleventh hour. In Austen’s books, a “good” marriage is the ultimate goal. She thrusts those opportunities upon her characters even as we, her savvy readers, know they’re all wrong. Then right at the end, hurray, our heroine is saved into a good marriage.
This is similar to No. 2 above, but take it a step further. Not only do you want to make the reader wait for it, even better is to make them feel it may never happen. The essence of this is true in any worthy mystery. The reader wants to feel as though there’s no way the hero will bring the villain to justice – except at the end, they do! Done too soon, the reader loses interest; we want to be kept guessing.
Of course, I learn from every author I read, in one way or another. Writers must be readers. I read for enjoyment first, but on occasion I find it helpful to stop and think about the mechanics of a good book. Like Sense and Sensibility, or my all-time favorite Jane Austen work, Pride and Prejudice.