I am a huge fan of cozy mysteries. I skew toward book-related tales set in bookstores or libraries. I periodically expand my horizons and read a mystery set in a yarn store or a bakery or a dressmaker’s shop. I recently finished Pleating for Mercy by Melissa Bourbon about a slightly magical dressmaker named Harlow Cassidy in Texas who gets involved in solving a murder, as you do.
I’ve also been reading a book about editing as I’m entering my next round of edits on my cozy mystery in progress. (I’ll give you a spoiler – it’s set in a bookshop.) I happened to be on the chapter on interior monologue as I was reading Pleating for Mercy and once I was aware of its use to expand (or detract from) dialogue, I couldn’t help but notice it every time it appeared.
Most times the interior monologue helped clarify something Harlow was thinking but wouldn’t be saying to the person in front of her. That made sense.
There were other sections where it seemed to visually thicken the dialogue from a single line or two on the page to a paragraph. The actual words of the character were buried. I found myself skimming and needing to go back to see if the interior monologue (or a beat, as it sometimes turned out to be) was critical.
Aside from wanting to be sure that any interior monologue I include in my book is necessary and not just filler, I want to stay aware of how things look on the page. White space has its purpose, especially in tense scenes heavy with dialogue.
At some point I think I’ll print out my book single-spaced and in two columns landscape so it’s sort of like a book. That way I can see what my words look like.
Also, the characters got a bit muddied in Pleating for Mercy. Not the key characters – they stood apart from the rest. But the handful of others who are meant to mislead Harlow, and the reader, weren’t distinct enough to keep them straight in my mind. The single thing that I remember about most of those secondary characters are the clothes the dressmaker imagines in Harlow’s mind for them. But that fun fact can’t be trotted out every time the character appears.
Nancy Atherton does a terrific job of creating individuals in her Aunt Dimity series. The foundation of their distinctions lie in their relation to the village where the protagonist lives. There is the vicar and his wife, Teddy and Lilian Bunting. The couple who run the general store, Peggy and Jasper Taxman. The Peacocks who run the pub. Sally Pyne who runs the teashop and bakery. The mechanic who can fix anything.
Then specific traits are layered on. Peggy Taxman is tyrannical but keeps events in the village running. Teddy is a dour vicar offset by his lovely wife. Mr. Peacock is large and cheerful, his wife a charming cook. There are the elderly twin sisters who dress alike and finish each other’s sentences. Mr. Barlow, the mechanic, is never seen without his terrier.
There are so many people in the village and any additional characters specific to a single installment that it is a true feat to keep them as sharp personalities. I think it’s about finding ways to distinguish characters and keeping those traits consistent. The traits should also inform how the characters act which makes them more vivid. Other than the general shape and size of some of the characters, such as the rotund pub owner, I have images in my head for each other Atherton’s supporting cast. These images would probably look different from another reader but I see them and that’s what counts. There is enough detail to conjure a thick outline and then the reader can fill in the rest.
That’s what I need to remember when I go through my WIP – don’t list every little detail about a character or include unnecessary actions. The reader will fill in the gaps. I just need to write the path.