Novelist discusses who-done-it how-tos
During an average work day, novelist Dorothy “D.A.” Featherling may take care of marketing tasks, speak at a civic club, work on manuscript revisions, attend a book signing, and draft a chapter of her current novel. Dorothy has published five novels in multiple genres, including mystery, romantic comedy, and futuristic suspense. She shares with the View how she crafts a good mystery, murder and all.
As a writer of mystery novels, what do you think makes for a good mystery?
I’m a mystery fan. It’s what I most like to read . . . so I’m picky about what constitutes “good” for me. I think a good mystery has to have authenticity as to its setting, characters, and the unfolding of the story in a logical sequence. A book has to have appealing characters involved in situations that evoke sympathy and . . . empathy. I read for the sweep of the novel—the setting, the action, the characters. . . . I like to be surprised with the ending.
Where do you begin when writing a mystery, or any book for that matter?
For some reason, whatever I write, I have to have my title first. . . . [And] since I do enjoy writing humor, as in my romantic comedies, sometimes my book and series titles have a bit of pun involved, or humor, as in the series title It’s Murder at the Office and its double meaning. Sometimes the title comes to me and then I unfold a story from that; other times, the storyline is in my head and the title comes up after I’ve mentally chewed on how I want it to end.
There are two kinds of writers—those who outline books chapter by chapter or use a similar arrangement and those known as “seat of the pants-ers” (SOTP). They start writing and see what happens. That works okay for some kinds of fiction, but I’ve discovered, when you write a mystery, you need to have a logical train of events that led up to the crime and then follow through for the solution to the crime. I may start writing, [but] after a few chapters in which I establish my characters and setting and the crime is committed, then I do start outlining in my head and eventually noting on paper what can be the sequence of events the hero or heroine must go through to reach a successful conclusion.
How do you develop compelling characters—including the murderer—in a novel?
You have to have believable characters. Your hero or heroine needs to be someone people can relate to, and your villain someone they love to hate. Of course, your villain needs to evoke a little sympathy, but the reader needs to feel satisfied that villains deserve to be caught and punished for their crimes. Tradition says “the butler did it,” but real life shows that many people kill, and many others are affected by the ripple effect such a crime has.
A challenge any mystery writer faces is accuracy. You have to be accurate with things like your murder weapon of choice, with police (or detective) procedure, and with how people really act and react to crime and its intrusion into their normal life. I want to make sure I’m as accurate as possible, so I find experts who will advise me. I’ve found that law enforcement folks are generally extremely helpful. Sometimes the quest for information can be a bit humorous, too. When I was researching police procedure for my futuristic suspense Time Out, I called a metropolitan police department [about] . . . the procedure they went through when someone went missing. The person on the other end of the phone listened to . . . [my] request for information, then very coldly informed me, “Ma’am, it’s not a crime to be missing!” I thought that was a great line and actually used it in my novel.
What do you find enjoyable and rewarding about writing mystery novels?
Throughout my life, reading has been my “retreat” for a short time, after which I’m able to deal in a refreshed manner with what’s going on [in my life]. The main reason I started writing . . . was picturing someone reading a book written by me. If, as they closed the back cover, they were smiling, then I felt I would have done a very good thing. I know from some readers that my books have given them escape from some pretty huge issues in their lives [and] have helped them recharge to face whatever their reality is. That’s a worthwhile reason to write.
Dorothy’s first book in the It’s Murder at the Office series, It Adds Up to Murder, was published in March 2013. Contact Dorothy Featherling at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 512-663-1407 about speaking to civic groups or clubs, church groups, schools, book clubs, and for book signings. Find her online at www.dafeatherling.com.