The moment I read the opening lines of A is for Alibi, my writing would never be the same again.
‘My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the State of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind.’
The author, Sue Grafton, captures the essence of Kinsey Millhone in those first three sentences. It’s like you’re meeting her at a party. She introduces herself, tells you what she does and where she’s at. And then she says, oh, by the way, I killed someone yesterday.
That’s how to grab the reader.
So, what have I learned?
You can write a great murder mystery in the first person
You don’t need to jump between hero and villain to create tension, suspense or mystery. Following Kinsey as she relates the story, you discover everything with her. Together, you follow the trail of clues, share her thoughts and fears, and enjoy her witty observations on life.
This is a personal relationship, taking you right into the heart of the story and the action. You are not an observer – you are part of the story, adding to the enjoyment.
Even the best detectives need help
While there’s no doubt Kinsey is a feisty, self-sufficient character, she needs people to help her. Being a private investigator, she doesn’t have a team of police officers to share the work. She doesn’t have a uniform to gain access to records and evidence that would help her.
She needs someone in the police who’s willing to help her out and supply her with information from time to time. Throughout the series, there are a number of police officers who have that role and often work with her to solve a case. Without them, she would need to rely even more on her wits and charm.
At home, her neighbour, Henry, acts as a sounding board. Theirs is a warm, deep relationship that grows with each book, adding to the central core of key characters that make up her life.
A good backstory adds depth and texture
The family issues that haunt Kinsey are never far away. They don’t feature in every novel, but they play their part, providing insights into Kinsey’s complex character. They pose additional problems and distractions, changing the mood and offering a break from the main story.
Best of all, they providing their own interesting story as the reader gets to know more about Kinsey and why she is who she is. Her struggles add texture and extra interest to the novels.
You don’t need blood, guts and shoot outs
Kinsey is stubborn, feisty and highly principled, battling for justice as she solves her cases. She never lets go. This gets her into scrapes where she gets shot and hurt. She risks her life and comes off worst on many occasions, but she always wins through, thanks to cunning, doggedness and intelligence.
While there’s plenty of action, it’s not gratuitous or graphic. Kinsey holds centre stage, creating the suspense, tension and battles of wit that deliver excitement.
Setting becomes a character in itself
Santa Teresa is a fictional town on the California coast. It’s where Kinsey lives, works and runs along the beach. It’s quiet in winter, it doesn’t rain much, and it’s populated with all manner of people and businesses. Her travels in and around the area are often documented in great detail, adding to the authentic feel the author brings to the setting.
Unlike a real town, the author’s in control of what’s there and where it is. That freedom gives Santa Teresa a heart that beats with a vibrant rhythm.
You can keep a character fresh and interesting
24 books is a long time in anyone’s language. While the cases vary with each novel, the backstory keeps the books fresh and interesting. You care about the people around Kinsey, and you want to learn more about her past and the family she tries to keep at arm’s length.
Kinsey also develops, learning something from every case. She often evaluates her life and the mistakes that show she’s as flawed as the rest of us. She runs the whole range of human emotion, always sharing her heart and soul with the reader.
After 24 books, I’m still enjoying Kinsey’s investigations, her life, and the complicated family backstory that weaves in and out of the series. I’ve learned a lot from the books, which helped me shape my first novel, No Accident.
Here’s to meeting Kinsey again in Y is for …