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Blurring the Lines Between Mystery and Magic

Originally published January 2010

Mystery writer Christy Evans is launching her own cozy mystery series about a lady plumber.  They are enormous fun.   The first book “Sink Trap” is available at all major bookstores.

Reading Science Fiction or fantasy is work – part of my day job as a novelist who deals with dragons¸ magicians, demons, space ships, and ray guns.  For fun I read cozy mysteries.

A mystery lies at the core of almost every story.  What secret does the romantic hero hide that keeps him from committing to the heroine?  Which magician has the power to use the elusive talisman hidden deep in the dragon’s hoard?  Who murdered the very wealthy diamond merchant on the 4th floor of a flea bag hotel?

Through the course of writing 22 fantasy and science fiction novels I delved into many mysteries.  But I always wanted to write a straightforward cozy, the kind of story I love to read.

Instead of a straight, mundane, mystery, I plotted a murder into the 2nd book of my urban fantasy series: “Moon In The Mirror, a Tess Noncoiré Adventure” by P.R. Frost. (one of my 3 pen names)  Magic and paranormal beings abound in this series.  Tess and her cohorts discover the truth by use of magic.  But this is an urban fantasy set in our modern world.  Magic is not evidence in our courts.  So other means must be used to prove guilt.

I had other problems in organizing this book as well.  One of my first readers informed me that he knew who had done the dirty deed as soon as they found the body.  There was only one disposable character in the entire cast.  A cast that grew with every draft.  In fantasy this wouldn’t be a problem.  The protagonist can kill a bad guy in order to save the planet.  Or one of the regulars can do prison time for manslaughter and show up in the next book emotionally scarred.  Not so much in cozies.

How to divert attention away from the culprit while dropping clues at the same time?

I’d entered an entirely new world of writing and had to add a new layer of thinking.  Time to read more cozies.  Research.  Honestly.  I read 7 books in 2 weeks for research.  Research.  Honestly.

Among those I read were several paranormal mysteries where magic, witchcraft, and ghosts featured heavily, including “Hex Marks The Spot” by Madelyn Alt, “The Remains Of The Dead” by Wendy Roberts, and “Ghost of a Chance” by Kate Marsh (Katie Macalister).  In every one, the paranormal aspects had to remain hidden, and if the evidence gained by paranormal means could not be presented in a way mundane courts could accept, then a different justice had to be sought.  That justice had to look like an accident.  Always the mundane explanation had to rule.  But we, the readers know a different truth.

Oh, yeah I could deal with that.

I’m not going to go into specifics, because I don’t want to spoil the stories for you if you haven’t read them yet.  But I learned a lot about how to write a mystery.

But most of all I learned that if a mystery writer is going to introduce paranormal elements, they have to figure in the problem, the solution, or both.  Otherwise, they are just a gimmick.  One of the first lessons I learned when I decided to take my writing seriously was that a gimmick had to earn its keep.  The rescued Great Dane with retinopathy who wears goofy sunglasses has to be instrumental in bringing the hero and heroine together in the romance (I honestly read this story 20+ years ago).  He can’t just prove the heroine is kind to animals.  The same goes for the ghosts and telepathy I tried putting into some of my earliest novel efforts that never saw print.

So I dove back into “Mirror” with new enthusiasm and insight to the structure of a cozy mystery.  I hope I succeeded.

In between other projects I worked on a cozy mystery of my own.  I developed a setting and a cast that I could love: a spooky old hotel with as much character as any of the people that try to run it, a spunky heroine with a passion for the creaky building, a love interest who has secrets, and wacky friends with off-kilter views of the world.  I fell in love with Whistling River Lodge and wish I could prowl the back hallways, secret rooms, and hints of ghostly guests in this fictional place.  Yeah, I had to get something paranormal in there somehow.  But it’s only hints and questions, nothing overt.

Lacing Up For Murder” by Irene Radford is currently serialized for free on the Book View Café,  A new chapter every Thursday¸ or if you don’t want to wait 32 weeks to find out who done it, you can download the full novel for $4.99 in a variety of e-­book formats.

Paranormal romances and mysteries are plentiful on bookshelves these days, as are urban fantasies and paranormal historicals, but the structure of the story, the rules if you want, remains the same.  The extra elements have to be woven into the story and become an integral part of it.  You cannot separate one from the other or you lose the essence of the story.

That’s what we read the book for, the story; the story of the characters, the story of the spooky old hotel, the story of the mystery, the magic of well crafted fiction.


1 thought on “Blurring the Lines Between Mystery and Magic”

  1. All four of the Whistling River Lodge mystery series are no offered by the Book View Cafe. They may have different titles, and been edited by a more mature eye, but feature the same spooky hotel, off kilter friends, spunky heroine, and the love interest with secrets!

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