Learning from Readers

Lea Wait, here.  Last week I visited a book group that meets at the library in Meredith, New Hampshire once a month. Every month they read a mystery. They’d read my Shadows on the Coast of Maine, the second in my Shadows Antique Print Mystery series, and, despite the three-hour drive each way, I was delighted to spend the day driving through sections of Maine I don’t travel often, up into New Hampshire, to Lake Winnepausaukee, where their lovely lake-side community is located.

(In the past year Lake Winnepausaukee has been in the news because GOP candidate Mitt Romney has a home there. He lives in Wolfeboro — a town on the other side of the lake from Meredith. No Romneys are members of the Meredith Mystery Book Club.)

To prepare for my visit I reviewed the book they’d read (It wasn’t one of my more recent ones,) and, since I’d used the history of my own home (built in 1774 and moved to the mainland from an island in 1832) as the history of the house in the book, and tearing down a wall to find the original fireplace was a key scene in the book, I took a picture of the fireplace along with me.

1774 Fireplace in Lea’s House

They liked that. But the most fun of meeting with a book group is always the questions they ask, and the comments they make.

“How long did it take you to write the book?” (About five months.)  “Did you know there’s a typo on page … “(Yes. It’s too late to fix it now, but thank you for reading so closely you noticed.  They do escape!)  “Do you think of the characters or the plot first? (The characters.) “Do you know at the beginning of the book who the murderer is?” (Usually, but not always.)

Of course, it’s wonderful when readers praise your books. But this group of readers also had several pieces of advice for writers.  They assure me that my books met their criteria, but many mysteries they read did not.  What troubled them?

They disliked mysteries “crowded with characters.”

“When there are too many characters, especially characters whose names all sound the same, it’s impossible to keep them all straight,” announced one woman. “Sometimes I even make lists. Drives me crazy.  I give up after a while if I have to work too hard. A mystery is supposed to be relaxing – not a memory test.”

“That’s right,” agreed another woman.  “And all those characters with names that sound the same.  Ginny and Jeannie and Jenny and Susie and Sissie.  Jim and John and Joe. Why can’t authors give people names that look and sound different? I’m a fast reader and sometimes I confuse the characters. It’s a pain to have to go back and figure out who’s the brother-in-law and who’s the college friend and who’s the district attorney.”

“You tell your friends who write to be more careful in naming their characters,” directed a third woman. “You tell them if we wanted to read War and Peace we’d be reading it. We just want to be entertained by a good plot. We read all kinds of mysteries. But none of us like to take the time to memorize lists of characters.”

Nods around the table.

So. Assignment given, and taken. Mystery writers, I’m passing on the word. A minor character doesn’t have to have a name. A bartender can just be “the bartender.”  A secretary can just be “the secretary.”

I know some readers who will thank you.

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7 Responses

  1. Interesting blog. And i love that 1774 fireplace! Beautiful…

    • Thanks, Nancy! The original crane was in it when we tore the wall down — it’s taken years to collect everything else of the period! Lea

  2. Amen about the names!

    I keep a list to avoid such duplication, but (as Meredith knows), I goof anyway.

  3. Interesting point about leaving “the bartender,” e.g., nameless. We tend to think it fleshes him out by naming him, but I definitely see the opposite point, esp. if there are already a lot of characters, and he doesn’t really matter to the story. Thanks for passing on the advice, Lea.

  4. I totally agree with the lady’s demand on distinctive names. Also, love the fireplace and the love that’s gone into your own home.

  5. Names of characters are so important. I keep a list of those in mine taped to the side of my computer, making sure I haven’t duplicated first letters (although that’s sometimes hard) — and reminding myself of just “who is who”! I usually begin with a cast much larger than end up in the book itself …imagining characters and their backstories is so much fun. And I’m so glad people have enjoyed seeing the fireplace … there are 5 in our house .. (it IS a colonial.) Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to afford to line the massive chimney(s) to keep them up to present day code, so the only one that is used today is the one used by our furnace. Yes, we now, as of 1974, have central heating in the main part of the house. My artist-husband does have a wood stove (which uses another chimney) in our ell, where his studio is. But of course there’s no insulation in the walls, and winter winds are strong. I often think of those who lived here in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and how they experienced the winters …

  6. I have a tendency to leave too many characters unnamed (“the guy with the yellow Lab”) and Merry has had to correct me on this and encourage me to name them. I guess there must be a middle ground somewhere. And I often discover halfway through the book that two of my characters have similar names and one must be re-named…somehow I never noticed (!)

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