Like that one guy said: Good writers borrow, great writers steal. Welcome to the place where all things have been lifted, looted, and otherwise pilfered…Remember, possession is 9/10s of the law.
A couple weeks ago, I was the lucky duck who received an advanced reading copy of my dear friend’s (hi, Fleur!) newest novel for middle grade readers: Midnight at the Barclay Hotel. My review of the story is up at Criminal Element which you can check out here. But I thought it’d be useful for us, as writers, to dig in and take a gander at some of things Bradley did effectively as a storyteller in this book.
First, a brief sum-up-tion of what it’s all about:
A cowboy, a librarian, a Chief Executive Officer, an actress, and a detective are the winners of a weekend getaway to the Barclay Hotel. At first, the CEO and the detective aren’t convinced they should go – but then the CEO’s son, JJ, and the detective’s granddaughter, Penny, make convincing arguments for a weekend away…and the kids also convince the adults to let them tag along. But when JJ and Penny arrive, they quickly realize that everything is not as it seems in the Barclay Hotel. Rumors of ghosts abound. And Mr. Barclay himself, the hotel owner has been recently murdered with JJ’s mother as one of the potential suspects. With the help of Penny’s investigative skills and the inside knowledge of the hotel from Emma, who lives at the hotel, JJ sets out to clear his mother’s name and maybe catch a ghost or two in the process.
So, what does Bradley do as an author that we can all steal?
Every single character has a relevant backstory which directly affects the central question of the narrative: Who killed Mr. Barclay? All of the kids have motivation to act: JJ’s mom is accused, Penny wants to be seen as a real detective, Emma lives in the Barclay Hotel and can’t have this mystery hovering over her forever.
Characters need real, personalized motivations for moving through the story. Otherwise it’s hard to invest in them. Characters have to want something.
2. Pitting character motivation against character motivation creates conflict.
So, the kids have the motivation to find a killer, but that killer’s want is “I want to get away with this.” (In a murder-mystery, the motives of the antagonist are kinda straightforward that way.) Now, as the kids hunt down the villain, the villain is going to do everything they can to stop their capture. Perhaps that means leaving false clues. Or booby traps.
Things get delightfully complicated when multiple characters have multiple conflicting motivations. For example, a character innocent of murder but guilty of something else may try to stop the main characters from digging too deeply.
3. Homages to the greats.
Agatha Christie wrote sooooooo many novels. She was and remains the Queen of Mystery. I think it only fitting the Bradley nodded to Christie repeatedly throughout this novel. It serves as a great introduction for new readers and a fun Easter egg for those of us who have read many, many, many of Christie’s novels.
It really is okay for us as writers to acknowledge that we work in “the tradition of _______” most of the time.
With that in mind, who do you think serves as a “literary ancestor” for your own work?