Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Jessica Fletcher Syndrome

Today I welcome Cricket McRae to Terry's Place. Cricket’s interest in traditional colonial skills is reflected in her contemporary Home Crafting Mysteries featuring Sophie Mae Ambrose. She lives in northern Colorado and fits writing around soap making and food preservation, spinning and cheese making. Her books are set in a fictionalized Cadyville, Washington, which brings up the question of just how many murders you can get away with staging in one small town.

Thanks! I’m delighted to be a guest here at Terry’s Place.

According to the Urban Dictionary, Jessica Fletcher Syndrome is a:

“Condition of a place or person that seems to attract a large number of murders without having an active part in that crime. From the TV-show Murder She Wrote where every week a close friend or relative of Jessica Fletcher is either murdered or suspected of murder. Suspension of disbelief is stretched to the limit.”

That last is a consistent challenge for some mystery writers. Cozy authors in particular tend to set their stories in small towns where people know each other – perhaps a little too well. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you face the problem of JFS.

It’s quite possible that in small towns and big cities alike, a significant number of murders look like suicide, accident, or death by natural causes – and murderers actually get away with their crimes as a result. If your enterprising protagonist is naturally inquisitive, she’ll question such things more than most people, and, as a consequence, discover a murder on occasion. It becomes part of who she is, and therefore expected.

The personality of a victim counts in a limited population where folks know each other. He wouldn’t do that, says someone at the local cafe, and the people at the table next to them concur. The mystery is built on someone acting out of character as much as forensic evidence.

Another possibility is to set the murder in the past. New evidence can crop up to enable your character to track a murder from ten years ago – or a hundred. Perhaps their motivation is personal, or perhaps they simply want to solve the puzzle. Often investigating the past will spill into the present, revealing secrets or getting someone else killed.

In the final seasons of Murder She Wrote the writers solved the JFS issue by jetting Jessica all over the world. However, much of the charm in that series was the small town aspect of the stories, and many fans stopped watching. However, you can move your character to another location for one book. It helps to put her in a new-but-similar situation and to surround her with her usual sidekicks or others that serve the purpose equally well.

Or you could move well outside the box and make the mystery about something other than murder. For example, in my latest book, Sophie Mae’s focus for the first half of the story is on trying to prevent a murder that hasn’t happened yet. And my current manuscript involves a body no one recognizes, so the mystery isn’t just about whodunit, but who is it?

Yet let’s be clear: You don’t have to always avoid Jessica Fletcher Syndrome. Be bold. Go ahead and kill someone off and drag your protagonist into the fray. A connection to law enforcement may help, or to a lawyer or the town meddler. Maybe your character is the town meddler, and that’s enough explanation for why she consistently finds herself in situations involving murder and mayhem. It can even be a source of frustration for her.

See, most readers of mystery series understand that the characters will run into an unusually high body count. They are perfectly willing to suspend their disbelief as long as the stories are interesting, the mysteries well plotted, and they want to spend more time with the characters in that small town setting. Shake things up, sure. But don’t let JFS get in the way of telling the story you want to tell. The body count will work itself out.

Cricket McRae’s books are available in trade paperback and as downloads for Kindle and Nook. In honor of the recent release of Wined and Died, you can enter to win a free Author Website ($900 value!) from the creative folks at Bizango Websites for Writers until July 29, 2011. For more details and information on how to enter, please visit her blog, Hearth Cricket. For more information about Cricket or her books, check out www.cricketmcrae.com


Sam said...

Believability is a tricky thing. In High Fantasy novels, we have to believe that the milieu is so dangerous that threats to the survival of the world or the universe happen every few years, so that the same characters (or over decades, the same families) beat them back again and again. Hard-boiled heroes get beaten half to death in book after book and rarely suffer long-term consequences (Robert Crais's Elvis Cole is a rare exception). If the ratio of serial killers to the general population were as high in real life as it is in thrillers, the country would be ankle-deep in gore all the time. Readers rarely complain about these incongruities, so I've never understood why traditional mystery series are subject to a higher standard of verisimilitude.

Cricket McRae said...

Good point, Sam. When I crack open something called high fantasy, I know very well the world won't be anything like my real one -- that's the point. Perhaps traditional mysteries are appealing in part because we feel like we really could invite the characters over for dinner?

Elspeth Antonelli said...

I'd never heard of Jessica Fletcher Syndrome, but I certainly understand it. When you write mysteries and your sleuth isn't a professional, throwing bodies into their path can be somewhat problematic.

Stacey said...

This degree of suspension of disbelief might be easier for those of us who have lived in small towns for extended periods. Makes it easier to think of several people whom you and others might have been tempted to do away with given the chance. All that interpersonal complexity bubbling just below the surface - the earlier version might have been called Miss Marple Syndrome, as Dame Agatha seemed to grasp the hidden depths of those quaint English villages.

Cozy in Texas said...

Great post. I must admit I lost interest when Jessica wasn't in Cabot Cove.

Cricket McRae said...

Elspeth, sometimes it's called Small Town Syndrome. Same problem, though.

Stacey, I'm laughing. Yes, tensions do roil in small towns, eh? Miss Marple was always reminded of something else that happened previously in St. Mary Mead to remind her of the darker side of human nature. You could really believe all that evil could exist in that little place.

I'm with you, Ann. I would have been willing to suspend my disbelief for a while longer if we only could have stayed in that quaint little town.