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Writing a Watson

Often main characters—especially female main characters—exist solely to share their feelings with the reader as things happen to or around them. They don't take the initiative to do anything and they don't significantly affect any other characters' lives. If you erased them from their books, their story worlds would progress just the same without them.

If a main character is not directly responsible for most of the significant events in a story, you don't have a protagonist.

You have a Watson.

How to Recognize a Watson

Take a story. Summarize it through the key plot points only—no extraneous junk. Does the main character's name come up more often than any other? If not, you probably have a Watson on your hands.

If you succinctly summarize any Sherlock Holmes mystery, the name "Watson" rarely comes up at all. If it does, it's only because "Holmes and Watson visit so-and-so" or "Watson accompanies Holmes to such-and-such place." Holmes finds the clients, Holmes does the investigating, Holmes solves the cases and explains them. Watson is a pair of eyes and a hand with a pen, nothing else.

Here are some other famous stories told by Watsons.

The Great Gatsby

How much do we know about Nick Carroway? Very little, because the story isn't about him. He's practically invisible, an eloquent ghost who hovers around the characters who really matter.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Scout Finch is six years old; what could she possibly do? Nothing, really. This novel is about her father, Atticus Finch, and how his job as a defense attorney affects his neighbors and his children.

Pride and Prejudice

Here's a fun question for book club discussion. Who's the protagonist of Pride and Prejudice? I can tell you who it isn't: Elizabeth Bennet.

Elizabeth doesn't initiate a single plot point. Her mother drags her to the ball where the family meets Misters Bingley and Darcy, then cooks up the scheme that forces Elizabeth and Jane to stay at Netherfield. Darcy ropes Elizabeth into dancing with him at the Netherfield ball, then breaks up Bingley and Jane. Charlotte invites Elizabeth to stay at Rosings, where Darcy proposes to her unsuccessfully. Her aunt and uncle take her to tour Pemberley, where Darcy arrives unexpectedly and runs into them. Darcy redeems himself by kissing up to the relatives, bribing Wickham to marry Lydia, and putting Bingley and Jane back together. Eventually he achieves his goal of winning Elizabeth over.

In fact, Elizabeth doesn't do a gosh-darned thing, besides say some witty lines and refuse a couple of proposals. She's 100% reactive. In other words, she's a Watson.

There are pros and cons to writing a Watson. If written accidentally, Watsons can be disastrous. But if written purposefully, Watsons can work out well.

When Watsons Fail Horribly

Protagonists drive the story. So if you're writing about a main character who isn't the protagonist, and you don't know it, you could waste a lot of time and pages writing about things that are not the story.

Imagine if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed he was writing The Adventures of John Watson, and he didn't realize that Sherlock Holmes is the real star of the show. The stories might have been all about John Watson looking for a wife, John Watson enjoying tea and crumpets, John Watson reminiscing about his time in the army...and in the meantime, Sherlock Holmes would quietly solve crimes in the background. The Adventures of John Watson would be incredibly boring.

Unfortunately, this is exactly how many modern authors write books for women and girls. The heroine merely tags along while other characters push the plot forward. And since she has nothing to do, she spends 250 pages blathering about sex, cupcakes, shoes, etc. Sex isn't a story. Cupcakes and shoes are also not a story, unless the cupcakes were poisoned and the shoes reveal whodunnit. These things can spice up a novel, but they're not adequate substitutes for its substance.

Here's a brief synopsis of a mystery I read last year.

An alcoholic lawyer is cruelly rejected by her crush, who works in the same firm she does. Then a famous client she's defending embarrasses her during a trial. Her career is over. She flees to the US Virgin Islands, where her parents died in a suspicious "accident" a few years prior.

Ostensibly, she's there to solve the mystery of her parents' deaths. She does this by hiring a creepy private investigator and leaving the case up to him. While she waits, a nightclub singer befriends her and guides her around the island. A friendly ghost saves her from local bullies. A new love interest invites her for romantic strolls.

Then the creepy PI shows up on her doorstep. He declares that he murdered her parents and kidnaps her. She manages to escape from the car before it goes over a cliff, but he isn't so lucky.

The End.

This heroine does nothing important that affects the trajectory of the story. She spends the whole book being the victim of the male characters (her crush, her client, the local bullies, the murderous PI) and being rescued by the female ones (the nightclub singer, the ghost). Clues fall into her lap without effort, and the killer obligingly confesses to save her the trouble of interrupting her tropical vacation to catch him.

Yet she hogs the spotlight to catalog every outfit she wears, every tear that falls down her cheek, and every margarita she drinks on the beach. She's the worst kind of Watson.

When Watsons Work

There are legitimate reasons to write a Watson. For example, you might find one useful if your true protagonist is someone unlikeable, or if readers will relate to your Watson much better.

Sherlock Holmes is a terrible person. He's a cold, selfish, condescending show-off. He doesn't feel any sentimental emotions and holds people who do in contempt. He's all brains and no heart.

Watson, on the other hand, is all heart and no brains. He's humble, empathetic, generous, good-natured, and a bit slow on the uptake. He's a man readers can relate to, which makes him a much better choice for the narrator.

The original Watson works because he rarely talks about himself. He obligingly fades into the background and puts the spotlight where it belongs: on his friend Sherlock Holmes. In this way, he becomes the stand-in for the readers themselves.

If The Great Gatsby had been told from the point of view of the titular character, it basically would have been The Sorrows of Young Werther. Gatsby would have spent the whole book whining about Daisy this, Daisy that, and then he'd kill himself. The characters are frustrating enough from an outsider's perspective—they would have been unbearable if we'd been subjected to their inner voices.

To Kill a Mockingbird has the opposite problem. The actual protagonist, Atticus, is too good. He's the perfect father and the perfect gentleman. He's perfectly open-minded, perfectly pious, perfectly clever, and he even handles a gun perfectly. Too much perfection makes for a very dull main character. Readers sympathize more with the rambunctious Scout, who's honest about her feelings and rushes headlong into trouble.

And though Fitzwilliam Darcy is much more of a protagonist than Elizabeth Bennet is, Pride and Prejudice couldn't have been told from his perspective. It's a romantic story aimed predominantly at young women. Young women want to be Elizabeth, dancing at balls and flirting with handsome gentlemen. They don't want to be Darcy, dealing with tedious business and political affairs.

My advice: tread carefully.

I can come up with a handful of good Watsons, but there are many, many bad Watsons out there. Watsons are usually the result of writers not knowing who their protagonist is, not the result of deliberate choice.

You'll also notice that the good examples are quite old. Before the late twentieth century, you could get away with telling stories with main characters that weren't protagonists. But standards today are different. Twenty-first century women aren't supposed to be Elizabeth Bennets, meekly allowing their parents and suitors to control their lives. "Fly on the wall" narrators like Nick Carroway work only in literary novels, and even then they're hard to pull off. Readers of both sexes want to be the detective, not the sidekick. Sweetie watched one episode of Sherlock and was greatly annoyed because John Watson "doesn't do anything."

So unless you have a very strong reason to write a Watson, I would avoid it.

Sleight of Hand

Books are written left to right in one linear line, but a good book doesn't feel linear. When I read a good book, I feel like I'm free to explore an imaginary world. When I read a bad one, I feel like the author is leading me by the nose.

I mentioned in my last post that readers don't read passively. When writers write, we tend to think of the written stories as our static creations. But when a reader picks up a story, what she imagines is much, much more than the words she sees on the page.

When I read, my mind doesn't stay in the "present" of the story. I'm imagining the heroine's back story and predicting her future. I'm thinking about the parallels between her life and mine, and how I would have felt/acted similarly or differently. I'm fleshing out the lives of minor characters, dreaming up spin-offs that star her quirky coworkers, and playing matchmaker between her gruff brother and her perky best friend.

In a mystery, I'm imagining dozens of scenarios for how the murder might have played out and why. I'm imagining the tragic past of her suspicious new neighbor, the sordid secrets hidden in the glances between suspects, the exciting confrontation with the person I suspect is the killer.

Let the reader play.

In some cozy mysteries I've read recently, the authors never gave me a chance to imagine much of anything. The heroine would be in Location A and find a clue that directed her towards Location B. She'd go to Location B and find information that pointed her towards Location C. The authors would heavily imply that Suspect X was the most suspicious, then shift the spotlight to Suspect Y, without letting the readers make their own decisions. I never had enough information to imagine different possibilities.

Books structured A -> B -> C feel like the author is handing me one puzzle piece at a time and saying, "Now put that piece in place. See how neatly it fits? Okay, here's the next one." That's no fun at all. I want to have all the pieces dumped out on the table, and then I can sort through them and start to see the structure emerge as I play.

Lay out all clues within the story, not at the end.

Every puzzle piece readers need to solve the mystery should be present in the body of the story. I consider it bad form for a mystery author to withhold critical information until the very end, making it impossible for readers to make sense of anything before they get the final clue.

In fact, the final clue shouldn't be a clue at all. It should be a trigger—a hint that helps the heroine and readers figure everything out from information they already had. I'm satisfied, as a mystery reader, when the trigger reminds me of something small I'd read a hundred pages before and forgotten about. I'm angry, as a reader, when a heroine stumbles into a final clue that changes everything on page 230 of 240.

For example, last weekend I read a cozy mystery about an amateur sleuth who lives on the New England coast. The sleuth investigates the murder of a book illustrator. One of the suspects is the victim's editor, whom we'll call Jane Doe.

At the very end of the novel, the sleuth meets someone who reveals that the woman who calls herself Jane Doe isn't Jane Doe—she's really Janice Smith, the victim's psychotic ex-girlfriend. Moments later, Jane/Janice jumps out of the shrubbery with a gun and confesses all.

The author of this book gave no clues before then that "Jane" wasn't who she claimed to be, or even clues that a psychotic ex-girlfriend existed somewhere in the world. The revelation was a Surprise Twist. In my opinion, Surprise Twists are enjoyable in the beginning or the middle of a mystery, but not at the very end.

How to do it

So how do you include all of the information a reader needs to solve a mystery, but make sure nobody actually solves it before your protagonist does? It's not that difficult, really, because you have 70,000+ words to dazzle readers with distractions. With their attention misdirected with red herrings, dubious suspects, and dead-end leads, the real clues will slip by undetected.

Here are some common techniques for giving readers clues without giving away the ending.

Hide important clues among useless ones.

Your sleuth is snooping around the home office of the victim, a prominent politician in her idyllic small town. She describes his desk like this.

An expensive laptop sat on the mahogany desk. The usual office bits and bobs were arranged neatly around it: a green and gold banker's lamp, a wooden pen holder stamped with the Yale University logo, a black ashtray filled with discarded cigarette butts. A blown glass paperweight held down a stack of important-looking documents. Strands of blue and gold swirled and glittered inside it.

I had the nagging feeling I'd seen another paperweight just like it recently. Where was it? That's right—in Mary's gift shop by the pier.

What seems to be the important clue here? The paperweight. What's the real clue here? The ashtray, though readers won't recognize it yet. And by the time the ashtray becomes important, they will have forgotten it existed.

Make the clue something that shouldn't be there.

Why is the ashtray important? Because it's filled with cigarette butts that shouldn't be there. But cigarette butts are so innocuous that nobody would think they're out of place.

The ashtray becomes a well-hidden clue when combined with tidbits revealed elsewhere.

  • The victim's grieving wife cries about the unfairness of his death. Her husband always took care of his health so he could live a long life. He walked three miles every day. He avoided junk food. He quit smoking.
  • The sleuth interviews the victim's maid, who mentions that every evening she straightens his papers, dusts the bookshelves, and empties the ashtray. She was in his office the night before his death and overheard him arguing with someone on the telephone, but she didn't know who it was.
  • The sleuth meets only one suspect who smokes cigarettes. Between puffs, he says he hadn't been to the victim's home in days.

If readers notice the ashtray, they'll know the suspect is lying. But most of them won't, thanks to your masterful sleight of hand.

Make the clue something that's missing.

A clue can be something that isn't at the scene that should be. This works especially well if the object is something few people would think about.

Let's say the victim was poisoned. Your sleuth puts together a timeline of his movements before he died.

  • The owner of the victim's favorite deli says he came in around noon. The victim seemed worried about something, but he didn't want to talk about it. He bought a turkey sandwich and a banana and walked home.
  • The victim's mistress tells the sleuth that he called her around 1:30 and asked to meet her that night. She suspected he intended to break up with her because his wife had found out about the affair.
  • The victim's wife says she'd gone shopping that morning and had lunch with friends. She arrived home around 2. She made her husband a cup of coffee because he looked tired and stressed out. She looked for him at 2:30 to make dinner plans, but he wasn't in his office. She says she didn't know then that he had been poisoned, so she took the empty coffee mug and washed it out. Then she found the victim dead in the bathroom a few minutes later.
  • During the sleuth's description of his office, she mentions the contents of the trash can in passing: a banana peel, an empty packet of Sweet 'n Low, some junk mail, and a dried-out pen.

What's missing? The sandwich wrapper. Our chain-smoking friend had come by while the wife was out and poisoned the sandwich, then took off with the evidence. But how many readers would think to ask about a missing sandwich wrapper, even if you remind them of his lunch with the banana peel? And they'll be so focused on the wife and her coffee, they probably won't think about the sandwich at all.

Make the detective misinterpret the clues.

Some clues can do double duty as real clues and red herrings.

Say the sleuth investigates the paperweight on the victim's desk. On the bottom she finds the engraved logo of the art studio and a price sticker from Mary's gift shop. She later finds out that Mary was the victim's mistress. Since the maid says she'd never seen that paperweight before, the sleuth concludes that Mary must have visited the house that morning. She imagines the victim broke up with Mary, and Mary poisoned the canister of coffee grounds to take revenge on him and his wife.

However, the actual clue in the paperweight isn't the price sticker, but the logo of the art studio. The studio bought supplies from Mr. Chain Smoker, and some of the minerals in the colored glass were toxic to consumers. The victim found out and bought the paperweight to use as evidence, and Mr. Chain Smoker killed him.


Just like good magicians don't need expensive equipment and fancy whiz-bangs to put on an entertaining show, writers don't need a convoluted murder method or complicated character charts to construct a fun mystery.

What Readers Want in Cozy Mysteries

After I finished Kagemusha last fall, I decided that would be my last novel. I thought I might try my hand at making narrative video games or drawing comics instead, but I was done with books forever.

That lasted about six months.

When I stopped writing, I suddenly had a lot of free time to fill. I practiced solving a Rubik's cube, took a drawing class, painted watercolors, watched Sweetie blow up evil alien cyborgs...and watched Netflix. On Netflix I found all eight seasons of Murder She Wrote, one of my favorite shows in elementary school.

I hold Angela Lansbury personally responsible for breaking my resolve to stay away from books.

I'm now knee-deep in writing my first cozy mystery. I intended to keep it a secret until it was finished, because too many of my projects fall apart halfway in, but I'm terrible at keeping my mouth shut.

On the surface, cozy mysteries appear to have a stricter set of "rules" than other genres—no profanity, no gratuitous violence, no sex scenes, and the story must follow a sleuth who catches a killer (duh). But I've actually found writing a cozy mystery very freeing, because I can relax and have fun. Unlike when I was writing literary historicals, I don't have to make every sentence poetic and insightful. Unlike when I was writing comedy, I don't have to be witty and entertaining in every paragraph. As long as I keep the story moving, I can write whatever makes me and my potential readers feel good.

I've been reading cozy mysteries ever since the eighth grade, when my Language Arts teacher introduced me to Agatha Christie. Before that, I was an avid Nancy Drew fan, which is pretty close. Until my early twenties, I was extremely squeamish about crass language and sex scenes in books and movies. I couldn't even watch actors kiss on screen. And I still hate fictional violence and gore, unless there's a point to it like "Look, people, war is bad."

So I believe I understand the cozy mystery audience pretty well—it's like writing for my eighteen-year-old self. From my own experience and my perusal of cozy mystery book reviews, here's my understanding of what cozy mystery audiences want.

The Setting

Cozy mystery readers want cozy settings. They want to dream about living somewhere beautiful, charming, and exciting but safe. They want to imagine eating delicious sweets and hearty comfort foods without worrying about their waistlines; working in dream jobs they love without worrying about the bills; and enjoying an unhurried, idyllic lifestyle full of long walks and afternoons sipping tea with old friends.

In essence, reading a cozy mystery is like taking off on a weekend getaway without the bother of traveling, paying for hotels, and fighting with your tired SO over where to go for dinner. Accordingly, the three most common geographical locales I see in cozy mysteries are:

1) Small towns in the English countryside, a la Agatha Christie and P. D. James.

2) Small towns in the U.S. South. Think church socials, azalea bushes, and Mama's famous lemon icebox cake.

3) Quaint coastal cities in the U.S. Northeast, where the city folk escape to go sailing, walk along the rugged cliffs, and eat fresh lobster and shrimp by the bucketful.

Less often you see the Great Lakes region, tropical islands, and parts of the West known for their natural beauty, like Colorado. Few cozy mysteries take place in flyover country, because nobody dreams of getting away to Cincinnati for the summer.

I consider the heroine's occupation part of the setting as well. Her occupation has little to do with her character development, since she'll be spending most of the book snooping for clues, not earning her salary. But her job has a lot to do with where she spends her time.

Readers don't pick up a book about an amateur sleuth who owns a cupcake bakery because they want to read about the tiresome realities of operating a small business. They want to read about spending all day in a dainty cream and pink shop, surrounded by enticing treats. That's the main reason the heroines of cozy mysteries are usually:

  • Bakers
  • Bookstore workers
  • Caterers
  • Innkeepers
  • Retired teachers, librarians, and other modest but respectable professionals

Each of these occupations (or lack thereof) centers the heroine's life around a leisurely setting that's agreeable to cozy mystery readers. They also bring her into contact with a lot of people who can be murder suspects and/or victims.

The Characters

The heroine must be someone readers want to be: smart, compassionate, and of strong moral fiber. Even more than in other genres, readers need to identify with the heroine, because they're living the dream and saving the world vicariously through her. Making her unlikeable is not an option. Save your bitter alcoholics, quirky airheads, and blushing wallflowers for other genres.

When it comes to the secondary cast, cozy mystery readers like to read about well-developed characters who could be their own friends and neighbors. They're reading to feel good, so most of the side characters should be entertaining company. They can be eccentric (the dotty cat lady next door), stubborn (the bullheaded police chief), or sometimes annoying (the nosy town gossip), but they must be essentially good-natured folks. Cozy mystery readers don't want to spend their precious relaxation time with jerks, unless they get to see those jerks get their comeuppance.

The following traits should be reserved for victims and suspects only: arrogance, meanness, greed, violent tendencies, sexism, and racism. Yes, every real person has dark impulses and terrible vices. No, this is not the right time to harp on how disturbed we all are. Go get that Casual Vacancy stuff out of your system and come back later.

Evil should be punished and good should be rewarded, period. You can invoke pity for the murderers, and you can give the heroine harmless flaws, but you can't threaten the illusion of universal justice. Think of a cozy mystery not like a portrait of real life, but like an example of how people should and should not behave in modern society. We should be kind to each other. We should not poison each other. Cozy mystery readers want to see those morals validated.

The Puzzle

Most articles on "how to write a cozy mystery"—and I've read many recently—will tell you that a cozy mystery should take place in a fishbowl setting; feature an amateur sleuth who uses good old-fashioned common sense to save the day; and be free of explicit sex, gore, and profanity.

But weirdly, a lot of the articles skip the most important component of a cozy mystery: the mystery!

If cozy mystery readers wanted nothing but pleasant scenery, spunky heroines, and a cast of loveable characters who never swear, they could read general women's fiction, young adult books, inspirational fiction, or Amish romance (a surprisingly popular sub-genre, judging from the number of them in my public library).

They're fans of mysteries instead because they like to solve puzzles. They don't read passively, merely tagging along with the heroine while she eats some ginger snaps and looks for hidden passages in old houses. They participate actively in the story as if they are the heroine. They're constantly on the lookout for hints, trying to spot holes in alibis and unravel the suspects' carefully guarded secrets.

Reading a cozy mystery is a vacation, but it's also a game. If you don't set up a good game for readers to play, they'll be disappointed.

In my next post, I'll talk about techniques mystery writers can use to construct a fun puzzle. I've spent too long writing this one already, instead of working on my novel.

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