I freely admit it. I am an advocate of formula approaches to writing a novel. The formula I use is commonly called “Save the Cat,” an approach popularized in Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet. This provides an overall structure for my stories, but I still have to put the flesh on the bony structure of the Save the Cat skeleton.
The typical Hot Dog Detective novel is a combination of six major threads that I have to consider in each novel.
I start with my victim. He or she is the reason for the murder mystery. The victim is the one who defines the antagonist, in a sense creating the antagonist. The problem though is that the victim is dead. I try to start every story with the death or discovery of the death of the victim. This should get the reader interested in the story, as well as setting the setting the stage for the story. As an example, in The Kitchen Khemist, the story opens up in a BDSM dungeon. The reader has a pretty good idea that the characters in the story will live on the borders of “normal” society.
Once I know who the victim is, I need to focus on the killer, the second thread in the plot structure. The killer needs to be someone the regular police don’t immediately identify. This is a challenge, since the police are actually quite good at their job. The number of unsolved murders or wrongly convicted suspects is actually not that large. So there has to be some reason why the police didn’t do their job. Finding that reason is sometimes my biggest challenge.
Then there has to be multiple suspects. MacFarland often has an advantage over the police since he can consider multiple suspects. He suspects everybody. The police are often trapped into pursuing just one suspect. Not always, but often enough, caseloads, resource limitations, political pressures, and other factors often channel an investigation along limited lines.
The fourth thread is a bonus for the reader. In addition to the murder mystery in the story, every three books constitute a trilogy with its own over-arching story embedded with the three novels. These over-arching plots usually focus on some of the main characters of the series. They also follow the Save the Cat structure, though to a less rigorous degree. Ultimately, the three books of every trilogy will be combined into one volume and sold at a discounted price.
The fifth thread is Mark MacFarland’s relationship with his relatives–the Coopers–and the homeless community from which MacFarland so recently emerged. These are very important for developing MacFarland’s character, both anchoring him in society and giving him a heart.
And finally, the sixth thread in each story is the over-arching plot of MacFarland’s and Pierson’s romantic relationship with each other. It’s not always easy to show development of this relationship, but over the course of the planned twenty-seven books in the series, I promise that it will develop.
In the next blog, I will describe the actual process of plotting the story.