The main characters in mystery fiction should have at least three or four secrets that are revealed through the course of the book, according to SinCNE author and writing instructor extraordinaire Hallie Ephron.
I think about this a lot, both in terms of constructing fiction plots and also about how our secrets can change people’s lives — and even history. In this age of instant communication and everything that’s so openly shared on reality TV and through social networking, it’s difficult to believe anyone keeps secrets.
But they do.
I bet you can think of some right now – either secrets you have or ones that have shocked you when revealed about others. It’s the stuff of life – and also great fiction, right?
How many of us have three or four secrets – or more?
Not long ago I learned a family secret so shocking that I remain flabbergasted that none of my relatives alive today knew it either. The entry in the official City of Portsmouth Death Ledger tells the basic facts:
Margaret Blute: DOD: December 25, 1886; 34 years old 10 months and 28 days; Birthplace: Portsmouth, NH; Father: William Quinn; Mother: Johanna Crowley; Father’s Birthplace: Ireland; Mother’s Birthplace: Ireland. Cause of Death: Kicking and Bruising.
What the ledger doesn’t reveal is the name of the person who inflicted the kicking and bruising: my great-great grandfather. According to newspaper reports from that time, brewery worker Patrick Blute, 42, murdered his wife Margaret in a drunken rage on Christmas Day 126 years ago in the presence of their four children, one of whom was my father’s grandmother.
My father’s half-sister uncovered the details while doing genealogical research and handed me copies of the original news stories. I called my parents. Neither knew about the murder. Nor did my aunt or their cousins. When I expressed surprise that something like this was kept quiet for so long, my father noted that it isn’t exactly the type of information one shares at the dinner table. Perhaps, but you’d think someone might have been whispering at some point.
The only details we have are from the official death record and the newspaper reports, which are grim but compelling. “Christmas Revelry Ends in Murder” proclaimed one headline under the heading “Shocking Tragedy.” According to the reports, the “pair have had a reputation of living unhappily together, owing to strong drink.”
The newspapers contain varying accounts of the murder, although most indicate she died of her injuries after being beaten and thrown down the stairs. According to one witness, Patrick Blute calmly admitted he had been beating his wife for years and told the marshal: “I don’t care what you do with me, I just as soon you’d take me down to the wharf and throw me overboard.”
We also know their children were ages 2 to 12. One of them was Julia, my great-grandmother who died a year after I was born. I wonder today who raised her after her mother was murdered and her father sent to prison, where he died in 1891. There is no one alive to tell us.
As a mystery writer, their story intrigues me. But as their descendant, it unnerves me to realize I walk the same streets and their DNA is inside me. I think about them whenever I drive by the location where the murder occurred, although their tenement was replaced by a commercial enterprise long ago.
I also find it oddly fascinating that the murderer’s grandson later headed the police force in our city, my cousin served as a police officer in the next town, and now my child—their great-great-great grandson—also is a policeman.
In the writing world, we might call those ironic twists.
What three or four secrets do you think would help make a good mystery plot?