After eleven full-length romance novels and two novellas, Barbara Barrett switched to cozy mysteries featuring the game of Mah Jongg. Learn more about her and her books at her website.
When I began to create my Mah Jongg Mysteries cozy series last year, I made a decision I will either live to rue or use to my advantage from hereon. It remains to be seen. I created four protagonists who will rotate the lead role in succeeding books. Then I immediately deviated from my plan in the second book before I got back on track in the third. Sydney Bonner is featured in both, but the second also involves her husband, who was blissfully unaware of her activities in the first book.
I recently published the third installment in the series and this time put Micki Demetrius, the divorcee in the group, in charge. It was a challenge writing most of the story from her point of view, because in some respects, Micki is similar to Sydney. Like Syd, Micki isn’t afraid to speak her mind. Both can be impulsive, which isn’t the greatest trait to possess in a murder investigation but makes for interesting confrontations and plot twists. But Micki is also a journalist, one who won’t step aside easily when she senses a good story. Asking questions, exposing the truth and influencing others is part of her job.
I’m currently developing the fourth book, in which Marianne Putnam takes over. Shorter than Sydney and Micki, happily married for several years like Syd, Marianne, a former pharmacist, is analytical and detail-oriented. Though Syd may be the group leader, Marianne is the peacekeeper, the good listener, the one who keeps things together. How is someone like that expected to pursue a murderer? The answer to that will materialize when I finish the book.
I can only wonder what I’ve done to myself: is rotating four characters as leads the wisest of moves? Will I be spending more of my writing time differentiating amongst them than developing the plot?
What about precedents? Can I learn from other examples? No book series, especially cozy mysteries, come to mind, but television does offer a couple, “The Golden Girls” and “Designing Women.” In both cases, the four females either lived together or worked together. In each, one was definitely the strong one, but the other three had their own distinct personalities.
In “The Golden Girls”, Blanche was the man-crazy sexpot;; Rose, the ditsy, sweet one; and Sophia, the mother, was desperate to stay out of the “home” and find the right man for her daughter, Dorothy, the strong one. In “Designing Women,” Julia Sugarbaker, the lead, co-owned the interior design business with her sister, Suzanne, who was a silent partner. Julia was anything but silent, unafraid to speak her mind, especially where social justice was involved. Suzanne, the ex-beauty queen, had the social contacts. Mary Jo Shively, head designer with a young family, was the creative one, and Charlene Frazier, the office manager, though a bit of a flake, was also the one with the big heart.
Lesson learned? The writers of those two shows created four distinct characters by establishing diverse personalities and traits.
Taking this to heart, I consulted the DiSC Personality Types Indicator. Are you familiar with this behavioral tool for understanding people? I took it a few times in my career during team building exercises. It suggests most people exhibit one of four personality types: Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Conscientiousness. Of course, this model is more complicated than just those four categories, but it has served as a starting point in the creation of my four protagonists.
Is it working? Let’s just say it’s a work in progress. Keeping them distinct from each other is still a challenge, especially since, even with four different personalities, they are friends who spend a lot of time together and therefore may at times think alike. But the further I get in the series, the better I’m coming to know the four of them. The joy of developing their personalities, especially when they are confronted with various murders, is still there. I couldn’t ask for more. (Well, maybe a few more sales and great reviews. A girl can only hope.) For now, though, the plan remains intact.
Connect the Dots
A Mah Jongg Mystery, Book 3
How could a thirty-something man fall to his death from a fourth-floor balcony he knows is defective? That’s the question freelance writer Micki Demetrius is asked to answer by the man’s grieving mother, Clarissa White, who refuses to believe his death was an unfortunate accident. But when the authorities determine it was homicide, Micki is shut out of her investigative efforts.
Giving up is easier said than done for Micki. She can’t resist a mystery, and suspicious
characters won’t leave Clarissa alone, from the woman claiming a stake in the victim’s life to a cagey character who wants his business. As the threat to Clarissa grows, Micki feels compelled to help her in spite of the danger.
Micki’s three mah jongg pals—Sydney, Marianne and Kat—are drawn into the mystery, but the retirees have their own challenges. Syd and husband Trip do grandparent duty while their daughter deals with marital issues. Marianne “finds herself” by writing a one-act play. And Kat must decide how public to go with her growing friendship with the sheriff. Together, they must connect the dots in a nefarious web of greed, neglect, secrecy and murder.