Monday, January 13, 2014

Homicidal Humor

Susan Sundwall is a veteran freelancer, blogger and mystery writer. She lives in upstate New York with her husband and newly adopted stray cat, Sister Agnes. Her first Minnie Markwood Mystery, The Red Shoelace Killer, is available at Amazon, Untreed Reads, Barnes and Noble and from the publisher, Mainly Murder Press. Visit her blog at and chime in if you’re so inclined. 

Okay, the first thing that comes to mind when you find out someone has been murdered is probably not a comedic moment from an old Seinfeld episode. No, you’re more likely to draw back in horror, mouth open, nothing coming out, and then, for weeks, there are nightmares with you in the starring role – victim of the week. Not a single thing funny about it.

So imagine my dilemma when I wrote my mystery, The Red Shoelace Killer, (hilarious title, huh?) and called it a comic-cozy. Nothing in the title even hints at humor so I really had to put my nose to the grindstone to make my definition true. Add to the mix that a cozy is restricted in ways an all out brawl of a crime novel isn’t. Meaning?

Well, it means I won’t be using foul language, or graphic sex scenes or anatomically specific gooey guts violence. But that kind of fits in with my prudish nature anyway (oops – a brief moment of “coming out” there). You see, I know about foul language but prefer a good old Yosemite Sam cuss – ya ring tailed varmint – to copious use of the F-bomb (or any other consonant bomb that’s out there). I know about graphic sex. Been there, done that, three kids. And I’ve watched enough CSI through my fingers to know about gooey guts and all the “splorking” sounds you hear when brains hit the wall. Alas, I don’t visit any of these themes in my books. So now you’re thinking, “Huh, then how could it possibly be any good?” Right? That’s what you’re thinking, I just know it.

Pay attention, Lucy’s going to do some ‘splainin.

You have to do it with characters. Fun, quixotic, fully animated, and slightly dysfunctional characters. My protagonist, Minnie Markwood, is plump, old fashioned and just a whisker away from Social Security. Great. Now you’re thinking boring, boomer, chick lit. Hang on. I thought the same thing. Then I realized if my Boomer Babe had a youthful element for balance, it could only be a good thing. So I gave her a sidekick, Rashawna. She’s Minnie’s bubble headed, twenty-one-year-old ex-swimsuit model, co-worker. And I gave Bubble Head a boyfriend, Joel. Now, if that isn’t a dynamic trio destined for the New York Times bestseller list I don’t know what is.

The humor enters subtly when we experience these characters reactions to a horrible murder. The kind of reaction any ordinary, trying to pay the bills and keep the weight off, kind of person you probably are. And with a couple of degrees of separation from said horrible murder a brief relief moment intercedes when those reactions are shown.

For instance, while contemplating the nature of a killer, Minnie muses, “A killer doesn’t usually ask someone to accompany him to his killling ground, for heaven’s sake. Usually he stuffs your face full of old chloroform rags, and bam, you're toast in the trunk.”

Or Rashawna, brow furrowed, trying to understand someone using a red shoelace as a murder weapon. “Who would buy them, anyway? Like who and why?” Rashawna asked, palms up. The tone of her voice screamed fashion police.

Of course, once you’ve got your homicidal humor all figured out, you must weave it into a compelling plot and then, the penultimate challenge, sell it. From inception to acceptance can be a long, rough road. It took Minnie and me almost ten years. She started out older than me but by the time I sold her she was a few years younger. I had to revise – a lot. I endured many critiques (my mother did not like it so much – God rest her soul). I was crushed with each rejection one of which was a third of a sheet from a yellow legal pad stating “you write with facility” but they were no longer publishing fiction. Sheesh. They had it for a year. And who got the other two thirds of the pad? A staff member needing something to wrap a leftover tuna sandwich?

I’ll compare the course to publication to the course of true love. In your carefully examined life you look at all the possible suitors for your talents; NASA, llama whispering school, water polo training, and it comes down to this. You’re a writer, plain and simple. You have stories to tell,and by Sam, you’re going to set your cap for all those readers out there. And if you choose to add some homicidal humor as part of the deal, I’m right there with you, honey.

© 2014 Susan Sundwall


  1. You are funny! I never thought about going to a llama whispering school, but now you mention it, might add to my talents. But I live in a small apartment in Manhattan - where could I let him stay???? I don't think my super would permit it... Thelma Straw

    1. Well, Thelma, maybe if you beg? Although I hear llama droppings are the bane of apartment dwellers everywhere, so maybe not. Try NASA. =0) Thank you for commenting!

  2. Susan, a well-published crime novelist told me his first got 250 rejections till one agent took it up. I've got a short story "under consideration by the editor: at Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine for 9 months. They promise response in 3-5 months.
    So I think: they lost it, right, and don't want to tell me. Then I think that's crazy, I'm getting crazed. Finally, I decide: it has no other place to go, so what the hell? Bob

    1. Why do all these editors pass up the good stuff??? It simply boggles. I'll bet your glorious day of acceptance is just around the corner, Bob. Keep thinkin' that - K?