Sherry: We are so happy to welcome Martha Cooley today. Happy Book Birthday, Martha. I was lucky enough to get a copy of Ice Shear at Left Coast Crime. It’s a wonderful book.
If I had my way, my books would consist of nothing but backstory. There’s nothing I enjoy more than writing long explanations about whether characters preferred to ride the yellow duck or the white rabbit at the playground, why they have an aversion to peanut butter, what those five years of college were like and why they had six different majors, and that time they watched five seasons of The Wire in slightly under two weeks. Needless to say, this sort of description would result in a plot that would bore readers to tears. But there is another reason I keep some of this information to myself: I like for my characters to have secrets.
These secrets can be big or small. In Ice Shear there is a murderer with a destructive secret: “That woman was a monster who deserved to die.” Officer June Lyons chases that person until the very end. Along the way June uncovers secrets being held close by others. One is in love with the wrong person. A second can’t escape their past. A third hates being poor, especially when they see the murder victim throwing opportunity away.
It’s not just the murder suspects who have secrets. The secrets I keep from my readers don’t need to be life changing, and they don’t need to be bad. In fact, these small details are often the thing that fixes a character in my mind in a way that knowing their entire backstory doesn’t. For example, I’ll let you in on something: June’s father thinks of himself as an excellent dancer. This is something that this grumpy divorced ex-police chief would go to his grave before telling anyone, but I know (and now you do, too!). He tamps down that side of himself because it doesn’t fit his tough guy image, but inside he’s a bit of a romantic.
Other not-so-exciting secrets include a person who has eaten cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches for lunch every day for the last three years; a church-going pillar of the community who ran cockfights with his outlaw brothers when he was young (and who is now a vegetarian); and a millionaire who irons his own shirts because the cleaners don’t get the creases right. These details don’t give me every facet of their personality, but are a brief snapshot of who they are and what they value.
These secrets can also help with developing characters in the series. The mother of one of my series characters was a destructive alcoholic. Her behavior made him who he is—a peacemaker and a people pleaser who has the smallest streak of his mother’s rebellion. Who he is is revealed in book one. How he got that way is revealed in book two. My hope is that when people in book two find out the secrets he carries, that it will feel like something they knew all along.
The last type of secrets I have in my book are those I keep from my characters. Like people, my characters try to hide their weaknesses, appear as they think they should, or live of life of lowered expectations because they’ve given up hope for more. They keep up these appearances to the point where they begin to believe it themselves. June Lyons is one of those people. She thinks that she has left behind heroics, presenting safety lectures at schools and handing out parking tickets all there is to life. But when a crisis comes, the real truth comes out. Others may crumple, their bluster fallen away, but for June her innate heroism and strength surprise everyone, including herself. Me? I knew it all along.
Readers: What secret have you discovered in a book that surprised you? Have you ever read one, or written one, that you thought should have stayed secret? And what questions do you have for M. P. Cooley? Ask away.
M. P. Cooley’s debut crime novel ICE SHEAR (William Morrow) is one of O, The Oprah Magazine’s Best Books of Summer 2014 and was called “an excellent debut” by Publishers Weekly in their starred review. A native of upstate New York, she currently lives in Campbell, California. She studied literature at Barnard College, and went on to work in tax and law publishing, acquiring business, accounting, and economics books. Currently, she works in administration at a nonprofit organization in Silicon Valley.