A Gay Romantic Mystery Needs Three Things
(Reprinted with author’s permission. Article first appeared in the MLR Newsletter)
by Haley Walsh
Writing what is essentially a fluffy romantic mystery requires three elements:
1. Well-drawn Characters
2. Interesting Plot
3. Sexy Romance
Let’s take number one first, because without interesting characters whose lives you want to spend 300 pages with, you’ve got nothing much. My character, Skyler Foxe, is a young, fun-loving guy, a brand new high school English teacher in a conservative region of southern California. He loves teaching, loves his school kids, has an unnatural obsession with Motown music, and loves going out dancing with his friends, who are all former hook-ups—affectionately known as the “Skyler Fuck Club” or SFC—and just wants nothing more than partying on weekends and getting down to English Lit during the week. Of course, this being a mystery, he also falls into murder.
Skyler is a fully formed human being. He isn’t just a gay guy who gets all sorts of wild sex in the books and nothing else. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But there are scenes when he is at the job he loves, interacting with his students and really enjoying connecting with them. There are two students in particular, whom he helps come to terms with their sexuality.
And then there is his interaction with his friends, a completely different experience from when he is “Mr. Foxe” at school. As it should be. Aren’t we different to the different people in our lives? With his mother, he’s the dutiful son. In the closet, but the good boy his mother expects him to be. With his best bud Sidney, he gets to completely relax. He has known her since they were kids and though they parted ways in college—he to a teaching program and she to the police academy—they remained close and always made time for the other.
And finally, with Skyler’s love interest, he is another person again.
So not only is there a lot of backstory to Skyler, but to all the periphery characters, as well. And there are many. His friends: Jamie, the high-spirited webpage designer; Philip, the straight-looking coffee-house owner and his barista Cashmere Funk, a tall Jamaican with a crush on his boss; Rodolfo, the Ecuadorian hook-up who looks like Antonio Banderas. Then his colleagues at school: the straight-laced principal Wesley Sherman; the no-nonsense vice principal Alice Goodwin; the oblivious art teacher Ben Fontana; Kate Traeger the girls volleyball coach; Julia Meyers the calculus teacher who sees too much; the homophobic football coach with an agenda, Scott Carson; and his assistant coach and biology teacher the very sexy Keith Fletcher. There are also students, Skyler’s favorite class of sophomores: Amber Watson, straight A student with a crush on Skyler; her Goth best friend Heather Munson; Alex Ryan the angry teen with a chip on his shoulder; and Rick Flores, class clown and philosopher.
So with a well-rounded cast of friends, red herrings, and villains, we can slip into #2, plot.
It’s nice to have a good mysterious puzzle when writing a mystery. I like to have several things going on at once (especially for those who can figure out a mystery quickly. That way they still have other things in the plot to think about). Since this is an amateur sleuth mystery–that is, the “detective” is not a cop or professional investigator–the writer is immediately struck with the problem of logically involving the sleuth in looking for a murderer. I don’t know about you, but if I found a dead body, the first thing I’d do is likely scream and then call 911, and that would be that. But an amateur sleuth has to have a personal stake and is therefore compelled to investigate. And, okay, there must be a certain level of suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader, but that’s what also makes this kind of mystery fun.
In the first novel FOXE TAIL, Skyler’s principal’s son ends up dead outside a new dance club and Skyler investigates. In the second, FOXE HUNT, Skyler looks into the death of an old friend and hook-up. Meanwhile, throughout the first two books, something fishy is going on behind the scenes at the high school. It all comes to a head in the last of the opening trilogy, OUT-FOXED, where Skyler has just been dragged out of the closet by the hunky assistant football coach—a man he thought he knew. But when Sky discovers Keith has been keeping a big secret, he breaks it off, leaving both of them lonely and confused. With troubles mounting from the press, angry parents, confused students, and Skyler’s own mom, what’s a boy to do but discover—once and for all–who’s behind all the dirty doings at James Polk High?
Which brings us to #3, Sexy Romance. Skyler is deeply in the throes of his first real romance with fellow teacher, Keith Fletcher. The sex is hot and heavy while Skyler tries to reconcile his playboy lifestyle with a grown-up relationship with an older man. Yes, it’s more than just porn involved. It’s making the sex make sense for the story. It ain’t necessarily so for some kinds of erotica, but for books that you want readers to recommend or come back to again and again, there must be more than merely smut. At the same time, there are “aww” moments, truly romantic interludes that not only keep the characters guessing about how they feel but keep readers involved and let them fall in love with the characters, too. That would be the fluffy part.
There needs to be all three elements working in concert with one another—character, plot, and romance. Once you’ve got that, you’ve got a great story.
Look for FOXE FIRE, the next Skyler Foxe Mystery. Check out the series at http://skylerfoxemysteries.com/