Thursday, May 18, 2017



Emily Rhodes came to rural Florida for the cowboys, the cattle, and to do a little country two-step, not to fall head first onto a dead body in a dumpster. Ah, the golden years of retirement in the sunshine state. They’re more like pot metal to Emily, who discovers the body of the county’s wealthiest rancher in the Big Lake Country Club dumpster. With her close friend accused of the murder, Emily sets aside her grief at her life partner’s death to find the real killer. She underestimates the obstacles rural Florida can set up for a winter visitor and runs afoul of a local judge with his own version of justice, hires a lawyer who works out of a retirement home, and flees wild fires hand-in-hand with the man she believes to be the killer.

It seems as if Emily is destined to discover dead bodies. This time she finds one of the contestants at the local barbecue cook-off dead and covered in barbecue sauce in a beer cooler. She should be used to stumbling onto corpses by now and the question of who killed the guy should pique her curiosity, but Emily decides to let Detective Lewis handle this one, at least until she figures his theory of who did the deed is wrong, wrong, wrong. Lewis’ denigration of Emily’s speculations is condescending enough to stimulate her dormant snooping skills. As the two of them go on their separate paths to find the killer, Lewis’ old partner, Toby the dirty, tobacco-spitting cop interferes in the investigation leaving Lewis with the wrong man in jail. Killers, bootleggers, barbecue and feral pigs—it’s a lethal game of hide and seek in the Florida swamp.


Challenging Your Protagonist

It’s clear that the most obvious way mystery writers reveal and test their protagonists’ character is to disrupt their world by presenting the heroine (or hero) with a murder. Aside from this obvious way to challenge the protagonist, there are many other disruptions  a writer uses to reveal the protagonist’s character.

Some challenges come from within the character and are related to the person’s emotional, psychological and social make-up. For example, is the main character shy and laid back? If so, how will she handle an aggressive male? Emily Rhodes in Dumpster Dying is a retired school teacher used to handling children not big, bad cowboys who come into her bar drunk. Her best friend, Clara, assumes Emily does not have the chops for unpleasant interactions, but Emily insists that handing unruly preschoolers is not easy and is preparation for the adult world. Emily may not be able to physically confront an aggressive man, but she uses her wit to find a way around the bass fisherman when he asks her to move a truck he thinks she cannot drive. She proves him wrong, but pays a price for her sass when she must count on him to rescue her from an alligator. So Emily is right about being able to cantankerous men, but she must also learn she might not have the last word.

Then there is the matter of romance, another emotional issue that Emily must come to terms with. She has reason to mistrust men, having committed to one who died without changing his will to include Emily and forcing her to find work in what she assumed would be her retirement years. Confronting Emily with two romantic possibilities, a detective and a bass fisherman, brings out Emily’s misgivings and adds tension to the story. Will Emily be able to overcome her misgivings about romance? Both of the men vying for Emily’s affection are difficult fellows, one a serious police detective who Emily seems to always disagree with. Emily must eventually be able to tell the difference between his dislike of her interference in his police work and his developing feelings for her masquerading as irritation (he also must come to the same understanding about himself). As for the bass fisherman who vassilates between like for Emily and his feelings of aggravation at what he calls “uppity, Yankee gals,” Emily finds him hard to read and is always surprised when he treats her with affection and respect. The reader roots for Emily to sort out these romance issues. 

A roadblock to Emily’s ability to adjust to life in rural Florida is her living situation. Fred’s will leaves everything he and Emily have shared—house, car, bank account—to his ex-wife. Emily must find it in her to challenge the will and to find the means to hire a lawyer to represent her. Again, Emily’s sweet, laid-back nature is tested by these demands. There is nothing like a financial crisis to generate problems for the protagonist to solve and create uncertainty as to whether she will be able to be successful. In this case, the reader finds that financial exigency and her personality interact to create problems for Emily. While she correctly fires her crooked lawyer, she has no back-up plan for legal representation.

There are other issues to make the story exciting. While these challenges are external to the person, they tell the reader about the character. In Emily’s case, drought conditions near her house result in a fire in which she loses contact with a family member and finds an unlikely partner to help her find the way across an alligator infested slough. The fire and Emily’s response to it provides tension and excitement as well as an occasion for Emily and her unlikely rescuer to interact in a way that wouldn’t have happened under normal circumstances.

It is important for the writer to challenge the character in ways other than presenting a murder to be solved. Issues generated by the environment or by the character herself enhance the plot, create subplots and move the protagonist toward self-growth.  A mystery is more than solving a crime. It’s all about telling a story.


Lesley retired from her life as a professor of psychology and reclaimed her country roots by moving to a small cottage in the Butternut River Valley in Upstate New York. In the winter she migrates to old Florida—cowboys, scrub palmetto, and open fields of grazing cattle, a place where spurs still jingle in the post office, and gators make golf a contact sport. Back north, the shy ghost inhabiting the cottage serves as her literary muse. When not writing, she gardens, cooks, frequents yard sales and renovates the 1874 cottage with the help of her husband, two cats and, of course, Fred the ghost, who gives artistic direction to their work. She is the author of a number of mystery series and mysteries as well as short stories. The third book in the Eve Appel murders (from Camel Press) A Sporting Murder was awarded a Readers’ Favorite Five Star Award and her short story "Gator Aid" a Sleuthfest (2009) short story first place. She has fired the alligator that served as her literary muse when she is in Florida and is interviewing applicants for the position.

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