The story concerns one of the heroine’s cousins and his wife. This is his second wife, and he has two children, a son by his first wife, now deceased, and a daughter by his second wife. I’ve set up the story with a reasonable number of suspects, developed and set out clues, explored the characters so that readers can see their motivations if not their guilt, and explored the setting and its influence on people’s behavior. In the end I have what I think is a sound confrontation scene, a few surprises, and, of course, changes in the protagonist’s life. What have I missed?
I missed the obvious. The teenage son is pivotal to the crime and its aftermath, though he is never a suspect. He is mentioned by the parents, the high school principal, the town librarian, and some other characters. He comes up in conversation, and he triggers some significant developments. So what have I missed? The protagonist never talks to him.
The protagonist is Felicity O’Brien, who owns a farm in a small community in a very rural part of New England. She talks to just about everyone, but somehow I managed to get her through this entire crime story without ever having her talk to one of the key players. I’ve set out to rectify the omission, with several scenes lined up at crucial points in the story.
I don’t think I’m the only one who falls into this trap. Indeed, Agatha Christie used the omission of the obvious as a clue (and the title) of one of her mysteries, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934). I can’t speak for other writers, but I know that I sometimes focus so closely on what’s happening on the page that I miss details (and bigger things too) I should be including—location, time of day, day of the week, name of the character I’m writing about, and a number of other details. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was famous for changing his character’s eye color.
Correcting these errors is the work of the near-final draft and a good beta editor. But let’s face it. It is impossible to be both human and a perfect writer. But it is possible to look for errors and omissions and correct them. You can take this too far, and be obsessed about the text and miss the story itself, but overall, every writer should want the text to be as clean and as complete as possible.
When I began working on the scenes for the teenage son, I discovered other parts of the story I could strengthen. One change suggested others, and once again I followed them through the story. My task now is to fill in the blanks I’ve created, and make sure every detail is present and makes sense.
For a longer discussion of errors in books, you may enjoy this article on editors who also make mistakes: http://penultimateword.com/editing-blogs/when-editors-make-mistakes/