20 August 2019

Balancing Comedy and Tragedy

A few years ago I was editing a manuscript in which an amateur sleuth found a dead body. A couple of paragraphs down, she made a joke. It raised my eyebrows. "Too soon," I said in a note to the author.

Don't get me wrong. I love humor, especially black humor. Ranging from wry observations to slapstick situations, humor is important because it can lighten a book's mood. But you have to know when to be funny--and when not to. In the case I mentioned above, I suggested having the sleuth wait a couple of pages before she makes light of the situation. The author did so, and it made all the difference.

Today I'm pleased to welcome as a guest author my friend Sherry Harris, who knows all about writing humor, including the importance of timing. Sherry writes great books and takes edits like the pro she is. Sherry writes the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries about a woman in Massachusetts who runs garage sales for other people. Sherry's here today to expound on balancing comedy and tragedy in mysteries. Take it away, Sherry!

--Barb Goffman

Balancing Comedy and Tragedy
 
by Sherry Harris
 
I was sitting at the bar at Writers' Police Academy (this sounds like the start of a bad joke) when I started talking to a woman near me. I asked her what she wrote and she told me. She then asked what I wrote, so I told her I wrote a cozy series--the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries. She said, "Oh, well I write serious books." I replied that I wrote serious books too. That I don't think murder is funny, but that I did use humor in other parts of my books.

I'm caught somewhere in between comedy and tragedy. In my most recent book, Let's Fake a Deal, (published July 30th), there are two parallel story lines. As the book opens Sarah is arrested for selling stolen goods at a garage sale and a few chapters later a friend of hers is arrested for murder. I was shocked when someone who interviewed me said they thought the first chapter (where Sarah is arrested) was one of the funniest scenes they've ever read. When I wrote the scene my vision of Sarah was that she was really scared. I guess that just proves humor is in the eye of the beholder. After the interview was over, I reread the scene with a different mind-set and saw how it could be interpreted that way.

Where do I add the humor? I'd like to tell you I carefully plot it all out in advance but I don't. I'll make a decision early in my writing process on how to add some humor. For Let's Fake a Deal, I tossed around ideas with my independent editor, Barb Goffman. (Hi, Barb, thanks for having me here today.) We came up with the idea that Sarah could do a garage sale for a woman who was obsessed with cats. Not a crazy cat woman who has twenty cats living with her, but a woman who wants to make the front of her house look like the face of a cat. To afford that she has to sell off her massive collection of cat-morabilia. So the cat-tastic garage sale was born.
Kishi Station in Japan was redesigned to resemble a cat in honor of a beloved local stray cat. (Can you see it?) This station isn't in the Sarah Winston books, but it's a great example of what a dedicated cat lover could do with enough funds.
But the Sarah Winston books have more than funny situations. Each of my books is set partially on an Air Force base, and I weave in difficulties military families face. In Let's Fake a Deal, one of Sarah's friends, who has been selected for promotion to colonel, has an IG (inspector general) complaint filed against her, which holds up her promotion. I did a lengthy interview with a friend who served as a Navy JAG for 23 years. We talked about the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated world. Then I interviewed other women I knew who had served. The interviews fascinated and horrified me. Their stories are woven into the book.

I hope the titles add some humor and Sarah is funny. She's not funny in a slapstick, "slip on a banana peel" kind of way, but she has an optimistic outlook on life. Her observations about life add humor to the books. But I also want her to be multilayered so when she stumbles over a dead body Sarah hurts, and when she sees someone die she reacts like a real person would. 

****
 
Sherry Harris is the Agatha Award-nominated author of the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mystery series. She is the President of Sisters in Crime, a member of the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime, the New England Chapter of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and International Thriller Writers.
 
In her spare time Sherry loves reading and is a patent-holding inventor. Sherry, her husband, and her guard dog, Lily, are living in northern Virginia until they figure out where they want to move to next.  (Barb here: That's what she thinks. I'm not letting her move away ever. No how. No way.) 
 
 
 
Twitter: @SHarrisAuthor
 
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SherryHarrisauthor

Instagram: SherryHarrisAuthor

8 comments:

Steve Liskow said...

Interesting post, Sherry. And timing really IS everything, isn't it?

I try to insert some humor into my fairly dark stories, and it's tricky.

I used to do lots of theater, too, and I still maintain that Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a comedy...at least for the first act. People look at me as though I've said something even crazier than usual, but with the right cast, it really is.

janice law said...

I do like the idea of a cat-tastic garage sale.

Thanks for visiting!

Sherry Harris said...

Oh, that is a very interesting take on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I'm going to have to reread it with than mindset.

Sherry Harris said...

Thanks, Janice! There are an amazing number of things that you can buy that with cats on them or that are cat shaped. From antiques to modern!

Steve Liskow said...

Sherry, I probably have an old VHS tape of the performance when I directed the show back in the min-90s. The actor playing George and I had acted together and directed each other in several shows by then, and he had worked with our Martha several times, too, so their chemistry was terrific.

Naturally, I no longer have a working VHS player. One of these days I may invest in a converter and turn the thing into a DVD. Or not.

Sherry Harris said...

Very interesting, Steve!

Leigh Lundin said...

As I read your article, a friend glanced over my shoulder and said, "There's a writer named Sherry Harris who goes around solving yard sale signs." Whoops! Right place at the right time.

Tonette Joyce said...

Excellent, Sherry! Barb helps many with their writing in her editing, but she needs decent writing to work with. You can't teach someone humor, nor good writing.I wish you all the best and continued success!