6 min read

Analyzing the first 300 words of the first three books in the Larkin Day Mystery series

What contracts do I make with my readers?
Image credit: Alan Lastufka, Shortwave Publishing

ODE TO MURDER, published October 4, 2022:

“I’m not going to choir practice tonight,” Larkin told her mother.

“Yes, you are,” Josephine Day said, not looking up from her laptop. “I already told Ed you’d be there.”

“You can’t tell people I’ll be places,” Larkin said, not getting up from the sofa. “That’s not how this is going to work.”

“I think I get at least some say in how it’s going to work,” Josephine said. “Since you are living in my house.”

“Temporarily,” Larkin said.

“I’m well aware.”

“And I’m supposed to be taking some time off,” Larkin continued, shifting position just enough to activate her core and project her voice towards the kitchen table. “To think about what I want to do with the rest of my life.”

“Are you thinking about it?”

“I’m thinking that I don’t want to sing in community choir.” Larkin was actually thinking that it had been a very long time since she had activated her core.

“It’s not a community choir. We’re bringing together all of the choruses between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. There will be singers from all over the Corridor.” At least her mother had not called it the Creative Corridor this time, emphasis on creative, as if that would entice Larkin to get off the sofa and get back to creating. Larkin did not want to make art in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She didn’t want to make art in any city where you had to say the name of the state afterwards.

Larkin didn’t even know if what she did qualified as making art, anymore. At one point Larkin was very sure she was going to make art, staging plays and musicals that revealed truths that no one in her audience had ever considered. At a different, slightly later point, she’d told herself it was just as worthwhile to teach other people how to make art—although she’d also asked herself how she could teach something she hadn’t actually done. Larkin had considered this truth and then ignored it, not that it mattered. At this point, nobody was interested in hiring Larkin to teach or make anything.

What can you expect, as a reader, from these opening paragraphs?

On the surface level, you may understand that Larkin will need to resolve the conflict with her mother. You might understand that Larkin will also need to resolve the conflict within herself. You may even be able to guess that Ed – a name tossed off in the second sentence – will play one of the most important roles in the series.

But the reason to keep reading is right at the end of the excerpt. Larkin is ignoring the truth.

At their core, the Larkin Day novels are about a woman who must consider what is true. Thus begins the contract I am making, with my readers: If you read the series, each book in turn, by the time you get to the final installment (outlined but not yet written, titled MURDER IS TRUTH, TRUTH MURDER) you'll know everything Larkin learns as she goes from ignoring to accepting reality.

Image credit: Alan Lastufka, Shortwave Publishing

LIKE, SUBSCRIBE, AND MURDER, published January 17, 2023:

“Are you ready to do it ALL AGAIN?”

Larkin was not ready. She had told herself she was ready, the first time Anni had suggested she sign up for guided fitness classes. Those three words, in that particular order, had made the whole thing sound achievable. Larkin would exchange her hard-earned barista money—“don’t worry,” Anni had said, “it’s sliding-scale”—for a class in which a guide would nudge her gently towards fitness. A hand on her lower back, whispering affirmations as Larkin dangled her fingers six inches above her toes.

The Pratincola fitness complex might have offered that class, somewhere.

It was not the class they were currently taking.

“I said, ARE YOU READY?”

Larkin was supposed to respond. She was supposed to have enough space, between each rapid and ragged breath, to shout “I’m ready!” while simultaneously bouncing from one foot to the other in what their guide called a rest motion. They rested, if anyone besides their guide could call it that, in between each set—which, in this particular section, had included squats, lunges, push-ups, reverse push-ups, jumping jacks, burpee sprints, and some kind of running-in-place exercise called high knees.

“Face your buddy,” their guide had said, “and see who can get their knees the highest!”

If it had been any of their previous guided fitness sessions, Larkin would have been facing Anni—and since Larkin was built like a triple-scoop ice cream cone and Anni was built like a carrot stick, Larkin could have won the contest without having to make an effort. Larkin’s knees were always higher than Anni’s, even when they were sitting next to each other on Anni’s sofa and discussing Larkin’s future career as Pratincola’s newest—“and only!” Anni had said—private detective. But this time, Anni was at the front of the room, bouncing cheerfully next to a sweating, resolute woman whose recalcitrant son sat in the corner and played on his phone.

This time, Larkin’s buddy was Ed Jackson, Assistant Professor of Music at Howell College, director of the Pratincola Concert Choir, and kinda-sorta-maybe her boyfriend.

The opening paragraphs of the second Larkin book give the reader one piece of information: Larkin is not ready. The savvy reader will expand the metaphor and sign the subcontract: By the end of this book, Larkin will be ready for the next phase of her life.

That said, these paragraphs do less work than the opening paragraphs of Ode to Murder. They substitute quirk for craft, putting humor where honesty could have gone. Perhaps all second novels are constructed, and it takes until the third book in a series to establish the scaffolding that will sustain the remainder of the story.

Image credit: Alan Lastufka, Shortwave Publishing

SHAKESPEARE IN THE PARK WITH MURDER, publishing June 27, 2023:

“It’s hot,” Larkin said, as she unzipped herself from her sleeping bag.

“I know,” Ed said, setting down his free weights and helping Larkin free herself from the upper bunk. The cabins had bunkbeds, but no ladders; windows, but no air conditioning. The nearest outhouse was thirty feet away; the nearest facility that offered showers, flush toilets and sinks was half a mile down the kind of packed-dirt runway that had been created, over the years, by people who needed to get to a functional bathroom as fast as they could. A desire path, Sahil had called it, when he gave Larkin and Ed the tour.

Larkin had not known, when she accepted the job of directing the newly relaunched Summer Shakespeare Festival, that it would involve camping. She knew, of course, that the performances would be outdoors, in a state-of-the-art amphitheater that boasted donor names on both its dressing rooms and many of its injection-molded seats. She had assumed that the rehearsals would be indoors. She had assumed that the meals would be served indoors, and that someone else would be responsible for cleaning the kitchen. She had assumed that she would be allowed to sleep in her own bed.

Technically, she could have. Sahil had seen her face when she first saw the cabins, and had tactfully mentioned that one of the previous artistic directors had elected to drive home every evening. He had even more tactfully mentioned that this particular director had not been particularly well-liked among the company, and had not lasted more than a single season.

“The kids want you to be a part of their experience,” he explained.

Everyone called them kids, even though there was only one person in the company who wasn’t a legal adult. Most of the kids were Howell College students. Some of them came from one of the other liberal arts colleges that mapped the boundaries of Eastern Iowa’s Creative Corridor. There were a few grad students, a few retirees—“we call them community members,” Sahil explained, “and they are essential to our mission”—and just enough Equity actors to allow the rest of them to earn Equity points.

The Equity actors got the cabin with the window air conditioner. They were also exempt from KP duty and latrine duty and all of the other uncomfortable duties, although nearly all of them pitched in. Everyone in the company understood that how they behaved today would affect the opportunities they received tomorrow. They were relentlessly, unnecessarily cheerful.

These opening paragraphs don't specifically outline Larkin's problem – nor do they set up a contract to provide a solution. The crux of the story isn't introduced until Page 10, and at this point I trust that my readers will trust me enough to keep reading.

In many ways, it's a sub-sub-contract.

Keep reading, and I'll get to the promise I'm about to make – and Larkin will get one step closer to understanding reality.