Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Mrs. Pollifax Teaches Suspense

One of the books I have going at the moment is Dorothy Gilman’s “Mrs. Pollifax, Innocent Tourist.” I don’t know if you’ve read any of the series or seen the Angela Lansbury TV movie, but the Pollifax books revolve around a grandmotherly ‘Garden Club’ lady who likes wearing hats and who just happens to do side work for the CIA. Part of why I’m reading Mrs. Pollifax is to glean how Dorothy Gilman manages to maintain suspense amidst detailed setting descriptions.

Part of the charm of the Mrs. Pollifax series is its often leisurely pace amidst authentically described foreign countries. For example, in the “Innocent Tourist,” the chapter I finished last night spent several paragraphs describing a Jordan castle. I love this sort of thing, but I kept thinking as I read it that such detail would never survive one of my stories.

How does Gilman do it? I concluded that she gets away with such elaborate descriptions because of the strength of Mrs. Pollifax’s character. As a reader, we are curiously drawn to Mrs. Pollifax’s well-being. I keep wondering what will this quaint little lady say or do in these exotic settings? Will she be okay? Or, will she make some funny comment?

In addition to character, the other technique Gilman utilizes to keep her books moving along is that she inevitably pitches some small unknown out just ahead of her reader. During the “Innocent Tourist” castle scene, readers don’t know when a rendezvous will occur. This missing information leaves us with just enough of a lure to sift through long setting descriptions.

So, when thinking about how to work in a needed setting description, follow Dorothy Gilman’s lead and mix in a lovable character with a little suspense. As Mrs. Pollifax would likely say, “I don’t mind if I do, please.”

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