Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

18.07: Deep Dive into THE SPARE MAN

Spoiler Alert! This week is our deep dive into Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Spare ManIt’s a sci-fi mystery novel often described as “The Thin Man in space.”

Deep dive episodes are necessarily full of spoilers because we ask all kinds of how and why questions specific to the writing of the work in question. If you haven’t yet read The Spare Man, you might consider doing that before listening to this episode. We’re not the boss of you, but we believe you’ll get more out of this episode and the novel if you read the novel first.

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Do you like murder mysteries? Write down the elements that must be present for a murder mystery to be satisfying for you.

Thing of the week: The Thin Man (1934).

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Spoilers ahead! What grabbed you about this book? Howard: the combination of a classical murder mystery with a tightly world built science fiction setting. Mary Robinette: Murder mystery is structure driven, while science fiction and fantasy is about the world building and the aesthetics. Add in a luxury cruise ship and the Thin Man movie. Why did you make Tesla Crane famous? In the movies, Nick Charles is a famous detective. Also, watching Neil Gaiman at a World Con. How did you decide what to hold onto and what to change from reality as we know it? I wanted to combine the sense of extraordinary that luxury cruise liners have, with the sense of being in space. Was starting each chapter with a cocktail recipe intentional? Not when I started writing. First, I wanted to use cocktail names for chapter titles. But beta readers didn’t know the drinks. So I added the recipes. And then I got to add new recipes and nonalcoholic cocktails, too. Where did you start? Science fiction comes naturally. I wanted to try what Agatha Christie does, giving everyone motive and opportunity, and then deciding at the end whodunit. I started with the murder, identity theft, and an actor taking over a role. A lot more was not decided. Then when I understood the characters, I knew why he did it, and re-adjusted things to get people into the right place at the right time. How did you keep track of who, where, and what opportunities? I do a casting exercise. I added two columns, the secret the character has, and how they are related to the main character. I needed how they were related to the murder victim, and I had to fix that later. What kind of feedback do you get from your beta readers? I ask them to identify awesome, boring, confused, and disbelief. Also, stream of consciousness. I watch for “This person is clearly…” in the stream of consciousness. Would you use this process in the future? I like the way it lets me respond to unexpected connections. I don’t like that it took 2-3 times as long as usual to write this book.

[Season 18, Episode 7]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] Deep Dive on The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal.

[Erin] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Howard] And I loved this book…


[Howard] And I get to drive this episode. I’m going to go ahead and start by putting this question out for everybody, which is, was there a hook, was there a scene, was there anything that you just love? That really jumped out and grabbed you in this book, The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal?

[Mary Robinette] Which, I just want to warn readers, listeners, before we dive too deep into this, we are going to spoil. I… Like, we’re not going to talk around things, and it is a murder mystery. So if you have not read the book and you don’t mind spoilers, carry on. If you do mind spoilers, you may want to pause right now.

[Howard] We will have warned them about that two weeks ago in an episode that we’ll record after our break, but that’s bookkeeping that they don’t need. So let me start with this. I love a good murder mystery, and I love good worldbuilding. Science fiction is one of my favorite things ever. It’s kind of… It feels like a copout, but for me, my favorite thing was a genuine classical murder mystery set in a tightly world built science fiction setting. With every turn of the page, with every reveal of things that were going on it’s, it just satisfied me in a way that is maybe deeply personal only for me.


[Howard] But it hit all of those notes so well.

[Mary Robinette] Well, thank you. So one of the things that I talked about a lot recently is that I have this idea that genres are either structure driven or aesthetically driven. Murder mystery is a structure driven genre. Romance, things like that, there are certain beats you have to hit. Science fiction and fantasy doesn’t have an inherent structure, but it is about the world building and the aesthetic in the way it looks and feels. So, for me, layering those two things on… Layering those next to each other… It’s very easy. They play really nicely with each other. The thing that was slightly harder was that I wanted it to both feel like a luxury cruise ship in the future, and I also wanted it to feel like The Thin Man movie. So I was trying to layer two aesthetics and a structure driven genre on simultaneously.

[Howard] Well, I didn’t notice that…

[Mary Robinette] Good.

[Howard] It was difficult. You just make it look easy.

[Mary Robinette] Well, thank you.


[DongWon] Yeah. I think one of the things that I really loved about it was that sort of sense of classic cinema that permeates through it. Right? It reminded me a lot of what I love about like Connie Willis books that pull in that screwball comedy vibe. Right? Like, I think you nailed that totally. One thing that really sold it for me in a way that I’m not quite sure you and how to explain why this communicate is that aspect to me so well is the way in which Crane is so famous. Her fame, the layer that that added to the book, the layer of complexity both in terms of like plot developments, in terms of them looking more suspicious because of all the things that they’ve to sort of hide her presence on the ship, but then the increasing complication, the sort of like ratcheting up of tension, but also humor, as her fame starts to leak out in the back half of the book, it causes problems, but also opportunities for her to sort of evade capture and detection. What went into that decision to make her famous in the way that she’s famous, and how that like reinforces the mystery elements?

[Mary Robinette] In The Thin Man movies… It’s the original Thin Man movie which I’m a huge fan of… The William Powell character, Nick Charles, is a famous detective. He does get recognized when they go places. But it’s always by the ne’er-do-wells that he has arrested over and they all are big admirers of him. So there was some of that. Then, some of it was actually influenced by a single moment at a World Con in which I was having a conversation with this other writer. We were talking about fountain pens and what he has been working on. Then some friends saw that I was talking to him and they’re like, “Hey, could you… Could you introduce us?” I’m like, “Yeah. Hi. These are my friends, this is Neil Gaiman.” He stopped being this other writer who I was talking to and suddenly became Neil Gaiman. He didn’t change at all. Like, nothing about him changed. But what happened was they… He signed one thing for them, and the rest of the room, which had been giving him space, suddenly saw him. I like turn to talk to my friends and my back was to him for like 30 seconds. When I turned around, there was a crowd, like 20 people deep, and they had backed him against a wall. I was like, “Oh.” He doesn’t get to go to science fiction conventions anymore without a handler. He no longer gets to have the experience that he has had as a writer. That no longer is a thing for him. So, I have occasional moments of that where I’m at a convention, I’m Guest of Honor, and I have to be on, and it’s still me, but it can be kind of exhausting. So I wanted to explore that with Tesla, like what happens when you cannot go anywhere without people knowing who you are.

[DongWon] Yeah. I think I was so interested in that because I see that in small ways with the writers I work with as their careers grow. It becomes harder and harder for them to be a person either on the Internet or at Cons. They’re not famous like movie star famous, but in certain communities and certain spaces, you really start to lose that ability just to be a person like any other person. You start to become this persona, this almost product, this thing that people want to interact with in that way. Watching that flip for Tesla was just so fascinating and familiar to a thing that I’ve seen over and over again in real life.

[Howard] Erin, you had a question.

[Erin] Yeah. What I love about that story is that it’s… It kind of shows something that I really, really love about this book, which is the reality meets invention of it. So it takes place on a cruise ship that resembles a cruise ship that we’ve all been on, and yet it has obvious futuristic science fictional elements. I’m wondering sort of how you decided like which parts of our world, what parts of the reality that we know to hold onto, and what to let go of. Is that a constraint, is it exciting… Where did you find that balance?

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. That’s a really interesting question. One of the things that’s odd about this book also is that my idea for it happened in like this weird cascading thing over the course of multiple cruises. So I don’t really remember the genesis of this. But what I wanted to hold onto a lot of was the… Just the extra nature of cruise lines. Like, I just was on Wonder of the Seas, which is the largest of the cruise ships, and we had gone on the Oasis of the Seas. I thought when I went on the Wonder which is the same class of ship, I was like, “I’ve surely imagined and exaggerated this in my head, and I’m very wrong.” No, it is as extra as I think it is. So I wanted to get that sense of more that comes from a luxury cruise liner. Also, the way they go out of their way to not make it seem huge. To create like neighborhoods and things like this. So I wanted to kind of capture that and then think about, “okay, well, now we’re in space.” I thought about having a zero G section, because it’s in space. Really thought about it. It was difficult to give up when I made the decision to do it. But I wanted to… I decided that it was more important to me to hang onto physics then to cool possible set pieces.

[Dan] I want to step away from the book itself for a minute and talk about a really brilliant thing you did in the packaging of the book. Which is that every chapter starts with a cocktail recipe. Some of these are alcoholic, some of them are not. That ties perfectly into the classic Thin Man vibe, and it matches the characters, but it also turned into a really just fantastic marketing and interactive element. I’ve seen people posing with cocktails on Instagram. Making Tik-Tok’s of themselves making the cocktails from your book. I would love to know how much of that was intentional, how… Like, just as this wonderful promotional thing, have you seen an effect from that in actual sales? I think it’s really cool.

[Mary Robinette] It was not intentional when I started writing it. I knew that I wanted to begin the chapters… I wanted to title the chapters after cocktails, because cocktails have, like, really great names, like Corpse Reviver #2, Death in the Afternoon, The Obituary. Like these are existing cocktails in the world. It’s so I thought, “Okay. Well, let me start with a martini, because people will recognize that as a cocktail.” Nick Charles is introduced at the beginning of the film with… He’s making a martini. So I’m going to start with a martini. Then I’ll do a Manhattan. I’ll hit a couple of classic ones, and then I’ll hit some of these ones that have these crazy names. As I was doing that, my beta readers, a number of them didn’t drink, and they didn’t know… They didn’t have any frame of reference for what a martini or a Manhattan was. So I decided to go ahead and add the recipes for them. Then I became extremely glad that I had done that when I got deeper into the book and ran out of existing cocktails, and also ran out of good… Like, it also gave me the opportunity to add nonalcoholic cocktails in there. Because I could have put in like the Crow’s Nest. But if you don’t know that it’s a nonalcoholic drink, there’s nothing in the title that tells you that. So, that also gave me the ability to make things up, and it was a lot of fun. Once I realized that I was doing cocktails like actual recipes, then we started talking about, all right, we’ll have cocktail recipe cards, and… I have this whole fantasy about having a Kickstarter down the line where it’s a… You can get Lindgren-themed bar ware and a cocktail book that has additional recipes. So, someday, someday.

[Erin] Cocktail Tarot. I’m just putting it out there.

[Mary Robinette] Cocktail Tarot. Oh, Erin, you and I should talk, later.

[DongWon] On a personal note, I just want to say thank you for including the Remember the Maine. It is one of my all-time favorite cocktails. Nobody knows it. It is truly delicious.

[Mary Robinette] It is. Oh, good.

[DongWon] I’m excited to… It’s so good. It’s hard to find a good one. I’m excited to try the new recipes you included.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] This is one of those things, Dan, I love the question. Because it’s one of those things that you look at with the book and the marketing and you think, “Wow. That’s just genius. That’s brilliant.” Then we talk about the process, and you realize the genius and the brilliance lies with Mary Robinette recognizing what a fantastic idea this could be if only she took the time to make up some new drinks. As authors, the opportunity to, oh, in order to fill this hole, I’m going to have to make up some stuff. Oh, wait. That’s just what we do.

[Dan] That’s what I do.

[Howard] Even with what we do, we’re going to talk about some of the nuts and bolts of doing this, as soon as we returned from our thing of the week.

[Mary Robinette] I want to talk to you about The Thin Man movie. Movies. There are six of them. So… There is a novel by Dashiell Hammett called The Thin Man. It’s fine. It’s a good book. But the movies! William Powell and Myrna Loy play a married couple. He’s a famous detective. She’s an heiress. They have an adorable dog named Asta. The chemistry between them is so much fun. The first two books… Err, first two films are tightly plotted mysteries. The second one has a very young Jimmy Stewart. He’s… It’s just delightful. But they are so yummy. One of the things that I love most about them is that the characters trust each other. There’s a scene in the first film when Nora walks in and Nick has another woman in his arms. In another writer’s hands, in another episode of life, that would have been a big confrontation scene. Instead, she’s like, “Oh, you’re comforting someone.” Which is what he was doing. They make silly beloved faces at each other. I just… I love this film so much. If you want to watch a tightly plotted murder mystery with witty banter, so much drinking… Because they were right after Prohibition… And a really cute dog. Highly, highly recommend The Thin Man. You do not need to watch it before reading my books. You don’t need to read my books before watching the film. Just watch the film. It’s so good.

[Howard] Mary Robinette, how did you do it?


[Howard] Let me make the question a little less open ended. You set out to write a murder mystery, which, as you’ve explained before, was a blending of an extremely structural form, the murder mystery, and an aesthetic set of sensibilities, which are science-fiction. Where did you start?

[Mary Robinette] So, the science fiction part of it was the part that I had to think about kind of the least. Because I was setting it on a cruise ship, and it is a place where I live very happily. I spend a lot of time in science fiction, so that’s the part that comes most naturally to me. Murder mystery is a… While I have written other murder mysteries, it is… It is this structural thing, and I wanted something… Specifically, I wanted something that had a fairly substantial cast because it was on a cruise ship and also because I was playing with specifically the Thin Man movies, which have lots of people coming and going all the time. So I decided to try the thing that Agatha Christie does, which is that she… Or did. She didn’t plot her books. She would just give everybody motive and opportunity, and then decide at the end whodunit. When I had heard about this, I was like, “That is… That’s a great flex, and not actually a thing I’m going to be able to pull off.” But when I started watching the Thin Man movies, like, critically, I realized that the fun of them is the interrogation and watching the personalities come out. I tried plotting it, and it was not working spectacularly well. So what I did was that I knew… And here is where we go full on spoiler… I knew that I wanted to do a… I started with the murder. I knew that I wanted to do identity theft. I knew that I wanted to do something with an actor taking over a role. Like, I knew those things. What I didn’t know was how he got on the ship… Exactly. I didn’t know how many of his accomplices were willing accomplices. I didn’t know if any of the other people that I was setting up were going to be part of the scheme, or if he was a lone actor. I was not 100% certain on that when I was going in. So my… Here we go… So Halden, who is my… Who is ultimately unmasked as the murderer, I was not certain if I was going to have him be in collaboration with his assistant, and then have that be an accidental murder, or if he was killing the assistant because they could give him away. Once I got a little bit deeper in and I understood the characters more, I was like, “Oh, okay. No, this is a guy who completely thought he could get away with it, and… This was an act of hubris, that he thought that he could fool everybody with his brilliant, brilliant acting.” So I had to go back and do a lot of re-jiggering of things to get people into the right place at the right time. I had to do a certain amount of moving scenes or giving people reasons to be offstage so that they had motive… Or, not motive, but had opportunity. Then I had a whole giant, giant subplot that I had to toss completely because it pulled everything out of shape and wasn’t related to the murder. It was planned as a big red herring and I had to toss it. That was that Jalna and Annie… That Jalna, Jalna’s brother had been on the lab that de-orbited.

[Howard] Okay. Now, speaking of giant, giant things, this episode’s going to run a bit long.


[Howard] All of our deep dives in the past have run a bit long. I love the discussion of Agatha Christie and I’ve heard the same thing. She would start by making sure everybody had motive and opportunity, then she would finish by deciding which one of them did it. I can’t even… I can’t even. I need to know what the reveal is going to be, and then I work backwards. Erin and DongWon, do you have any structural how to questions here?

[DongWon] Yeah. I think the thing that I’m really curious about is this is a very large cast of characters. Right? It’s a lot of people we’re keeping track of, some of them more incidental than others, whether it’s crew, other members… Starting… As we’re developing a list of suspects, that list is pretty long at certain points. Again, your tracking who has opportunity, who has motive, and all of these things. I’m imagining, hearing your process, like one of those like serial killer red string boards in your office trying to connect all those things. How do you manage that? How do you track all of that? Right? Like, what was the logistics of keeping it straight in your head of who was where when and what opportunities that they had?

[Mary Robinette] So, I do a casting exercise at the beginning of many of my books. I don’t necessarily do it at the front of all of them. Like, sometimes I’ll do it when I’m like a third of the way in. I’m like, “Ah, I should stop and do this thing. This is why it’s so useful.” But the casting exercise is that I will plug in what a character’s role is and their name… Like, the basic stuff. But then I look at their axes of power. If you go back, there’s an episode in which I talk about axes of power and the casting exercise. So you can look at the spreadsheet that I use. But for this one, what I added… I added two columns, one was what secret each character had, and the other one was how they were related to the main character. One of the mistakes that I made when I was setting that up was that I had how they were related to Halden, my murderer, and I needed to have set up how they were related to that first murder victim. So that was one of the, again, things I had to go back and re-jigger some to kind of clean that up.

[Howard] Yeah, because that’s the magic of the string board is that your detective in your string board-esque murder mystery starts with a victim and begins connecting strings to them. Eventually, some of those strings are connecting also to someone else who turns out to be our killer. Although it’s not usually pointed out as clearly as just with the strings. Oh, wait. Push pin number 16.


[Mary Robinette] Yes.

[Howard] Arrest [garbled]

[DongWon] I don’t write novels, but the thing that I do enjoy doing creatively is running a lot of tabletop role-playing games. Right? This technique that you’re talking about is so exactly how I set up a campaign in terms of here are the major players. Here’s like this secret thing that they want. Here’s their connection to the player characters or to each other. It’s just like having a couple of those pieces, I think, the longer I’m in this business, the more I start to feel like the most determined thing of commercial success is your ability to quickly and clearly delineate who a character is in an exciting way. This is such an interesting and effective way to go about doing that. Of not just saying who is this person in terms of voice and personality, but what do they want.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Erin] One thing that I’ve been wondering about is you’ve been talking about going back and changing things. You’ve said a lot on Writing Excuses and elsewhere about like getting feedback from people. I’m curious with a murder mystery, does the way that you get feedback change? Are you looking for whether or not they figured it out? Are you looking for other things? Like, what are you looking for from your beta readers that helps you to figure out what changes you need to make?

[Mary Robinette] I feel like there was a point at which I ask people what they thought was going to happen next. But, for the most part, I just track the things that they’re responding to and the… I asked my readers to do four things. Awesome, boring, confused, and disbelief. And then a fifth thing, which is stream of consciousness. So I keep an ally on the stream of consciousness, that if they start being like, “Oh, this person is clearly the [lala?]” Then I’m like, “Okay, I need to either dial that up or down depending on how I want… What I want to happen there.” But it’s not just a murder mystery that you want to avoid feeling predictable. So it didn’t… That part of it did not feel any different than when I’m writing something else.

[Erin] Intriguing.

[DongWon] Would you use this process…

[Howard] Mary Robinette, I get this… Oh, go ahead, DongWon.

[DongWon] I was just curious, like, would you use this process again in the future, sort of knowing how it unfolded, knowing what it felt like to write it that way, or is this a one and done kind of this was a fun experiment in a way to do things?

[Mary Robinette] So, it’s interesting that you asked that question, DongWon, because one of the reasons that I…

[DongWon] Uh oh.

[Mary Robinette] Wrote this book this way was I was having this conversation with this friend of mine who is an agent over drinks, and we were talking about my writing. They mentioned that my work was a little careful and were wondering what it would be like if I did something without outlining it.

[DongWon] This person sounds very smart and cool…


[DongWon] And I’m sure very good looking as well.

[Mary Robinette] Yes. Yes. That was my response as well. So I actually started experimenting with doing this on The Relentless Moon. It started… Like, a little bit in Calculating Stars and Fated Sky, but Relentless Moon, I really was like let me try to just dive in. I felt good about doing that with The Spare Man. The pieces of it that I like is that it very much allowed me to kind of respond to the unexpected ways my brain would connect things. The thing I didn’t like about it was it took me two or three times as long to write this book as it usually does. I… Part of it was that every time I had to step away from the book, I forgot where I was headed with it. So when I was about two thirds or three quarters of the way through, I had to reverse engineer the outline and then the last quarter of the book, last third of the book, is plotted. I figured out, okay, this is who did it, this is how they did it, this is what they’re going to do next, here are the beats, and then I plotted that. Then… I said this in the… In my… In the afterwords… I had it all on note cards, was like moving them around, what are the threads that are unattributed, what are the things I need to tie up, what haven’t I used, and had it all out on the floor, and my cats played tag across it. It wound up in totally a different order which I was able to mostly reconstruct, but the yoga scene in particular, I know was in a different spot in the book, and was like, oh, no, this is better, actually.


[Howard] So your cat changed the schedule of yoga.

[Mary Robinette] Yes, that is correct. Cat joke [garbled]

[DongWon] Editorial feedback comes in all forms from all corners.

[Howard] Outstanding. All right. I have this sense that we could keep talking about the process and the structure and these elements for another three or four episodes. So that’s part of this season’s structure is taking deep dives, and then using them as a framework or a spine from which we will drill down on different topics. That’s awesome.

[Howard] I’ve got the homework, Mary Robinette, unless you want to throw something.

[Mary Robinette] You just go ahead.

[Howard] Fair listener, I love a good murder mystery, and you might love a good murder mystery, too. What do you love about it? Sit down with a piece of paper and write down the beats, the elements, the aesthetics that you think need to be present for a murder mystery to be satisfying for you. There’s your homework. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.