I’ve been thinking about murder mysteries as a genre lately, I think in part because the trilogy that I’ve been working on for what seems like forever is winding up. I’ve thought about these books primarily as romances, but there’s no question there’s a mystery element to them. No one dies, but villains attempt dastardly deeds and, ultimately, are thwarted by my heroes. Motivations are revealed, and justice prevails. So I think they could fall under a mystery label if “murder” wasn’t part of your requirement.
The main reason I’ve never attempted to write a full-on murder mystery, even though I enjoy reading them, is that I’m not clever enough to plot one. Every time I get to the finish of a well-written mystery, I am pleased and astonished at the outcome. I know I couldn’t do that.
And then recently I read this short article by Dana Stabenow at WritersDigest.com. Stabenow sets her mysteries in Alaska, and setting is an important element of her books. She has several long-running series; her first Kate Shugak novel won an Edgar. Her seven tips on how to write mysteries make it sound so simple! And the good thing is that most of these tips apply to any kind of writing.
Stabenow’s seven tips for writing a great mystery:
- Begin with the murder. Get into the victim’s head as they die. Make it as real and as awful as you can. This invests the reader with sympathy for the victim no matter how horrible they were in life and lends that much more urgency to your protagonist’s quest to find the murderer. It will make finding the killer that much more urgent for the writer as well.
Of course, getting into your characters’ heads is good advice for any kind of book.
- Love your creeps. Put the villain on display and do it early in the narrative. Get your reader invested in the character and then betray the hell out of both of them.
Every story needs an antagonist. A richly drawn one will be more interesting.
- Put your protagonist at risk. Physically, mentally, emotionally, any or all. [One of Stabenow’s sleuths] Liam Campbell jumped out of an airplane (on purpose), was nearly flattened by a herd of walrus, and has been shot at and missed far too many times. We won’t even go into his love life or his family damage. Let’s face it: We’re all a hot mess. Make your heroes human so your readers can relate to them.
So true. Also, it can’t hurt to put your antagonist at risk while you’re at it.
- Make your protagonist a hero, if not in his own eyes, then in everyone else’s. A hero is better than you and me; that’s why they are heroes and why they deserve their own novel and you and I don’t. How? In the end, the hero always Does the Right Thing and justice is served, if not the law. (If you don’t know the difference you’re in the wrong business.)
I’ve seen genre novels, even mysteries, with ambigous endings. Some romances have cliffhangers. These never work for me. What about for you?
- Never neglect setting. It’s key to everything that follows. What does it look like, smell like, sound like, feel like? What effect does the setting have on the characters, and why? Once you figure out setting, you can figure out who lives there and after that what they’re up to.
Stabenow’s use of her Alaskan setting is a lesson on how to make setting a character in your novels.
Decide early on if you’re writing a series or a stand-alone. Don’t introduce that great character only to kill him off at the end of the first book of a 22-book (and counting) series. Don’t ask me how I know.
Okay! Not asking!
- Backstory. Every single character gets one, including the guy who shows up once to deliver the mail. It can be as little as a sentence or as much as a subplot running through the entire narrative. The supporting cast is what makes a great book and what gives a series long legs.
We learned in the McDaniel course that the hero and villain drive the plot, but the secondary characters carry the themes and motifs and can supply a point or counterpoint of humor or pathos for your story. Check!
It seems like a lot of Stabenow’s advice applies to any kind of writing, and she doesn’t mention plot at all. Still, I’m not convinced. What about you? Is anyone writing a mystery? How’s that plot working for you?