Kay recently posted her thoughts about murder mysteries as a genre and included some tips from writer Dana Stabenow. That post was very timely because I am in the midst of writing a mystery of my own.
I’ve been a fan of mysteries for almost as long as I’ve been a reader. Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and Judy Bolton were just some of the crime-solvers populating my early bookshelves. They were later followed by Sherlock Holmes, Roderick Allyen, Armand Gamache, and a host of others.
Although my early mystery reading featured amateur sleuths, I’ve found over time that I’ve lost interest in the “I just stumbled on a crime and am going to solve it” stories—especially when they involve people getting in the way of the police or putting themselves in danger from dumb decisions. I also avoid the “thriller” end of the spectrum. I want to be entertained when I read mysteries, but I don’t want to be put through the emotional wringer along the way.
My current mystery WIP can best be described as a tangled mess. It was triggered from a set of our Friday Writing Sprint Random Words, which means some things developed in a rather arbitrary way, based on the words that were incorporated. I had a clear idea about how the story would unfold, who the suspect was, and how the crime was committed from the start, but then . . . I managed to completely write myself into a corner.
Cue the re-write!
Thankfully, the trusty internet has come to the rescue with clues to how to work my way forward. I found several lists of “mystery writing tips”, as well as quotes from other successful authors.
I always know the end of the mystery before I begin to write. Tension should he held within the novel and there should be no longuers of boring interrogation. ~ P.D. James
My favorite “mystery writing” find is that The Detection Club, a 1930s group made up of prominent British mystery writers such as Agatha Christie and G.K. Chesterton, has this oath:
Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?
I love the thought of a mystery writing oath, especially one that includes the phrase jiggery-pokery.
Here are the other things I’m keeping in mind as I try to untangle my own story:
- Know every detail of the crime (corollary: know your ending and work backward)
- Open the story with intrigue
- Construct convincing characters (corollary: avoid stereotypes)
- Have a list of suspects
- Leverage your settings/locations
- Make sure the reader can play along
- Don’t make it too easy for your reader (but don’t over-use red herrings)
- Play fair
- Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite
That last bit applies to more than just mysteries and is key. I also need to make sure I “Play fair.” There is nothing more frustrating than reading the end of a mystery story and knowing there is no way you could have solved the crime because the necessary information was never made available.
For now, I’m focusing on “know every detail of the crime,” since that’s where I tripped myself up the first time around. The idea that seemed so clever when I first started writing the story months (years?) ago now has confused even me. Next, I’ll be writing the ending so I have a clear target to aim for.
We’ll see how that all goes.
So, have you ever lost the thread of your own story and had to go back and regroup?
I have two FBI suspense novels out and one in the works, and on the second one, I wrote myself down a blind alley to the tune of 40K words. That was a hard deletion to make when I finally saw the light.
That’s the thing about mysteries—it seems to me that you really have to know not just the ending, but every turning point and red herring and how each step is developed and maintained as you go. So far, I haven’t been able to do it. With suspense novels, you just put someone in danger, you know who the bad guy is, and you press onward. I won’t say it’s easy, because what book is? But it’s a much different kettle of fish than a mystery, which I think is probably beyond my skill set.
Good luck with untangling your story, Elizabeth! I have every confidence you can do it.
Thanks Kay; I appreciate your confidence. I think one of the challenges is to try and reign in the inclination to be overly clever. When I think about the best mysteries I’ve read, the core story has been fairly straight-forward, commonplace even. But that was all hidden in the setting, clues, and other distractions in the story.
Obviously, I need to read MORE mysteries for inspiration 🙂
I love the mystery rules and was wondering if there were such rules for romance writing? (spot the rookie!) when I googled, a blog by Elizabeth Grayson (https://elizabethgrayson.com/advice-on-writing/so-are-there-rules-to-writing-romance/)
who said the rules were:
1) the readers care about the characters.
2) the readers identify with the heroine.
3) the readers fall in love with the hero.
4) the readers believe that the hero and heroine are convincingly united at the end of the book.
She also said if you choose to break the rules, there were more!
1) You must know what the rules are.
2) You must recognize what you hope to accomplish by breaking the rules.
3) You can’t break all of the rules at once.
4) And when you break the rules, you must break them very, very well.
Definitely some good basic rules there, Sara. One of my favorite rules for writing in general is “don’t write the parts people skip.”
A better question is: Have I ever NOT lost the thread and had to go back.
Jiggery-pokery is my word of the week!
Oh, what fun!
I think mystery is one of those genres that isn’t pantser-friendly. Well, maybe you can pants the story, but I think you MUST plot the mystery at some early point, and then make that one of the strict parameters that the pantsing has to fit around.