Suspense & Mystery
Shane P. Carr, Associate Editor, Suspense & Mystery
Issue # 3: 04/01/01
A Theory of Alternate History
When characters are trying to make decisions, to choose between the options you give them in the course of the story, their choices will be based on clues; those indicators that tell them how other characters will react to the decisions they make.
Mystery Writer's Source Book (Second Edition)
Writer's Digest Books
always wanted to write mysteries, but my technical grasp of how to go
about it was never strong. I
could see characters (characters always come first with me), and then
scenes, ideas, possibilities -- but I couldn't put them together in a
coherent, let alone logical, story. So
I started collecting books on the subject. Their help has been invaluable
in pointing out the pitfalls that any beginning mystery writer might
first book I suggest you find is
How To Write Mysteries by Shannon OCork (Writer's Digest Books,
ISBN 0-89879-372-6). This is
an excellent introduction into the art of writing mysteries.
the introduction, Mystery Writer's of America Grand Master Hillary Waugh
offers a set of six rules for mystery writers:
1. All clues discovered by the detective must be made available to the reader. (This is where Fair Play comes in.)
2. The murderer must be introduced early. (This doesnt mean he has to make a personal appearance, but the reader must know of his existence.)
3. The crime must be significant usually murder, though kidnapping, blackmail, theft and the like will also do.
4. There must be detection. The solution must not be stumbled on; it must be sought and found.
5. The number of suspects must be known, and the murderer must be among them.
6. Nothing extraneous may be introduced.
the book focuses on murder mystery writing, it does provide invaluable
information for any book in the genre.
One of the most helpful chapters, in fact, was one covering the
sub-genres within the mystery bracket.
you begin writing your mystery, you may want to consider some of the
sub-genre categories that your story might fall under.
with Poe's C. Auguste Dupin, the sub-genre of the Amateur Detective has
been very popular. Most
famous, of course, is Sherlock Holmes.
However, there are several other well known characters in this
area: Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot, and Miss Jane Marple.
These are often characterized as having an independent income and
are often eccentric.
a cozy, the violence is downplayed, and the story is generally more
'civilized' -- often taking place in fancy English manors, with servants
and tea times. Miss Marple is an example of both the Amateur Detective as
well as a member of the sub-genre of cozies.
They are genteel, quiet mysteries.
Nancy Atherton writes a series of popular cozy English mysteries.
Spade, Mike Hammer, Philip Marlow, Lew Archer -- those were the early
models for the Private Detective. Today, however, the sub-genre has grown
beyond the tough guy, hardboiled detective.
The Private Detective might well be a woman, such as Kinsey Milhone,
V.I. Warsharski, or Sharon McCone. Or
he might be a slightly less thick-skinned male, like Spenser.
sub-genre continues in its popularity, no matter how the main character
adapts to the changing world.
is the police detective at work.. This
is a very new form of mystery, and deals with considerable more technical
detail and team work. Professional
methods must be used by the characters, which means considerable research
and accuracy on the part of the writer.
of the Mary Stewart novels
would fall into this category: The Moonspinners, My Brother Michael, or
Madam Will You Talk. The
story usually revolves around a young woman, drawn to someone mysterious.
Romance, and often an exotic location, highlights the mystery and thrills.
many years the spy story, with international intrigue and rapid plot
twists, has been a mainstay in the field.
The mystery usually involves discovering the double agent or
foiling a plot of international dimensions.
A newer brand of this sub-genre is emerging in the technology-based
thriller, and even the more
recent lawyer-based thriller.
are many other possibilities, and it only takes the writer's imagination
to start an entirely new sub-genre of mystery writing.
Once you have decided on your basic type, the next step is to begin
working on the plot.
is where I have problems. The
plots of my other stories have all grown from the shadow of a character
and the seed of an idea, worked out in first draft, with lots of dead ends
and considerable rewriting by the time it's done.
However, I quickly found that writing a mystery in that fashion was
stories must be solved before they are written.
Take, for example, a basic murder mystery.
The initial idea may only be the scene of the crime, but if you
begin writing with only that much worked out, you are bound to find
yourself grasping for an answer before too long.
mystery plot must be worked out in careful detail, and that detail may
start with material from long before the first scene of the book.
You will need to know not only who did the crime, but how they
planned for it. And, more
importantly, why they did it. You need to know as much about the murderer
as you do about the main character, and find ways in which his strengths
and weaknesses can be used to further the plot.
also the question of why your main character is involved, at least if he
is anything but a police officer. Knowing
the main character as well as you know the villain will now allow you to
find keys that will allow the two to play against each other. It is a game
-- a dangerous game -- and each side will score points at different crisis
within the book. The game
cannot be overmatched on one side or the other.
you have worked out those basic plot problems, you can start, right? Well, not really. Now
that you have the crime and you know the answer, you need to work out in
careful detail how your 'detective' learns the truth. It cannot be too easy an answer.
There must be roadblocks, red herrings, dead ends, and dangerous
truths. There must also be a
careful line-up of possible suspects, all of whom could look equally
guilty at some point in the book.
carefully constructed outline will save the writer from bogging down in a
tangled morass of possible motives, would-be killers, and hopeless loose
have your sub-genre, your plot -- what else do you need?
you need to deal with the same basics of any story, with Point of View
(POV) taking the center stage. Many
mysteries are written in the first person POV.
This gives immediacy to the story as the reader vicariously
uncovers the mystery right along with the 'detective.'
However, there is no reason why your story has to be first person,
and experimenting with a few pages of the story in different POVs may give
you a new insight into what you want to present.
The one trick with first person POV is to remember that the reader
can only know what the 'detective' knows -- and the detective cannot keep
secrets from the readers, since they are living inside the character's
head. This can have a limiting affect on the story, but it also can
keep the plot carefully in line.
last consideration is whether you plan to write a single-shot story or a
series of stories or books. Mystery
series novels have been popular since their inception, and if you create a
unique, interesting main character, you may well want to carry that person
on into new stories. If that
is the case, be certain to give your character a background that will
allow her to step easily into the next mystery, either in location, job,
or personal financial means. Dropping
work as a cashier at a supermarket to solve a murder may look like a great
'new' twist, but not if that person has no other way to support herself,
or a family.
important aspect of the mystery is the main character's personality. There
are two important pieces to consider when you start creating the person
who will solve the mystery for the reader.
if you are doing a first person POV, make certain that you allow the
reader enough material about the character to make him more than a talking
head. Bring him and his world alive through what he sees and how he
reacts to it. Do children running rampant through stores drive him crazy?
Is he apt to stop and admire nice sidewalk chalk art?
remember that the more eccentric the detective, the less likely people are
to connect with him. This is where the sidekick as translator comes in. Dr. Watson stood between the reader and Sherlock Holmes,
interpreting the material as it came to him.
He was a far more interesting narrator than Holmes would have been,
because Holmes was too eccentric, and too logical. There would be no
surprises in Holmes POV, only a progression of steps to the answer.
And now the fun part -- you get to create not only the perfect crime, but the perfect solution as well. I hope you have fun with the game.