Friday, June 24, 2011

How to Write the Perfect Mystery

Presented by Heather Haven
Part II

How do I find a plot?
Now you’ve got the person who’s going to solve the crime(s). Good for you. But what is the plot? It’s usually involves murder, of course, but you’ve got 175 plus pages to fill out. If you have no idea what kind of plot to wrap around your victim(s), pick up the newspaper, listen to a newscast, or search the internet. Sometimes people in your own life have weird stories they love to talk about. Listen and delve. Truth is stranger than fiction every time. You’ll find things you had no idea were out there.
For me, the 2nd novel of the Alvarez Family Murder Mystery Series, A Wedding to Die For, started with a newspaper clipping on page 10 of the Chronicle. It was about an extended family of Egyptian grave robbers, who had discovered an ancient burial chamber containing precious artifacts, kept the knowledge to themselves, and pilfered from the tomb for generations. They took just enough to feed, clothe and educate themselves. After decades of careful use of the money, this family came into positions of power in Egypt, thus enabling them to steal and sell even more. Of course, they got found out, but it took 60 years to do so. I was entranced. I knew I wanted to take this situation, transfer it to Mexico, and create a family to become the nemesis of my Alvarez family. Finding the first victim was easy, a robber who robs from the robbers.
It’s a good idea to weave two or three stories together forming one or more sub-plots. Even your 30-minute sitcoms do that. For me, the sub-plot of A Wedding to Die For was a mythical search engine start-up company, Bingo-Bango, and its inhabitants. I felt the sub-plot added a lot of fun and depth to the story, even though it had little to do with the main plot. I did manage, however, to have a situation arise from the sub-plot that gave the protagonist, Lee, an answer to a big problem in the main plot. That was yummy. The catalyst was the wedding, of course. When I tied them all together, I had the skeleton of my plot. I was off and away.
Now that you’ve got some sort of plot going, start popping in characters that work within it, even if it’s only in your mind. You don’t need to write them down. Drive to the supermarket and on the way over or standing in the checkout line, have a chat with these characters. So passersby think you’re nuts; forget it. They probably would, anyway. The most important thing is you’ll soon see which potential characters fit in, move the plot forward, foil or compliment your protagonist.
Play the ‘what if’ game with yourself and see where it leads you. I like to start at a preposterous level then tone it down. What if she went inside a movie theatre and never came out? What if he delivered pepperoni pizzas to someone’s address for months on end but that someone turned out to be a vegan? What if she threatened to poison a neighbor’s dog that disappeared two days later only to resurface again across the continent? What if, what if, what if.
When the plot and characters start to come together, and you’ve eliminated things that don’t work but glom on like crazy to things that do, sit down and start writing. This is usually the time when the novel will write itself. Just try to keep up.
HINT: Read mysteries by writers you like and study how they make it work. We all learn from one another. No shame in that.

How do I set up the murder?
Setting up the murder is easier than you think. When your imagination is doing the victim in, the sky’s the limit. What you need to remember, though, is the type of mystery you are writing. Soft and sweet? Hard-boiled and gritty? You can have the same type of thing happen to your victim(s), unless you go to an extreme either way. Having a disabled little old lady, raped, mutilated and dismembered on page 5 of a cozy sets up a dark flavor to your story, no matter how many doilies and kittens you throw in. With the easy, breezy cozy, it’s best to have the murder victim go in a way that’s more palatable - quick, but inventive. Drowned in a vat of cabernet sauvignon comes to my mind, but I live in Wine country and we lust for that kind of ending.
If you’re writing a hard-boiled detective story where the protagonist eats rusty nails, drinks rotgut, spits on people’s shoes, and hasn’t talked to his mother since he was eight, dismemberment is not so bad. Throw in a lame dog, while you’re at it.
Try to provide access to the victim’s demise to a myriad of suspects or do just the opposite: none at all. Right away tension is created. Who, who, who? How, how, how? Ratchet it up whenever you can. Each suspect should have something to gain or lose by the death, which you get to invent out of your own fertile imagination. Have I mentioned the sky’s the limit?
Whichever route you take, do something different with it. The method of death, the way the body is discovered, the person discovering it, etc., should have an unusual bend. If you go for the disabled little old lady, for instance, have your protagonist find out she was a scam artist on the side, who bilked a lot of widows and orphans. If you have your victim drowned in a vat of 1997 Mouton-Rothschild Bordeaux Blend, have the victim be a tea-totaler. Then send a bottle to me. They’re out of stock around here.
HINT: Be inventive, be clever, but be realistic. Don’t turn your reader off by coming up with something that would never happen, unless you’re writing a farce. Then have at it.

And do I really have to have the murder happen by the end of chapter one?
Yes, yes, yes. Unless you know something I don’t, you are going to have to off somebody by the end of chapter one. Even writer Sheldon Siegel, often on the NY Times best seller list, follows this protocol. In his latest novel, Perfect Alibi, chapter one ends with the words, “He’s dead.” You don’t get much better than that. I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule, but it has become de rigueur to find or mention a dead body 99% of the time at the end of chapter one. Maybe it’s because we’re now in a society that wants instant gratification. To some extent, let’s thank the internet for that. Nobody seems to have the patience to wait around for four of five chapters like the good old days. This creates a certain amount of pressure on the author to slam it all out right at the beginning of the book. Actually, it’s a lot of pressure.
HINT: That’s what you get for writing a mystery. Nobody said it would be easy.

Part III coming up soon!


Debra K. Dunlap said...

I love both posts, Heather! I work in a courthouse and have been thinking for quite some time that it would be a perfect setting for a murder mystery. You've given lots of great information and terrific ideas!

Heather Haven said...

Oh, Debra! Thank you for your message! You're in a perfect place to do a mystery! Wow! You do, girl!!

Lisa Lickel said...

Nice job! I was at a festival last weekend where I was asked about "cozies" which is what I started to write for an inspy book club, the sequel of which Lea has picked up for next spring release...and then talked about it as part of a genre talk at a workshop this past week. I'll be talking about it on my group blog this week too.

J.Q. Rose said...

What resources do you use to discover police procedures? My neighbor is a policeman, but I hesitate to ask him about discovering dead bodies...He may get suspicious!! LOL

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I actually sat here and wrote down a few story ideas that popped into my mind while reading your post. Looking forward to part III.