Preparing For Your First Mystery: The Basics

Preparing For Your First Mystery: The Basics

By Lazette Gifford  

©2001, Lazette Gifford  

I've 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 stumble upon. 

The 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.

In 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 doesn’t 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. 

While 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. 

Before you begin writing your mystery, you may want to consider some of the sub-genre categories that your story might fall under. 

The Amateur Detective 

Beginning 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. 

The Cozy 

In 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. 

The Private Detective 

Sam 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. 

The sub-genre continues in its popularity, no matter how the main character adapts to the  changing world. 

The Police Procedural 

This 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. 

The Romantic Suspense 

Many 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. 

The Thriller 

For 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. 

There 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. 

Here 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 nearly impossible. 

Mystery 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. 

The 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.  

There's 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. 

Once 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. 

A carefully constructed outline will save the writer from bogging down in a tangled morass of possible motives, would-be killers, and hopeless loose ends. 

You have your sub-genre, your plot -- what else do you need? 

Now 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. 

One 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. 

Another 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. 

First, 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? 

Second, 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.