In August of 2014 I was asked to write a guest blog for A Woman’s Wisdom. I thought about what I might write and figured I’d be on safe ground talking about mysteries — my genre and my favorite books to read. But I also like food; in fact I’m rather a gourmand. No, not a gourmet – I just like food. It can be comforting, like a good mystery. It’s a wonder I don’t weigh 500 pounds.
We are grilling a chicken this weekend, so the gourmand naturally thought of this post. Hope you don’t mind looking at it again!
A good mystery begins with a whodunit, but one that should wrap around at least one other story, and maybe two. A good mystery, as Winston Churchill once said about Russia, “…is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.”
It sort of reminds me of a turducken, a deboned chicken into a deboned duck, which is in turn stuffed into a deboned turkey. Hence turducken. It was introduced to the world by football commentator and former coach John Madden, during a National Football League broadcast. Did I mention I like football, too? While announcing a game, he displayed the turducken and started to carve it up. In the United Kingdom, the Pure Meat Company offered a five-bird roast (a goose, a turkey, a chicken, a pheasant, and a pigeon, stuffed with sausage in 1989. Now that’s a royal roast!
So what makes a good mystery? There are a plethora of to-do lists on the internet about writing mysteries, but here are some of mine.
1. An interesting locale. The locale itself can be a character in your story.
2. A compelling main character. This person can be you, if you wish, but bring in parts of other people to make him or her interesting and give them depth.
3. A hook to catch the reader. This is usually the first sentence, the first paragraph, or first chapter of the book, although occasionally a prologue does the trick. Think of the beginning of P.D. James’ Unnatural Causes, in which a famous crime writer’s body found handless and floating in a local vicar’s boat.
4. A strong main plot = the turkey. Hopefully not a turkey. I find inspiration for this in news stories and personal experiences. Make sure it involves a murder and a body – I know this should be obvious – but no one is going to want to read an entire book about a stolen watch.
5. A subplot = the duck. The subplot does not necessarily have to tie into the plot except through the main character, although it is nice if you can weave them together. A third subplot = the chicken. You are not limited in number with regard to subplots – so you can go for the five bird roast – but with too many the book becomes confusing. The flavors are lost!
In my first book, Death in a Red Canvas Chair, the main plot concerns finding the killer of a young woman. The subplot involves college student prostitutes. Another subplot, although minor, was the purloining and selling of untreated body parts for transplantation. These tie to one another and ultimately to the young woman in the canvas chair. My protagonist’s marriage has a life of its own through the book, and it continues as a subplot in the second book, Death in a Dacron Sail.
Being a gourmand, I had to have food running through both books; one reader told me I made him hungry!
6. Be sure that each subplot is populated by one or more distinct characters, whose personalities are well-drawn, likable or not. Tension is created by the unlikable. Sometimes it’s hard to create a nasty character, but once you’ve done it, you’ll find it’s fun!
7. The story needs to be believable. This might seem a bit obvious, but I’ve read some mysteries in which the plot is too fantastic or the protagonist superhuman. I like Clive Cussler’s books, for example – they’re entertaining beach reads, but the stories are wild and the main characters are, well, too perfect.
8. Research! For every scene in which something procedural takes place or there is a known locale, you need to do your research. This can be really enjoyable; I’ve met some incredible people with stories of their own to tell. I even spent a week in Maine in February to get a feel for winter there, as background for Death in a Dacron Sail. Experiencing temperatures below zero and amazing images of what feet of snow can do to the landscape made it an adventure.
You might want to research where to find a turducken.
9. Read! Mystery is one of my favorite genres, so maybe that’s why I decided to write one or two or three… You learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t by reading other mystery writers.
10. Write! You need to write every day, even if it is only for your blog. If you don’t want to write a mystery, write what is comfortable for you. What’s your favorite genre? Maybe that’s where to start.
Many thanks to A Woman’s Wisdom for the opportunity to write a guest pos!
In case you’re wondering what I am doing for the A-Z Challenge, this year my subject(s) will be people and places from my books, including the third (Death by Pumpkin, out in April).