You untangle a knot with slow teasing, not sharp pulling, and believe me we have here a knot such as I have never seen. But I will unpick it. I will.– C.J Sansom
Writing mystery: it’s not just creating the mist that surrounds your characters and pulls the reader deeper in, it’s creating a maze. There can be so many different paths to take, so many corners that might lead to the ending – but there are also dead ends – red herrings, a path that ends up leading nowhere. A sudden twist can make you turn around and go back to keep on searching. I don’t just love the mystery; I love the chase, the confusion, the riddles, the suspense. The slow teasing to untangle that knot. Then there’s that final rush when you have the unveiling – the truth. All the little pieces of the puzzle finally making a perfect picture. This is why mystery is my favourite form of writing.
Personally, I find that when writing a mystery, the most important part to start with is a detailed plan. I don’t always use detailed plans when I am writing, but if I’m working on a mystery I do. It’s really important to know where your story is heading, to plan the beginning, to give your plot direction and to have the ending worked out. For instance, you can’t work on a ‘whodunnit’ if you actually don’t know who did it, why they did it, who didn’t do it, and so on and so forth. You want your writing to be exciting, snappy, and gripping – which is why I think it’s important to know exactly where your story is going. If I don’t have a carefully laid out plot to follow, I can find myself saying, ‘Where am I going with this?’ Scurrying down a rabbit trail can quickly take away from the suspense in your story. Of course you can edit, cut and re-write in your second draft; but it can make things so much easier to have a guide to follow before you start writing to avoid that. You also want to tie-up every loose end. There is nothing more annoying that reading a mystery, to pick up all the gritty little details, only to have them discarded at the end, unexplained.
I’ve read a lot of mystery novels, and for me my favourites are the believable. I mean, it’s different if it is fantasy or science fiction based, but if I finish a mystery novel and I’m left feeling that none of it was realistic, it was extremely far-fetched and could not have happened, I am very disappointed. Not only does it make the ending fall flat, it ruins the book. Don’t disappoint your reader with a finale that is unrealistic. The pivotal moment of a mystery novel is the ending, make it a good one.
I know that in every novel, characters, character development and so on is important. However, sometimes you hear people comment on a book they have read: ‘her characters weren’t well developed, but the world the story was set in was amazing, it saved the book for me’. People have told me they enjoyed a book, not because the story, or characters were what stood out to them, but because the world building was spectacular. You can’t get away with that in a mystery novel. Your plot is important, your ending is crucial, keeping the attention of your reader is paramount of course, but another really vital key factor in your mystery is your main character. Your sleuth/detective/private eye should be someone that your readers can relate to. They are going to spend a lot of time with him – he is a key part in the unwinding of your mystery and your readers should root for him. Don’t make him perfect, make him interesting – throw in something unusual to make him stand out. The three detectives I can think of right now that stand out in my mind are a hunchback who is often looked down on, and totally underestimated because of his handicap; a little old lady who knits and yet has a brilliant mind under the façade of ‘sweet little old lady’, and the short Belgian detective who sports an unusual moustache, has an obsession with symmetry, is rather eccentric and mixes up a lot of common British sayings, much to the amusement of the readers. They aren’t the sort of people you’d meet every day, but they are very memorable characters. Think out of the box – throw in something unusual.
Be authentic. Are you using poison? Make sure you research it so you know what you’re talking about. Can you describe the exact affects this poison has when it’s administered? What about policing? Depending on what time frame your book is set in, what would the police response be like? Why has your detective decided to be involved in solving your mystery? If it’s his career job that makes sense; if it’s not, what has caused him to take up sleuthing? What has forced him down this road? What is driving him to solve this crime?
A mystery doesn’t necessarily mean murder. You could have kidnapping, human trafficking, political intrigue and so on – it doesn’t have to be homicide (you do need to have some background knowledge of the subject of course, even if you have to do more research first). It has to be gripping. You need to grab the attention of your reader early on in the story, and you want to keep it.
I mean, what can you say about how you write your books? What I mean is, first you’ve got to think of something, and then when you’ve thought of it you’ve got to force yourself to sit down and write it. That’s all.– Ariadne Oliver
There is no other way to say it. It’s not just about plotting, planning, or character development. You have to write. Sit down, take out that pen and paper and start creating. Don’t let your ideas stay inside your head; write them down and bring them into being.
Here is one final quote from someone who would describe himself as the greatest detective of all time:
My friend, in working upon a case, one does not take into account only the things that are “mentioned”. There is no reason to mention many things which may be important. Equally, there is often an excellent reason for not mentioning them.–Hercule Poirot
Remember, someone may not be the criminal, but everyone has a skeleton that they would rather leave in the closet. Everyone has something to hide. A lot of people could have motive, and just haven’t acted on it. You may have one murderer, but you can have more than one suspect – keep the reader guessing.
Finally, read mystery novels; the more you read the better. There is a world of mystery out there waiting to be discovered. Delve into it, expand your knowledge and learn from the best.
Stephanie Hodgson is a full time dog groomer, who currently resides in England. She likes to spend her free time writing, although she is increasingly bemoaning the fact that free time seems to have gone out the window. Her favourite genres are Fantasy and Historical Fiction; at present she is writing a Fantasy novel, and is also working on some short stories which she is hoping to publish. When she isn’t styling a Poodle, writing or reading, Stephanie enjoys walks with her dog in the countryside, baking, and spending time working on Holy Worlds.
You just described all the parts that went into my favorite mysteries… 😀 I think, if I remember right, that mysteries are one of the most popular genre of books, and yet many ones I’ve read have fallen rather flat. You’ve pointed out a lot of the areas I’ve noticed that they forgot or didn’t excel at.