How to Write the Perfect Mystery
Presented by Heather Haven
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 this 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.
Part III coming tomorrow.