Sunday, August 21, 2011

It's a Crime Sunday - How to Set Up the Murder

How do I set up the murder?
by Heather Haven

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.

Find out more about Heather Haven on her website.

Her latest Alvarez Family mystery is "A Wedding to Die For" from MuseItUp Publishing.
A groom arrested for murder can put a crimp in anybody’s wedding. So when the bride’s nuptials are threatened, best friend and maid-of-honor, Lee Alvarez -- the thirty-four-year old combination of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Janet Evanovitch’s Stephanie Plum - heads south of the border in search of the real killer. There the half Latina, half WASP, and 100% detective is thrown into the well-organized world of plundered Mesoamerican relics and finds a few more dead bodies along the way. While having the best tasting tamales ever, she stumbles across the man of her dreams. But is he too good to be true? Probably. With the help of the rest of the Alvarez Family, Never-Had-A-Bad-Hair-Day blueblood mother, Lila Hamilton Alvarez, brother and computer genius, Richard; favorite uncle, “Tío” Mateo; and Tugger, her energetic orange and white cat, Lee tries to follow her own sage advice, ‘when Cupid’s wings start flapping, take cover.’ Good luck to her. Because can love and murder be far behind?

A Wedding To Die For is the second novel in a series of humorous murder mysteries involving the Alvarez Family, owners of Silicon Valley’s successful Discretionary Inquiries.


  1. Hi Heather, with those combinations of authors and characters, this sounds like a fun read and a winner.

    Good luck with the second in the series. Keep them coming. You're are starting a fan base.

  2. I've already got "Wedding" on my Kindle. The first book was quite enjoyable.

    Thanks for guesting for three days.

    Everybody come back Monday and Tuesday for the rest of Heather's series on mystery writing.