Strong murder mysteries are like magic tricks–they captivate the reader from beginning to end, make him want to flip back through the pages after the big splash finish and figure out how he missed all the most important (and obvious) clues. How could I have been so stupid? he asks himself at the reveal. When I read a good mystery I think How is this author so smart? How can she know so much and hide so much at the same time? Now that I’m doing the writing my questions aren’t that different, so my first question is still–How?
Writing my first mystery novel has been fun. Sort of. I’ve bumped around and I’ve been bruised, I’ll admit. For example, as is my habit when I write, I walked on stage without a script. All I knew about the story was that someone had to be murdered and someone else (maybe) had to do the murdering. I depend on my characters to shape plot and to get me into the conflict, but murder mystery is a genre that needs more than a vague hope that (1) one of my characters could and would kill someone if pushed hard enough, and (2) someone who deserves to die (according to the murderer) will walk on the set at the right moment. Both must happen in this genre, by the way. Plus I would like to solve more than just a murder in the book. I’d like to think hard about what it means to be human in the face of death, the differences and definitions of mercy and justice, and who gets to say who should live and who should die and how.
Maybe not all but I imagine most mystery writers figure out who the victim is and the murderer’s motive before they get too far into the story; the rumor is that a mystery writer works from the murder outward, toward the beginning. Not me (ALERT: This is not a brag), hence my six week hiatus between the end of chapter one and the first scene in chapter two while I did some research and mulled over what sort of person would kill another human being and why. In the end, I did work the plot from the murder out.
ANNOUNCEMENT: I’m writing a murder mystery scene by scene on my Patreon page. In case you missed the “About” page on this blog.
We’re Not In Kansas Anymore . . . Oh, Wait. Yes We Are
The setting I’ve chosen is Kansas, of course, my home state. I grew up in Dodge City and though Dodge has a history of violence surrounding it, I didn’t want to set the story there. New York, LA, and Chicago have been done, plus I don’t know the culture or the lay of the land in those cities. So I chose a suburb of Kansas City, Kansas instead, Olathe. Another place I’ve never been, but it’s still Kansas farm country.
SIDENOTE: I just met a newly married couple from Olathe; they’re here in Provo, Utah going to BYU. We had a nice chat.
I also set the story in 1963 because (a) I have memories of the sixties; and (b) that was a transition year in the United States. So was 1964. We had lots of growing up to do as a nation in civil rights and in the world as a dominant power.
All the Usual Suspects
The characters–Anni, Lena, the Boarders, the neighbor man who sneaks a cigar in Anni’s backyard–walked on as I wrote about the setting and the atmosphere. Suddenly (you should read what Billy Collins says about that word) a woman, about thirty three, is standing outside her grandparents’ house (I found out a couple of scenes later that this was her grandparents’ house) on a cold November night, staring at her unlabeled mailbox. Well, it’s not all together true that I had no idea about my characters until Anni walked on. I did want German characters in the story because after all, Kansas has a healthy German heritage. Look at the White Pages in any town in Kansas and you’ll see what I mean. I also knew the main character was a woman, so I had that too.
Lena arrived when Anni looked up at the second-floor window in the house and saw a shadow pass in front of a pulled curtain. Lena became a perfectionist in that instant, too, checking and rechecking each bedroom to make sure all was ready for the boarders the next morning. The neighbor with the cigar snuck into the next scene because he needed a place to smoke where his wife wouldn’t find him and I needed Anni to think someone was in the backyard. In the dark. Builds tension. The three boarders were harder–still are. I’ve scrawled some notes on each, but I haven’t met them on stage so I don’t know them well yet. They look good on paper, but I’m anxious to see how they get along with each other and Anni and Lena.
The Usual Stuff Isn’t Working
The truth is, even though I have a better idea of the demands of mystery, I’m still writing like I do in my non-mystery novels–moving forward one character choice at a time. Motivation, choices, consequences, and change is the pattern for developing conflict in a novel. What motivates a character breeds his/her choices which breeds consequences which breeds more choices and so on as I leap-frog through the novel. My usual MO won’t work for long, though, since someone has to die soon and in a bad way regardless of my characters’ motivations; in other words, that a character would murder someone was decided before the mystery opened and that choice holds some big consequences straight away. But here I go anyway, still trying to leap-frog across the Kansas landscape on characters’ natural choices, the ones I’m not supposed to know about until they happen; the truth is I already know who did what to whom and why because This Story Is a Murder Mystery–a mystery to the reader, anyway. I have to know most of what’s coming otherwise I’ll have no suspects worth reading about, no red herrings, no tension and yada yada yada, the book dies before the victim does.
I Have to Move On
The middle of the novel is looming, the muddy spot where all writers gets stuck no matter what we’re writing. But I’m looking forward to the Tricks of the Trade in crime fiction that will guide me through the murky middles. For instance, the increasing perturbations in the main characters’ personal lives, the murder of course, the red herrings and obstacles to discovering the murderer, the reveal that comes after each obstacle has been overcome, eliminating the suspects one by one–I have a clear path to follow. The reader will help me create tension, too, by suspecting anyone and everyone from the first page (including Grandma Grace who may or may not already be dead; I haven’t decided) simply because the plot is a murder mystery. All the good tension-building stuff is sort of built in.
Upward and onward. I still hope to make personal discoveries about the characters and the story as I write, in spite of knowing too much from the outset. And we all know what happens to people who know too much . . .