Mystery Genre Workshop Part Four: Tips for Writing Mysteries

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The first three parts of the Mystery Genre Workshop covered plot, characters, and the importance of creating the story’s location. Let’s review a few tips you should keep in mind as you write.

Know Your Ending!  

This will help you focus as you write the story and not lose sight of your concept. You may take a detour or two along the way, but write to your ending.

Hook Your Reader!

Make that first line or paragraph attention-grabbing, intriguing. Open with an action scene, introducing either your sleuth or your villain.

Make Your Reader Empathetic!

The reader must identify and care about your hero and want the same goals the character does.

Plot Your Plan!

Carefully plan your story (outline or pantser—on paper or mentally). Knowing where to place strategic points and keep the action going is vital.

Pace, Pace, Pace!

Take your reader on an action-filled adventure, increasing the tension as the story builds to its final climax. You must also provide scenes with little action to provide a place for your reader to breathe. A great tool to build tension, pull it away, then create more tension increasingly until the story’s final climax.

 Perfect Characters!

Humans are not perfect in real life, do not create a perfect imaginary human. Give your character flaws, both physical and psychological. Keep them real, give them family issues, scars, phobias. We all have them!

 Plant Clues and Water Often!

As you plot your story, always remember you are engaging your reader in a puzzle to discover who committed the crime. Provide clues early, be subtle but truthful about the real clues, be matter-of-fact about certain things. Misdirect your readers’ attention with red herrings—false clues—but make certain they are plausible.

 Location, Location, Location!

Your setting, the world you build for your story should serve as another character to drive your plot. Whether a gritty, noir environment or a quaint, seaside village, use the location’s characteristics to frame your narrative.

Protagonist, Antagonist, and Minions!

The closer a character is to the realization of the Protagonist’s goal, the more developed they should be. Give them dialogue when appropriate, something that makes them unique—a hobby, an addiction, plays a sport on the weekend.

 Stay on Target!

Your goal is to take your Protagonist from desiring to achieving a goal. Keep the narrative focused on the target, and that is realizing their goal. Any extraneous scenes that creep in your writing need to be thrown out. The mystery and the clues to solve it are all you should be concerned about it.

 Have Fun!

As a mystery fan, diving into a “who done it” and trying to decipher the clues and guess the culprit is enjoyable. As a mystery writer, my pleasure is from writing those clues and hoping to stay ahead of the reader and shock them at the end.  How much fun is that? Enjoy the process and your reader will as well!

 (Also, don’t use exclamation points as I did here, no more than one per book.  They are fun though!)

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For Writers Who Love Worksheets: 

Some writers love worksheets for plotting, character development, and world building. I never do any of this, but in case you do, here are some representative worksheets for your use.

 

Plotting Your Story:

https://evernote.com/blog/12-creative-writing-templates/

 

Character Development:

https://thinkwritten.com/character-development-questions/

 

World Building:

https://nybookeditors.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/World-Building-Worksheet.pdf

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Mystery Genre Workshop Part Three: Scene of the Crime

 

The Importance of location

When fingertips touch the keyboard to write a story, a writer is beginning the process of building a new world. How mundane, ordinary, complex or exotic doesn’t matter, writers are world builders.

While the term usually conjures up alien civilizations or fantasy castles, the truth is when the screenwriters imagined Cabot Cove of Murder She Wrote or the author of Midsomer Murders borrowed the countryside of England near Oxford to use as the setting for her novel, they were building a world.

Designing a new world is complex. When writing a science fiction or fantasy story, you start with a blank slate, creating everything. If you choose a ‘ready-made’ location, much is already set in place, you only need to tweak locales to suit your plot needs.

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There are three types of world building. Let’s look at what is involved with each.

 The Created World

This the world most think about when hearing the term “world building.” The science fiction and fantasy genres where a writer’s imagination selects everything that exists.

  • Design the physical world: terrain (mountainous, desert, forest, coastal), atmosphere, location in the universe.
  • Create races of beings (keeping natural conditions in mind).
  • Culture including art, music, writing.
  • Government and military systems.
  • Infrastructure and city planning.
  • Education.
  • Agriculture.
  • Industry.
  • And everything else!

The Real World

This world is the one we know. Most stories are set in villages, towns or cities that we are familiar with or have a history to draw from. Historical fiction novels are set in a known past. All other genres, other than those of the created world, fall here.

Fictional locations can be written but do not deviate from what is known. A small town can be created for a cozy mystery novel, but it will have the same features as any small town.  The government, military, and the culture will be as we know it.

The Alternate Reality World

This is a world that we think we know, but it is not the same. The Alternate history genre tweaks the actual outcomes of significant events such as the ending of World War II and redirects history. The landscape and peoples may remain, but the government, military, culture, infrastructure, and perhaps agriculture may have been altered.

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The Mystery World

Mystery stories typically fall into the realm of the “Real World” although mysteries can be set in any imaginary world. There are some considerations to make as you develop your mystery world.

You must set a world conducive to a murder mystery. That is one where you do not reveal too much about the world where your detective or your killer resides. You must leave unanswered questions about the world.

Clues, both real and red herrings, must be set in the framework but again against a backdrop of mystery. If the murder happens in a room where there is a secret door, until the detective knows there is a secret door, the reader should not either. If the story is being told from the POV of the killer, then the door may be revealed to the reader but not the detective. Again, you have created your world, but you must keep it secret.

Someone must solve the crime. If you are writing crime fiction, a law enforcement officer will be your lead investigator. The agency the investigator works for, a local police department, the FBI or any other agency must be created.

Details should include:

  • Department structure: Who is in charge? What are your investigator’s rank and responsibilities?
  • Ancillary services: Is there a forensics department? A medical examiner? A video tech?

In a cozy fiction, the investigator is a civilian. It is essential to establish the plausibility that they can solve a crime.

Details should include:

  • Who is this amateur sleuth?
  • How did they become involved in the murder?
  • Who do they know? (family and friends)
  • What are the skills they possess that might assist them in solving a crime?
  • Do they know someone close to the official investigation that might have information to share? (police officer, medical examiner, prosecutor, reporter, etc.)

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Wait. Less World Building is Better?

There is a fallacy in the concept of world building. While crucial to the development of your story, it is the story that drives the world building, not the opposite.

Many authors, especially those who write science fiction and fantasy, revel in creating every minutia of the world they are writing about. That may be a satisfying exercise for the author but an unnecessary one. Despite the plethora of world building worksheets available, the process is considerably more straightforward than it appears.

The only world building you need is dictated by the story you write. Let’s assume that you are writing a science fiction story set on a spaceship. The most immediate world you should describe is the world your characters exist in, the spaceship. Description, origin, propulsion system, crew, food stores, destination, and reason for the mission are all crucial aspects of the world that need to be determined. A planet they stop on for only a short time requires less description, a planet where most of the action takes place needs more explanation.

Do not write your story around your world, but create the world around your story.