Mystery literature is undergoing a resurgence with the American public. We find ourselves in need of a good story where the protagonist undergoes a journey, perhaps of faith, family, or reaction to something that cuts us to the quick. We select settings that we are comfortable with, things that make our own breath be held as we voyage into our story. Some of us use a timeline, writing each occurrence out in the order it will happen. It’s an effective tool, keeping us focused. Some of us write from the imagination without a specific timeline but as our characters reveal themselves to us. I’ll use the word hero a lot below but I mean hero or heroine.
In the first pages, our writing needs to hook our audience. What we chose will ultimately decide which niche we’ll fill as a novelist. Grisham writes stories that incorporate the law and lawyers. His first novel, which publishers did not accept until mid-point of his career, dealt with a very sensitive topic, the rape of a little girl, the racists who did the crime, a man who took the case of the defendant even with distasteful crime, and the revenge of a father. First rate mystery/thriller material that was met with acclaim when it was finally printed. Yet I found myself unable to read the story when I bought the book.
It was the horrific crime against the little girl that sickened me and gave me nightmares. Because it was well-written, it stripped my soul bare and made me shutter. It was also staged in my home state of Virginia. We dealt with a lot of the issues in the book in my local news and the school where I taught. I found the book disturbing on a personal level. So I put it down. But his writing had grabbed me so I gave another volume in his series a try.
I read the next book in the series. Again the plot was riveting. The difference was that it let me know the first book’s trials had outcomes that stood for all that was right and good in society. The protagonist saved the day, the child lived and began recovering from the pain of her ordeal and the family of the child responded as a good family should, with love, trust, and doing all they could for the child. So, knowing the outcome, I read the first book all the way through. Tremendously written, I was able to cheer for the positive knowing that the lawyer who played the protagonist would bring things to an ending that would give me hope for humanity. The supporting characters amplified this victory and made it believable.
Stephen King wrote, in an article that my daughter’s college “Horror” class read, wrote that we take our readers through situations that thrill, scare, and outrage us, but that bring us to a successful conclusion by reassuring the reader that good will prevail. We ride the roller coaster through the plot with each new development taking us up and away and then plummeting us through a series of turns and twists that eventually release us with an ending we can live with. We can hardly wait until the next book is written and a new roller coaster plot takes place.
I’m a lifelong reader, beginning at the age of 4. I love to read. I follow new writers whose words delight me and terrify me. I follow books that make me guess what will happen and twist in their paths to make things new and refreshing. I like the science that goes into the development of a plot. What technology is there for a writer to use that has a basis in reality? Watch the Sherlock Holmes mysteries with Benjamin Cumberbatch. The way that they alternate between what is used and what the hero uses in addition to simple tools tweaks his cases. Some assumptions are incorrect and he returns to the initial data. Events happen not only to the people and cases he’s researching but to himself, Dr. Watson and Watson’s wife Mary. Sherlock maintains that he is a sociopath with a sense of justice. The idea that our hero might have a mental condition that could either make him a monster or a hero enhances his story. It’s his very ability to see the monster in himself that makes him an excellent detective.
Murders are common themes in mysteries, whether they happen in the long past or in the modern setting. The plot creeps in and out of a protagonist’s life. The past overshadows the present in twists. It’s possible to put these pieces together without the need to overuse flashbacks. Set in the modern setting, one can write about the clues as they are found. Someone finds a document and begins to trail the mystery until a new clue is found. Each of the clues needs to tie to something new. The clues need the reactions of the good, the bad and the uncertain in order to amp up the excitement. And for each clue that happens, your reader should not be able to predict the next steps each time. Allow the reader to sweat, to yearn, to fear for the safety of a character.
There are other mystery situations, as well, so that you don’t have to deal with the topics of murder or rape. What are they? Finding out you have a brother or sister that you didn’t know existed. Spies. Writing an article where the person you interview isn’t who they say they are. Follow that one through their lives and see where you end up. Get a clue from a senior who’s dying and follow what they have told you. You have a hero that arrives only to find that things aren’t what they seem and send your hero to fix whatever troubles the town. Money?
Need help identifying what your plot will be? There are tools online like the one found at http://www.plot-generator.org.uk/create.php?type=5. You identify your protagonist/amateur detective, love interests, town, three types of crime, three adjectives for places, an adjective for an object, four positive adjectives to describe someone’s character, an event, an activity, two jobs, something you can be addicted to and an object. This site will email a plot to you. But you can also create one for yourself by using a sheet of paper and linking the topics together on your own.
I used the site and came up with something pretty silly, but I changed words around and found something I could work with.
The Rowdy small town of Carson, Minnesota holds a chilling secret. Diana Conrad has the perfect life working as a waitress in the city and dancing with her handsome boyfriend, Herb Random in amateur dance competitions.
However, when she finds an old family letter in her cellar that tells her of an older brother she never heard of, she begins to realize that things are not quite as they seem in the Conrad family.
A wedding leaves Diana with some startling questions about her past, and she sets off to Denver to find some answers.
At first, the people of Denver are shy and secretive. She is intrigued by the curiously handsome Book salesman, John Pilsner. However, after he introduces her to cocaine Diana slowly finds herself drawn into a web of Theft, fencing and perhaps, even Kidnapping.
Can Diana resist the charms of John Pilsner and uncover the secret of the family letter before it’s too late, or will her demise become yet another Denver legend?
This is a pretty simplistic plot but you can work with it, add to it, change things and set up a situation that tickles your imagination. When I start writing, I start with a basic biography of my characters. I add a setting, and then a situation that fills itself in as I go. What would I want to read? That’s one of my big questions to myself.
Chuck Wendig says that “mystery writers are twisted. They find a corpse in every pot” they have. He also warns that “Killing imaginary friends is like potato chips.” Just one, anyone? His statements about the sleuths, detective, or amateur needing a personality that isn’t perfect, but has character flaws is the same that James Patterson uses in his novels. He threatens those who love his heroes with killing them off if those readers don’t buy his new books on prime time television. People rush to buy the next book. We need to read and write about someone who will make our plot more interesting as they overcome personal problems or situations that might really happen to a real person. Are they divorced, drinkers, having affairs, using something they shouldn’t? What are the traits that make them lovable? Balancing the two sides of a personality isn’t easy, but don’t we do that in our everyday lives?
Your villains need to be smart, savvy people who plan what they do. If they do too much too early in a novel they’ll end up in jail too quickly. Make them sneaky, cheeky, or charming. Balance their insanity with being excellent at something, perhaps hiding.
I started writing with poetry. It made me realize that word choice is important. Use a dictionary or a thesaurus to poke around with finding words that sharpen what you say. Don’t be afraid to write, then rewrite, until you are satisfied. Enjoy the process.
Lastly, make sure you write. Even if you can’t do it every day, or you have writer’s block, don’t stop writing. It’s what makes you different.
Not everyone out there sticks with it to the end of a book. I’d love to see all of us succeed.
Thanks to Ann W.J. White for her guest post. We are honored that she agreed to post during the lead in period to the MTW event. She is one of the over 200 extremely skilled writers that will be featured during the week. If you are not yet a fan of the event, I encourage you to sign up while visiting the site. It will be your passport to every scheduled event as well as contests and activities. Thank you, Ms. White for this amazing look at writing mysteries and thrillers. This post has a lot to offer. You can find all of Ann W. J. White’s work on her website