Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Part I

Perhaps a third of the way through writing the first draft of Sound Proof, my second mystery novel, I realized that I wanted to write a how-to book on writing the mystery novel. Two factors contributed to my wanting to write such a guide. 

The first was that I had been reading a lot of mystery novels which, in one way or another, annoyed me.  One might have had a far too obvious villain: somebody I recognized as the murderer by the third chapter. Another might have had a far, far too obscure minor-character villain who, when revealed to be the villain, created no emotion in me: I just didn’t care that this seldom-seen character was the guilty party. Still another mystery might have had way-too-clunky planting of clues. One may have had way-too-obvious foreshadowing, while the solution to yet another might have been totally unearned.

Annoyed at what I was encountering, I thought I could give some guidelines on techniques such as foreshadowing, or give examples of how to plant clues. I would certainly read such a how-to book, and I thought others would, too.

The second factor that contributed to my writing a guide on how to write a mystery novel stemmed from the fact that with Sound Proof I was being forced to think through writing decisions very different from those I made for Dirty Proof. For example: Sound Proof contains many more characters and is set over a five-day period at a folk music festival. As I began to write, I noticed that I needed to know where each of the seven suspects was at a particular time of day Monday through Friday. So I had to make a where-are-they chart listing the days, the time of day, and the location of the suspects. The chart would help me understand time and place, and my understanding of time and place in the novel would help the reader understand it, too.

SOUNDPROOF-Cover

Design by Robin Koontz

In Dirty Proof I had a major character villain, but in Sound Proof I had a minor character villain. I was worried: how could I keep readers from forgetting the character? So I made a chart tracking the minor character’s appearance in the novel, making sure to have the character present enough times so that the reader wouldn’t forget, but also absent enough times that the reader wouldn’t suspect.

Because I intended to write a guide book after completing Sound Proof, I kept track of all my major writing decisions. I saved all my doodles and scraps of paper. After I finished and published Sound Proof (2011), I put all my files aside for a while, so that I could think about the organization and tone of the guide book. While letting my ideas for the guide book simmer,  I wrote and published Jack and Larry in 2012 and Research Notes for Women at Play, Volume II, in 2013.

When 2014 came along, I started to organize the guide book. The first thing I did was create a working title: Writing the Mystery Novel. I’m the kind of person who needs a title before I can write a book . . . even though I may change the title after I’ve finished. In this case, after I completed the book, I changed the title to Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel.

After coming up with the working title, I thought about how to organize the book.

 

BookmarkPerhaps there was a time in the history of reading when every single reader read a book from beginning to end, in the order the pages were printed. If there was such a time, it clearly no longer exists. People read books, particularly nonfiction books, in any order that pleases them. Middle to End to Beginning. Beginning, End, Middle. Who knows.

I happen to read books from beginning to end, in the order the pages/chapters are printed. But I don’t want to impose my reading preference on others, and so as I began to create Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel, I made certain that the book would logically lead a reader from beginning to end, teaching skills along the way — and that any individual chapter could be read at any time and still make sense. In that respect, Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel is “interactive” in that the reader can interact with the book in any order she pleases.

People who teach know that nothing works like examples — theory and instructions are abstract: examples are concrete. In addition to explaining foreshadowing, for example, it helps to show an example of foreshadowing. This is why Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel contains (as the subtitle promises) lots of examples.

Most of the examples are from Sound Proof, for a variety of reasons, one of which is that I own the copyright to Sound Proof and therefore don’t need permission to publish quotes from it. Equally important is that because I wrote the novel, I knew what problems I faced when writing it, and I know what my thinking was in reaching a solution. I shared these problems and my thinking and my solutions with the reader in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel.

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Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, is one of Barbara Gregorich’s most frequently requested books.

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