Writing a Whodunit Isn’t Much of a Mystery

whodunit

I recently completed an article on cardiovascular health for a trade journal. To begin the process, I researched the necessary information and laid it out in outline form to see what I would use and what I would discard. Once I used some research, I drew a line through the paragraph or section with strikethrough. Anything I didn’t use I simply deleted.

You can utilize a similar process to write a mystery novel. There are some necessary steps in that process and I’ll touch on a few basics here to get you started:

Plot out the novel

This is an opportunity to put your ideas to paper. What kind of murder? How many people involved? What’s the murder weapon? Location of the murder? Setting (time period or locale) of the book? It might help to draw a map of the area(s) where the story takes place, as it will provide you with a sense of direction (north, south, etc.) and landscape (or seascape) when moving characters around. Don’t forget about seasons/climate, year/century, and overall mood (feeling) of the locations.

Opening hook

You need an opening hook that grabs readers and makes them want to read more of the book. I prefer a shorter first chapter that includes the hook, the protagonist(s) or antagonist(s) (or both, depending on the storyline) and a bit of mystery about what is to unfold:

“She stuck her perky titties in his face; he pretended to display a modicum of interest. He knew what she wanted; he knew she was hungry for him. She tossed her shoulder length blonde hair from side to side, waving her golden locks like a flag in the wind to garner his attention. She playfully brushed his muscular arm as she feigned interest in the fabric of his jersey. Instead, he was focused on the nondescript woman sitting in the far corner of the local watering hole. She’d been coming in regularly on Thursday nights, he recently noticed, and always alone. She sat in a quiet corner behind the bar that gave her the broadest view of the goings-on of the locals. It appeared she was taking notes.” (Rescue on White Thunder, 2012, all rights reserved.)

Based on this opening paragraph, this was the review left by a noted author (for which I was ever grateful):
“Despite the hilarious opening line, this is not that kind of book. It really is a good, serious story. At first I thought ‘chick-lit’ but it really isn’t and the characters, plot and story continue to grow throughout. I don’t know exactly where I couldn’t put it aside, but it happened. There is some really good American Indian lore that I hadn’t heard before as well.”

Build your characters

What does your protagonist or antagonist look like? How do they act/speak? Any quirks? Do you describe secondary characters enough for readers to know them? Good physical descriptions provide a visual image for the reader but personality, attitude and other intangibles are important as well:

“Leonard Laughing Bear is a six-foot man in his mid-fifties with a stout build and broad shoulders designed for carrying the weight of the world.  Hair as thick as a Berber carpet flows freely down his back and is streaked with gray between strands of deep black. The lines on his face are a roadmap to the life history of an experienced elder. His left knee is bowed outward so when he walks he tilts a little to the left. His eyes are small, dark beads that glow with an intensity and hint of a deeper knowing, and are bordered by prominent cheekbones that seem carved from rock. He is a soft-spoken man with a velvety-toned voice that draws people in to listen attentively. He is a gifted storyteller.” (Rescue on White Thunder, 2012, all rights reserved.)

Mishaps, obstacles, and red herrings

These are the “monkey wrenches” you throw into the story to mislead or move the protagonist(s) and/or antagonist(s) in different directions. Don’t get wrapped up in too much misdirection, it will move you further from the heart of the story and you may confuse or lose the reader.

“6:30 am: The explosion reverberated throughout the house. Braddock flew out of his chair at the breakfast table and Jim sprung to his feet, knocking his chair to the floor, both of them spilling their mugs of coffee. Smoke perked up his ears, looked around, and howled as Annie froze in front of the stove, her eyes wide with fright. Wolf, working in the garage, was knocked backward as the ground shuddered and shook. He had a bad feeling in his gut so he ran to his trailer, grabbed his survival pack, and ran to the main house.” (Rescue on White Thunder, 2012, all rights reserved.)

The arc of the story

 This is how the plot progresses through the novel. There are  eight stages of a story plot, according to Wikihow:

  • Stasis – the normal, everyday life of the person whose point of view you’re using to tell the story
  • Trigger – this is the event that sets everything in motion
  • The quest – this is the murder or murder mystery
  • Surprise – these are the twists and turns, the complications (“monkey wrenches”) that keep the story going; most important to keep movement in the story to keep the reader’s attention
  • Critical choice – this is where the protagonist(s) must decide how to act, often faced with a hard path; it can be a defining moment for the character and tends to lead to the climax
  • Climax – where the murder is solved and murderer is caught
  • Reversal and resolution – these represent how the characters have changed and what their “new normal” looks like after the crime has been committed and suspect caught

Remember to keep the readers guessing throughout the novel (hence the movement of storyline and characters). As I mentioned in a previous post, start at the end (the murder, the location, evidence, etc.) and work backwards; take the story apart, scatter the evidence and details around (but not too much), then slowly piece them back together to create a full picture.

Mystery solved.

Tinker, Tailor, Oyster Pirate, Writer

JackLondonCredo500_theartofmanliness

In a recent blog I wrote about my visit to author Jack London’s Napa, CA home, now a state park. I’ve been a JL fan since I was a kid, when I read White Fang in grade school as required reading. He quickly became one of my favorite storytellers with that book. I think it’s because he lived what he wrote, which made his stories all that much richer.

Sci-fi novels are experiencing a resurgence, along with romance novels. I can’t help but wonder: how much of these stories were lived by the authors? My guess? Few to none. We live in a world where fantasy is favored over real life, where digital relationships (texting, sexting, selfies, vlogging, etc.) and its inevitable voyeurism have replaced the human experience. The richness, depth, and complexity of our existence are slowly disappearing as machines distract us from our lives and connections.

Jack had been a sailor, a fish and game warden, an oyster pirate, a gold prospector, a war correspondent, a rancher, and a farmer (the first in America to utilize terraced farming that he learned of in Asia), just to name a few. He was a busy man, experiencing life in the deepest possible way – by living it, then writing about it. How many writers can claim that today? And does writing solely from imagination make one a good writer? Is it possible to become a superior storyteller without living any part of the story? I’ve blogged about how bad decisions make good stories (sometimes the best ones) so I guess I’m old school in the idea that at least some part of the story should come from personal experience.

Maybe that’s what happens as we shape the characters in our stories; we pepper in a bit of ourselves, friends, family members, coworkers. The unusual color of the protagonist’s eyes, the wry smile of your antagonist belonged to a previous lover, the righteous anger of a scorned relative showing up in a minor character. Your pool of character quirks and physical/mental traits can be endless. Dig from your life to build your stories; no one has experienced your life but you, so no one else enrich your readers the way you can.

Here’s a short list of some of the jobs/experiences I’ve had that flavor my writing:

  • Waitress/bartender (upscale restaurants, nightclubs, etc.) – met many interesting characters 
  • Private investigator – some good cases where I found antagonists 
  • Tennis player/state champion
  • Lecturer/public speaker
  • Behavioral/psychiatric technician
  • Doctor/clinician (including time on a cruise ship in the Caribbean)
  • Drug/alcohol counselor
  • Criminal justice system – lots of characters here!
  • Homelessness (personal experience that I did write about)
  • 4 cross country trips –  where I met some great & some odd personalities, and experienced multiple landscapes

Wanna write? Get your ass off the couch. Seek out adventures. Make some bad decisions. Then make a similar list. They’ll make your stories feel more real, even if they aren’t.

Creating Movement in an Action Novel

wildfire

Source: WSET, Virginia

I don’t know why, but I’ve been fascinated with fire since childhood. The duality of its beauty and danger captivate me; flames licking, eating, destroying; yet warming, inviting, even trance inducing. Many years ago, as the first chapters of Rescue on White Thunder formed in my mind, it was very different from the end result. I suppose that’s where the creativity and individuality of the writer comes in to play. Fire has become a running theme in my books and it is once again a large part of the next installation in what has become a series because I so enjoy the characters I’ve created. (And I’ve already got ideas and a premise for a third.)

For a writer who prefers to write a good action story, movement is crucial and including fire made it easy. Fire provides good movement in a story, whether it’s the fire itself or the characters involved with the fire and what they’re doing with it or to it.

In this excerpt, you can see how the characters move into action as a result of fire:

Braddock was already well above the rest of his crew on the fire line when Jim suddenly yelled, “Wind change!” 

The crew immediately stopped what they were doing and ran downhill. When Braddock and Smoke turned to do the same, a flare-up stopped them in their tracks. It was an unexpected blowup – the southeasterly winds, with pressure from the storm overhead, shifted north and caused crown fires to increase rapidly. Flames raged high and hot and separated Braddock and Smoke from the rest of the team. Braddock turned in every direction, trying to find a way out as the flames shot through the loose underbrush, creating a wall of fire around them. Branches burned off trees fell to the forest floor, spitting burning embers everywhere.

In this portion, the fire itself is the action, providing rich imagery as well:

Fires spread quickly over a fresh, loose layer of humus covering the solid ground. Tree trunks caught fire one after the other as flames overran the surrounding brush and now-dead timbers toppled from last year’s big storm. The crackling roar of the fire amplified and they had to shout to hear each other. Braddock knew they would soon be forced to move to higher ground. Some of the firebreaks held but winds were increasing in strength and velocity, propelling fresh embers to other areas. More trees and small brush ignited, creating walls of flames that nearly licked the upper branches of the tall pines.

You can also have both the characters and the fire creating action where one influences the other:

6:30 am: The explosion reverberated throughout the house. Braddock flew out of his chair at the breakfast table and Jim sprung to his feet, knocking his chair to the floor, both of them spilling their mugs of coffee.

Quite a distance away, they could barely make out a thin grey line of smoke over the trees southwest of White Thunder Mountain. Minutes later, the wail of police sirens pierced the air; honks like foghorns from multiple fire engines interrupted the morning’s serenity.

When it comes to action, you have multiple opportunities to create movement in your story when you include an active subject matter like fire or other extreme forms of weather. Track whether the story flows or if it skips; too many changes between scenes may break up the story’s rhythm. Use whatever tools work best for you; have friends/family read portions for feedback, build a story board on a wall in your home office (or where in the house you write), even sketch out the physical layout of the story’s location (this works for me) to keep timelines and movement in sync.

Remember, movement is life in a good action story.