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 (strikethrough option in Word) through the paragraph or section. 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:

1) 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.

2) 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.”

 

3) 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.)

4) 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.)

5) 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.

Read Different: Go Native

Native storytellers

As the saying goes, “variety is the spice of life.” This applies to our reading choices, too. As a writer, I love to read – that goes without saying for most writers. But the hardest part can be finding something new and unusual; finding stories written from a different perspective, as long as it’s not considered “mainstream”. If you’re looking to support writers who share stories different from yours, I recommend you try Native American authors.

I’ve been reading fiction and nonfiction from several prolific Native authors for over twenty years. I discovered them on treasure hunts through the fiction aisles of libraries (and from there I found their nonfiction works as well). You don’t have to be an Indian to enjoy a culturally specific story; the details are rich and paint a story not unlike your own, just with a different brush. We’re far more alike than we sometimes care to admit and it’s good to learn from others’ experiences and unfamiliar settings.

The following is a short list of some of my personal favorites. Some of them, like Kent Nerburn, Joseph Marshall, and Priscilla Cogan, I go back and read at least once a year because they teach me life lessons that remind me of what’s important.

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann (nonfiction)

This is a true story of how Osage Indians, after discovering oil on their lands and becoming rich, were systematically murdered. It was the first major homicide case for the FBI; together with the Osage, the FBI managed to expose one of the most chilling conspiracies of murder in America.  “It is a searing indictment of the callousness and prejudice toward American Indians that allowed the murderers to operate with impunity for so long.” A can’t-put-it-down kind of book.

Kent Nerburn

These books tell a story of a white man’s physical and spiritual adventures with a Lakota elder. A humorous, touching, and eye/spirit-opening adventure that spans three books. Once you start, you won’t be able to stop.

  1. Neither Wolf Nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder
  2. The Wolf at Twilight: An Indian Elder’s Journey through a Land of Ghosts and Shadows
  3. The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo: A Child, an Elder, and the Light from an Ancient Sky

Priscilla Cogan

These are a fictional trilogy of spiritual adventure. Maggie, a white woman, meets Winona Pathfinder and her spiritual journey begins; a mix of Lakota and Christian beliefs. I loved all three books; I read them again and again.

  1. Winona’s Web
  2. Compass of the Heart
  3. Crack at Dusk Crook of Dawn

Lakota Westerns by Joseph M. Marshall III (Lakota) – I love westerns and these are my favorite fiction works by Joseph Marshall. He is a prolific writer and the scenes he paints with his pen have you right there with Cloud and his people, in their struggles to survive as whites encroach on their lands.

  1. Hundred in the Hand – a fictional account of the Battle of the Hundred in the Hand (the Fetterman Massacre) as seen through the eyes of Cloud, a warrior fighting alongside Crazy Horse (whose younger brother, Little Wolf, was actually killed in this battle at the ripe old age of 19, ten years prior to the death of Crazy Horse).
  2. The Long Knives are Crying – the second in the series, picks up around 1875 as the Lakota face the inevitable arrival of whites, still through the eyes of Cloud, now much older and the last generation of “free” Indians.

Here is one of his fabulous nonfictions:

The Journey of Crazy Horse – drawn on oral stories from elders, Joseph paints a picture of Crazy Horse the man, not the legend. A beautiful read.

James Welch (Blackfeet)

  1. Fools Crow – first published in 1986, it’s a fictional account of Blackfeet life in 1870, through the eyes of Fools Crow, a young warrior and medicine man. A gorgeous story.
  2. The Heartsong of Charging Elk – this is a true story. Charging Elk, Oglala Sioux, joins Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show but is left behind in a hospital in Marseille, France after a serious injury. He is forced to remake his life alone in a strange land. Sadly, the book ends when Charging Elk is only thirty-three; James died in 2000 while working on the second half of Charging Elk’s story (marriage and descendants).

The Last Algonquian by Ted Kazimiroff – This is the true story of (Joe) Two Trees, the last of his people, living alone in Pelham Bay, New York (up to 1924). He befriends a young boy scout (the author’s father) and recounts his sad story in great detail. (Graves of his parents and dog are located in Long Island City, NY.)

The Heart of Everything That Is by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin – an unusual and factual account of Red Cloud, Lakota chief; rich in historically accurate information, thanks to the discovery of Red Cloud’s lost autobiography. Good if you like historical works.

And last, but certainly not least:

Black Elk Speaks as told through John G. Neihardt – the meeting of a white man in 1932 with the great medicine man Black Elk (Lakota), who told John his life story (through a translator). A beautiful, sad telling of the tragedies that befell the Lakota in the latter part of the 19th century. Black Elk takes you back in time to his life, his people, including his first cousin, Crazy Horse.