April 14, 2003

Writing Mysteries

Someone has asked for tips on writing mysteries. Here are eight things I try to do when I'm writing mysteries.

Whenever I write sf mystery I try to do the following.

1. Start the mystery in the first chapter, and if possible, on the first
page. In TAINTED TRAIL, we learn very early that Alicia is missing while
hiking. In BITTER WATERS, there have been several children kidnapped.

2. In Mysteries, you end the story by either solving the mystery OR
bringing the killer to justice.

3. The killer should be mentioned earlier. The more visible the killer is,
the better it turns out. Usually this requires you to bury the killer in
plain site by introducing a host of other killers. One very good example of
this is Dick Francis...I think the novel is HOT MONEY...but most of his are
well done...where fairly early its determined one of seven or eight children
are trying to kill the father. WHICH kid is the mystery, and you meet them
all and all their problems over and over again. They all seem as guilty and

4. PI should be interesting people, but when they go talk to suspects, they
should let the suspects babble about their life. The range of likely
killers and witnesses are a great way to show a wide spectrum of society.
I'm not sure why more fantasies don't use this.

5. Its easiest to start with knowing who did what why and how, and then
deciding how the hero finds the clues.

6. The best way to write a mystery is to then build layers on top of it.
One Sue Grafton did that I liked a lot was about a woman that hires Kinsey
to go fetch her mother from out in the desert. The woman has lots of odd
hysterias and during the course of the story its revealed that she's not who
she thinks she is and her mother isn't really her mother. Eventually its
discovered that the hysteria is based on watching a brutal murder as a child
and being smuggled away by her maiden aunt, and that the killer is still
alive and the murder never discovered by police.

7. Readers are quick up with 'THIS IS IMPORTANT' and the more you describe
something, the more important it seems. Hide the important thing behind
something unimportant. ::Wen pauses as all examples that leap to mind,
unfortunately, come from Bitter Waters and are plot spoilers:: Okay, say
you wanted to do a murder where the orange juice is poisoned, hide the
detail like so:

"The flashlight is dead, where do you keep the batteries?"
"In the refrig."
I moved a nearly empty carton of orange juice aside and found the
...and then later....
"Too bad about Tom. Can I get you something to drink?" I opened the frig
and checked the containers by picking them up. "There's a little milk in
here, and the a good bit of orange juice."

8. When thinking about plotline, try for the most misleading of information
to come out during a conversation and actions as you can think of. Take
radical turns. Go in unexpected directions....and then go back and make
sure that the clues are there if you look for them. Don't worry if they're
there in the rough draft, but make sure they get put in during rewrite.
Rewrite is when you start to look like a genius!

Posted by wen at April 14, 2003 02:04 PM

Great stuff, Wen. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: John Ward at April 16, 2003 01:07 AM