Growing up, I loved mysteries. Some of my favorite books were the Boxcar Children mysteries. And of course, I went through the Mary Kate and Olsen stage (they did solve any crime by dinner time).
Though oddly enough, with this early influence, the idea that I’d write mysteries never came to mind. Not even when I made the decision to write for a living.
There’s something about mysteries—the ability to not only tell a story but solve a puzzle all within the confines of a book, and trying to not only figure out whodunit but how to best tell your characters the solution to the mystery.
I’ll admit, I love it and I still love reading good mysteries. In fact, a good chunk of the shows I watch on a regular basis are crime shows.
While working on All the Petty Myths I noticed differences between it and Badge City: Notches that I didn’t necessarily expect.
James and I were discussing my All the Petty Myths story. I’ll be honest with you, it’s been giving me grief. I’m blaming it on “second book syndrome” (shhhh, I know it’s just a novella). After three hours of Skype, I felt better. I think I know what I’m doing, and what I need to include.
What do you need to write a good mystery? Here are some things I’ve noticed. These aren’t everything, but they’re a start.
1) Good, solid characters
People will put down a book or stop watching a TV show because they can’t connect with the characters. Just recently someone recommended a show to me. It was supposed to have amazing writing, even though it only ran a single season. When I sat down to watch it, I couldn’t even make it through that one and only season.
I found out that I really didn’t care what happened to any of the characters. Yet the writing was good, witty, and fun. This a good example of what happens when you don’t get people invested in your characters. (Not that that will necessary save your series. Terriers had everything, and it died a after one season)
Give them a quirk, give them struggles, give them hopes and dreams and fears. Make them relatable and it will make your story that much stronger.
Plus, it will make your story easier to write if your characters are coming alive. The more you know them the more they help you write the story.
(James says I’m wrong about what mystery characters need, but let’s ignore him.)
Oh motive, my old friend and occasional enemy.
This is a tricky one at times because sometimes, there could be many motives for committing a crime and sometimes there is no obvious motive. And sometimes you think it’s the later but then you come to discover that it’s the former.
You can’t not have a motive after all where’s the fun in that? But here’s one thing to consider; it is often said that it doesn’t always have to make sense to us why someone did a crime, it makes sense to them.
There’s a reason I dedicated an entire post to it, in the past. Research separates the okay writers from the great. I wanted to be a great writer so I learned how to do research. You need it to make sure that stories work, make sense, and follow a fairly realistic world.
Google is your friend. Sometimes, I’ll pop on and check a random fact. In fact, I joke about being on a few watchlists (I really do think mystery writers are on a list) because of what I Google sometimes. (Pro-tip: if you’d like to make sure you haven’t slipped onto a watchlist, use duckduckgo for all your most suspicious questions.)
Thus is the curse of a writer.
But read books, and articles. I interview people. I study what’s been done and learn from others’ mistakes. All of this is important when writing a mystery.
Mysteries are fun to read and fun to write. They were my grandfather’s favorite kind of book to read. Even though he didn’t live to see me published, I like to think that he’s looking down and is incredibly proud of what I’ve accomplished so far. I do write with him in mind and ask myself, “What would Papa think of this?”
One last thing about writing, and this one doesn’t apply to just mysteries but to writing in general. You need to be prepared to just write and not think. Sometimes, the story just gets away from you and you get lost in the writing; when you allow yourself to do that, you get to experience something magical.
So whether you are writing mysteries, fantasy, science fiction, romance or whatever your passion is, let yourself write.
The rest will come.