Monday, April 25, 2016

Knowing Whodunnit before Writing the Story

In the last article, I wrote about coming up with a protagonist. Now I'm going to write about what I knew I had to know next before beginning to write the story.

I needed to know whodunnit and how. (I will do my best not to reveal any spoilers.)

The following is important, and something that I certainly didn't come up with: Before you write a mystery, you need to know the answer. Even if you're not the sort of writer who outlines before writing, it is essential to know the end of the story before beginning on it.

Why is this important? All throughout the story, you'll need to drop clues, make characters say suspicious or misleading things. That's because the reader is hunting for the answer to the mystery. Even if there are twists that snicker in the reader's face, the reader wants to make sense of the story and believe they are on the path to the answer. They want to catch that place where you foreshadow something or try to make an important clue slip by them.

Foreshadowing and planting clues is hard to do if you don't already know the answer to the mystery, and it may be more difficult than you expect to go back and rewrite the story to make the clues fit.

Knowing this, the next thing I did when planning my mystery is decide whodunnit and how.

It wasn't as simple as that. To understand my characters, I needed to have a setting to put the events in context. I've read that most successful stories transport the reader to someplace other than the world of day-to-day life. Well, I wanted to set the story in more-or-less contemporary Denver. What else, I wondered, could I do to make Denver a special place? Again I circled back to "write what you know." I knew some of the insides of Denver Democratic politics and could write credibly about it. That had promise. The story could be not just a murder mystery but cross over into political thriller.

What about a politician quietly suspected of murder? Good so far, but could I raise the stakes? What about a politician suspected of murder in the middle of a campaign? Better, but could I raise the stakes some more and make the situation very concrete. What about a Democratic candidate for Colorado's Congressional District 1 (which includes Denver) suspected of murder during a mid-term campaign where the race could decide the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives?

There, I had my setting. Not just place, but context.

Working out the whodunnit is hard to explain without being a spoiler, so I'll reveal as best as I can the mechanics I followed without revealing important parts of the plot.

First I decided that I wanted a mystery that was complicated unless you understood something not obvious. From there, I worked out who killed whom and how and why. Then I invented plausible reasons for evidence to be missing, reasons that drew other people into the case.

All along, I cataloged the characters involved. Once I had my basic ideas down, I embellished the characters, giving them details such as their wants, secrets and conflicts.

With the character list in place, I finished drafting a synopsis of who did what that was linked to the mystery in any way. That was to be my story guidebook, the real truth that must ultimately be revealed, but only disclosed in bits and pieces to the reader along the way, sometimes as lies. I reminded myself that it was only a guidebook. Since I like to plan a little upfront but mostly discover a story by the process of writing it, I consciously gave myself permission to depart from the synopsis so long as I considered the ramifications of the change.

So, it appears that working out whodunnit in your story entails not just knowing the secret to the mystery but also the setting--place and context--of the story. It also means knowing the list of characters that are linked to the mystery in some way. If you are like me, you may find it helpful to expand the list of characters and the answer to the mystery into a full synopsis (just a few paragraphs) that captures who did what that is linked to the mystery, and use that synopsis as a guidebook for planting clues, bits of the truth that may sometimes be hidden as lies. Don't be afraid to depart from your guidebook if you discover the story works better that way.

So that's why and how I worked out whodunnit in my story before beginning to write it. Let me know if this helps you.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Where to Start When Writing a Murder Mystery?

detective with magnifying glass
One night at the Thursday night writers' group my partner, Elisabeth, and I host, one member, Erik, proposed that we each write a Sherlock Holmes story. We all muttered weak assent, but only Erik wrote something.

I resisted writing my story for a couple of reasons. One was that I was not a practiced hand at writing short fiction. I prefer long-form, novel length. Another was that even though I'm a bit of a Sherlockian, I didn't believe I understood Victorian England (or Victorian anywhere, for that matter) well enough to write a credible story. But it did get me thinking.

I knew from the advice of David Farland, through his email newsletter and a book of his that I read on "resonance" in storytelling, that successful fiction needs to do two opposing things. It must resonate with the reader and be a good example of its genre, yet it must also be original and not just another repeat of something in its genre.

Another influence on my thinking was the old advice, "Write what you know." My interpretation of that advice was to write about that which I could communicate credibly in senses and emotions.

A lot of ideas for a protagonist bounced around in my head, and I threw out many of them as already-been-done and not-what-I-know, such as cops, lawyers, private investigators, mystery writers, psychics, and caterers. The super-intelligent, hyper-observant, uber-competent, ultra-logical detective has also been overdone. I decided that I wanted an unlikely detective, a reluctant detective.

One idea that flashed before me was the Oracle of Delphi, the all-knowing, high-on-toxic-fumes dispenser of cryptic answers to questions. The punchline of an old joke also popped into my head: "I may be crazy, but I'm not stupid."

That's when it came to me. The voices hallucinated by schizophrenics are merely their own thoughts. What about a schizophrenic woman who solves problems by listening to the voices she hears and picking out the ones that speak the truth?

So, one place to start when writing your first mystery is to decide who the detective is. And that includes coming up with a name.

Authors vary in how much meaning they place in names. I like my main characters to have meaningful names. I decided quickly to call her Evelyn Malsage. The choice of Evelyn was arbitrary; I simply liked the name. But Malsage was deliberately ironic; ir means "unwise."

As for "write what you know," I feel qualified to write Evelyn's character. In my late forties, which is later than typical, I had my first psychotic break and ended up with a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder (that means I have a mood disorder, bipolarism, and have psychotic episodes unrelated to my moods). I could model Evelyn after myself, but I had to make her sicker than I've been to keep her interesting; my condition is well controlled by medication to the point of being boring. I also wanted to write a character who was sicker than I was, and who had a more tragic life than mine, as a reminder to myself to be grateful for the life I had.

So there you are. One way to start on your first murder mystery is to draw on your experience to come up with a sleuth, one who is memorable yet not like all the others—a character that you personally can understand.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

It's About Time...

a shelf of books
I've been blogging infrequently as a publisher, but I never started a blog for my identity as an author in my own right.

I don't have an author website, or even a facebook page. How smart is that since just about every book and maven for book marketing says an author needs an online presence to held build that all important "author platform"? Ant the big advice is for an author to blog.

What has it taken me so long? It's not hard to explain. Some writers are prolific; words flow from their pens (or keyboards). I am not. I am in the camp of writers who sit before their screens and don't begin to write until droplets of blood form on their foreheads. I'm a good writer, but I find writing very hard work.

Another complication is more personal. Some of the medications I take daily are a little mind-clouding. I'm still relatively sharp, but I can tell the difference. Sometimes I blame the medications for sucking ideas out of my head just as I am about to write.

A reason I haven't blogged much up till now, even though I've had a CEO's blog for my publishing company, Thursday Night Press, for years is that I simply haven't known what to write about in a blog that people might want to read. Well, now I do.

I've started writing my first murder mystery. I've read plenty of mysteries before--I love Sherlock Holmes stories--but I've never written one. So here's the topic of my blog: how a newbie to the genre learns to write a tolerably decent murder mystery.

In this blog, I will document everything I learn that relevant to writing the story. If I make use of books, I will review them. I already have a head start on my learning, so I should be able to blog with some regularity. I'm aiming to blog at least weekly.

I hope you'll follow my adventure and have as much fun with it as I know I will.