Monday, May 30, 2016

Review: Writing Mysteries, A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of Amerca

Last time I wrote about how I selected the point of view for my murder mystery, and why I did not use the first-person point of view loved by many mystery writers and their readers. This time, I'm providing a book review relevant to mystery writing.

As I've said before, I like to read and learn from books on writing craft. I was pleased to discover a book specifically about writing mysteries, Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America, edited by award-winning mystery writer Sue Grafton.

The book consists of 35 chapters written by A-list mystery writers, each chapter on a different element of writing mysteries. My biggest takeaways from this book were

  • show telling details of character
  • maintain conflict throughout the book
  • details are important


Telling details of character are small things that say a lot about a character. Michael Connelly uses as an example a homicide detective who always takes off his glasses and sticks an earpiece in his mouth to hold them while examining a corpse at the crime scene. The telling detail is the indentations in the earpiece caused by biting down hard. Upon learning this detail it becomes immediately clear that not only does the detective work on cases, the cases work on him. A telling detail of my protagonist, Evelyn Malsage, is that there is always a bit of truth in any of her paranoid beliefs.

As for maintaining conflict throughout the book, advice from Kurt Vonnegut is offered. This master said that each character on each page of a book must want something--even if it's only a glass of water. The ultimate advice introduced through Vonnegut's proverb is that in a mystery every page should have conflict of some kind and that from conflict comes suspense.

In a mystery, details are important because readers of the genre enjoy hunting for answers and many of them will sift every word in the search for clues to the solution. So, even more than is so for other genres of fiction, details must be precise and accurate.

There are other things I learned from this book, such as that many mystery authors are discovery writers (also called pantsers, as in "by the seat of the pants") who work out what a story is about by the process of writing the first draft. This in contrast to outliners, who determine their story, sometimes to great detail, by advance planning. Many authors are, like me, somewhere between the two, doing some planning of story before writing but also working out important details of plot and character by writing the first draft.

I will probably reread this book, or at least select chapters, from time-to-time. I found the lessons valuable enough that I can recommend this book to other beginning mystery writers.

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