Our Mystery Writing Method #1


I got the idea for this blog while reading Alicia Dean’s Find the Magic – How to Plot a Story in 10 Easy Steps, a $0.99 Kindle book that I like for a couple of reasons. First, it’s short and to the point (Here’s what I do, here’s how I do it.), and bereft of the excess verbiage (and excessive self-promotion) typical of such how-to books. Second, while some of her steps are what one expects to find in such a book, in some cases, she is less conventional. For example:

“Get to know main characters, at least a little. For me, I don’t really know them until about a third of the way through the story. Whether you know yours thoroughly or partially is up to you. I personally dislike lengthy character questionnaires, profiles, interviews, and so forth.”

BOOM! My approach, exactly. Still, her system is more methodical then how we (my co-author, Aki Liao, and myself) went about creating A Halo for Red Betsy, the writing of which was a haphazard affair. As was the writing of the second in the series, The Cheongsam Bombshell.

However, I’ve been reading books about plotting because we’re considering a more complex story for Lost Daughters, the working title of the third Frank Keegan mystery. Plus, we’re hoping that more planning will shorten the overall writing time.

How we came to write A Halo for Red Betsy is recorded there, so I’ll skip that story and jump to the process of writing it.

The basic structure of a mystery requires a crime (with murder being the most common), a setting, and a detective or detectives. We first conceived this project back in 1998, so I don’t recall which came first in our planning, and I’m not sure it matters since moving forward requires all three. Some books name the perpetrator as the fourth essential element, but we managed to get going without being particularly clear on this point.

Naming the killer did come next, however, even though we ended up with different killer by the time we finished it (explaining that would give too much away). We also thought that developing a solution to the crime at the beginning would help the process, but that changed with the killer. Then our beta-readers so hated the new ending, so we had to rewrite it anyway.

From this I learned that while planning has advantages, letting the story develop “organically” also proved fruitful. And not that difficult (a lot of text did end up in the trash, however). I’ve read many mysteries and know what’s suppose to happen; the conflict in the story needs an ebb and flow. For me, that works something like this:

The last conflict occurred X number of pages ago—time for my detective to run into some trouble. As I said, haphazard, but we’ve made it work. Twice.

We took the same free-wheeling approach with our supporting cast and our clues (and red herrings), but I’ll save those discussions for future posts.

A Halo for Red Betsy, available in paperback and on Kindle.


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