Whodunit? A Mystery Writer's Primer;
Description and Syllabus: "In fiction and in fact, amateur detectives are shrewd students of human nature." Anne Wingate
Building a Mystery, Choosing a Sleuth and a Crime
A special look for mystery readers and writers at what, how, why—means, method and opportunity create good reading and writing.
The traits of a sharp amateur detective are the keys to their being able to ferret out clues at the scene of a crime, many times, after the professionals are done reading it. Traits that make a perfect sleuth; keen insight, intellect, lively, energetic and curious risk takers are much like those of a writer. Writers are used to going against the grain, crossing genres, taking risks with their fragile egos, keeping on even while they would rather give up.
While the sleuth is a integral part of the writing of a good mystery there is more to a mystery than that and we will explore some of that "other" in this course.
1. Introduction – How to Start.
The beginning of anything begins with a first step – in this lesson we will explore where that might be to you as a mystery writer. What are your options, how do you know if you've chosen the right option.
2. The Mystery of Writing a Mystery
I'll show your there really isn't a mystery to writing the mystery if you understand the genre. All it takes are writing skills and an open mind.
3. Modus Operandi
Most detectives, and especially those who are trying to tune in and nab a serial killer, look to see if there are similar characteristics to the villains/criminals method and means to kill. We'll explore some of the methods profilers use and why they are valuable lessons to be learned by reading profilers such as John Douglas before you write your mystery.
4. The Criminal Mind
The workings of a criminal mind…sounds like a deep dark probe into psychology and really it's more of deciding what a criminal mind is – there may be a hair line separating a normal person from a murderer – we'll explore what if…?
5. The Murderer
Even though this sounds like more development of the criminal mind – it is the detective discovering clues that may be missed by others – Patricia Cornwell knows how the body gives up clues – Jessica Fletcher knows how the scene gives up clues – both authors know how to find the murderer and you must too if you write mysteries.
6. The Psychology of Crime (A chat about this time – with a book giveaway – and a book giveaway at the end of the course)
What is it – why is it – what makes a person commit a crime, why would anyone thing breaking the law is an answer to anything…sometimes it seems totally logical to the criminal – we'll explore that.
7. Back to School Sleuths
A fun look at some of the sleuths that got us started in our love of mystery.
8. Ms Marple, Hercule Poirot, Jessica Fletcher and Colombo! Oh My!
Let's look at a few of the staples of the mystery genre
Handouts: Tips For The Mystery Writer
A Bibliography of Resources in Books for Mystery Writers
From Billie A Williams the Author of:
The Mystery of Writing A Mystery Solved, and Whodunit? A Mystery Writers Primer
Writing Mysteries, Margaret Lucke, Self-counsel writing Series ISBN 1-55180-205-8
The Weekend Novelist Writes A Mystery, by Robert J. Ray and Jack Remick
Writing And Selling Your Mystery Novel, How To Knock 'em Dead with Style, by Hallie Ephron
You can Write a Mystery, Gillian Roberts, ISBN 0-89879-863-9
Writing Mysteries, Edited by Sue Grafton, w/Jan Burke and Barry Zeman ISBN 1-58297-145-5
Writing The Modern Mystery, by Barbara Norville ISBN 0-898789-523-0
How To Write Killer Fiction, The Funhouse of Mystery & The Roller Coaster of Suspense, by Carolyn Wheat ISBN 1-880284-62-6
Organized Crime, The Insider's Guide to the World's Most Successful Industry, Paul Lunde ISBN 0-7566-1899-1
The Howdunit Series:
Scene of The Crime, A Writer's Guide to Crime-scene Investigations, by Anne Wingate, Ph. D.
Just The Facts, Ma'am, A Writer's Guide to Investigators and Investigation Techniques, by Greg Fallis, ISBN 0-89879-823-X
Cause of Death, A Writer's Guide to Death, Murder and Forensic Medicine, by Keith D. Wilson, M.D. ISBN 0-89879-524-9
Murder One, A Writers Guide to Homicide, by Mauro V. Corvasce & Joseph R. Paglino,
Amateur Detectives, A Writer's Guide to How Private Citizens Solve Criminal Cases, Elaine Raco Chase & Anne Wingate ISBN0-89879-725-X
Malicious Intent, A Writer's Guide to How Murderers, Robbers, Rapists and Other Criminals Think by Sean Mactire ISBN 0-89879-648-2
Deadly Doses, A Writer's Guide to Poisons, by Serita Deborah Stevens with Anne Klarner,
Missing Persons, A Writer's Guide to Finding The Lost, The Abducted and the Escaped, by Fay Faron, ISBN 0-89879-790-X
Rip-Off, A Writer's Guide To Crimes of Deception, by Fay Faron ISBN 0-89879-827-2
Modus Operandi, A Writer's Guide to How Criminals Work, by Mauro V. Corvasce, Joseph R. Paglino ISBN 0-89879-649-0
Howdunit, How Crimes Are Committed and Solved, Edited by John Boertlein
The Crime Writer's Reference Guide, 1001 Tips For Writing the Perfect Murder, by Martin Roth
The Anatomy of Motive, by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, ISBN 0-684-84598-9
Obsession The FBI's Legendary Profiler Probes the Psyches of Killers, Rapists, and Stalkers and Their Victims and Tells How to Fight Back. John Douglas and Mark Olshaker ISBN 0-684-84560-1
Mind Hunter, Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit, John Douglas and Mark Olshaker,
The Cases That Haunt Us, From Jack The Ripper to JonBenet Ramsey, The FBI's Legendary Mindhunter Sheds Light on the Mysteries that Won't Go Away. By John Douglas and Mark Olshaker ISBN 0-684-84600-4
Anyone You Want me to Be, A True Story of Sex and Death on the Internet, by John Douglas, and Stephen Singular ISBN 07432-2635-6
Crime Scene Investigation, Crack the case with real-life Experts, Reader's Digest,
Forensics for Dummies, by D.P. Lyle, MD ISBN 0-7645-5580-4
The Casebook of Forensic Detection, How Science Solved 100 of the World's Most BafflingCrimes, by Colin Evans ISBN 0-471-28369-X
The Criminal Mind, A Writer's Guide to Forensic Psychology, by Katherine Ramsland, Ph. D. ISBN 1-58297-079-3
A Murder, From the Calk Outline to the Execution Chamber, by Greg Fallis
Conspiracies and Secret Societies, The Complete Dossier, by Brad Steiger and Sherry Steiger,ISBN1-57859-174-0
Outrage, The five Reasons Why O.J. Simpson Got Away With Murder, by Vincent Bugliosi ISBN 0-393-04050-X
The Evil That Men Do, FBI profiler Roy Hazelwood's Journey into the Minds of Sexual Predators,by Stephen G. Michaud with Roy Hazelwood.
The FBI A Comprehensive Reference Guide, From J. Edgar Hoover to the X-Files, Edited by Athan G. Theoharis with Tony G. Poveda, Susan Rosenfeld and Richard Gia Powers
The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, A Study of the chilling Criminal Phenomenon, by Michael Newton, ISBN 0-8160-3979-8
Urge to Kill, How Police Take Homicide From Case to Court, by Martin Edwards,
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Private Investigating, Techniques the Pros Use to Crack The Case, by Steven Kerry Brown, ISBN 978-1-59257-652-4
The MAFIA Encyclopedia, From Accardo To Zqillman by Carl Sifakis ISBN 0-8160-1856-1
Corpse, Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death, by Jessica Snyder Sachs ISBN 0-7382-0336-X
The War Against The Mafia, The Inside Story of a Deadly Struggle Against The Mob, by Tim Shawcross, ISBN 0-06-100854-0
Whodunit? A Mystery Writers Primer
Building A Mystery, Choosing a Sleuth, and a Crime
"Think of first drafts as very young children. They need a certain amount of freedom to move outside the rules in order to find their own footing and anchor their unique spirit."
Writing the Mystery doesn’t really take any special skills over and above good, solid writing skills that you can learn in any number of ways from university courses, online courses or Home Study courses, workshops and books. However, unless you love to read mysteries (and you should love to read and read many of the type of books you want to write.) you do need to give the process more thought. You certainly should start reading mysteries, good, bad and classic. There is a wealth of new writers cropping up every year. I encourage you to seek out and read their work as well as the more famous authors, for the simple reason that you can learn a lot and you may find a new author that delights your sense of mystery. Also, read early works of the books written by current best sellers to see how their writing has grown.
Sage Cohen, author The Productive Writer
I hope you will enjoy this workshop and that it will help you make your sleuth amazingly incredible and believable as well as very human with flaws and all so that your reader will snatch up every novel you pen as soon as it hits the shelves of their favorite bookstore.
“Over the years, we see so many patients die that the scene loses its power to shock us.” That is the real life physician voice of Tess Gerritsen medical thriller author.
She began her writing career testing the waters of romantic suspense novels. Things that she thought were exciting, things that intrigued her like international espionage, things that involved women in jeopardy. “It didn’t occur to me that readers might hunger to know about the world of hospitals and doctors,--the very world I just happened to work in everyday.” She said in a segment of the book Writing Mysteries, edited by Sue Grafton with Jan Burke and Barry Zeman.
As writer’s we need to trust our everyday life and jobs to deliver out perfect novel. As readers we relate to things that are about us in a surrogate sort of way. We all go to doctors; we all know stories of misdiagnosis or mind boggling strains of diseases that somehow refuse to be treated by normal methods, or surgical—“Ooops we left a clamp in there,” kind of scenarios. We own the story when it’s familiar to us in some way.
As a writer of the mystery genre, we need to find our sleuth from our life as well as our antagonist. Believably, imperfect and complex people who…should be your motto. A flawed hero, or a villain with a part of him/her that creates a modicum of sympathy, at least, for him/her. Neither hero, nor villain should be perfectly perfect or totally evil.
That way whodunit, how and why they did it will always have a ring of truth to the reader. It could have happened to me, hooks your reader. Then, you reel them in one page at a time, net them and bring them ashore.
Our life can be what we know or what we have a passion to learn, so that we may render it authentically, with authority and expertise for our readers.
Ann Rule, herself an accidental sleuth, says in order to write true crime stories one must be a self-starter, and not only a writer but also a detective. Researching crimes, figuring out how to elicit information that seems impossible to get, asking people about pain and horror they would rather forget and asking detectives and prosecutors to share their investigations and feelings with you so that you may get a clearer picture of what it is you are writing about.
When asked how she could write about true crimes without feeling like she was profiting from another person’s misery to a psychiatrist, Ann Rule had this bit of advice. “Half the people in the work make a living from the other half’s problems: firefighters, police officers, doctors, morticians, insurance sales people…”
To write it without knowing, you must research and study to make the information truly your own. Then you can write that next bestseller as your reader falls under your spell when you show her whodunit and how.
So Let's begin and see if we can dig into and clarify "The Mystery of Writing A Mystery" shall we?
There is no mystery about writing a mystery –not really, but there are some things to observe if you want to write a compelling mystery. First, to qualify as a mystery your story must have certain ingredients: a crime, a secret, a detective, suspense, and an orderly resolution.
The Mystery of Writing A Mystery
Certain requirements are peculiar to the mystery genre such as; clues, red herring, tying up loose ends and a myriad of questions you must be ready to answer. Forensics, ballistics, police procedures in the area you are planning to set your story is important. Be aware that ever state is different in how they handle these aspects of solving a crime. Individual cities differ in how their police force works. Researching to authenticate your story place and/or time is paramount to writing a story worth reading. It’s all in the details. It isn’t necessary to write the tome that Michener would write or describe a scene like Jude Devereaux might, but you need details that make your setting come alive. Sometimes that is only one detail, like the skeleton of the warehouse after the fire stood like a barren cemetery spires of steel pointing skyward. You should also have an idea of how the judicial system works and knowledge of investigative procedure.
There are many, many books on all aspects of police procedure, laws, and even some on the way Mafia or syndicated crime operates. Yes, even they have their own rules that govern what can and cannot be done. For instance in Diamonds, Death and Deceit when the major villain asks his henchmen to snuff out the life of a newspaper reporter he is told that ‘The Family’ will not allow anyone to mess with newspapers. That is their policy. As angry as this makes the villain, he cannot go against ‘The Family’ in this case it is the Russian Mafia. This is something you need to know to write a believable story.
In Writing the Modern Mystery, Barbara Norville says “Mysteries follow strict guidelines. They introduce the action quickly.” If you begin with the murder, the body being discovered, your reader wants to know whodunit, whydunit, howdunit? Immediate dramatic conflict, which is an essential ingredient of any story is necessary to hold reader interest.
Ms Norville also says you need to play fair with your reader. This is akin to an orderly resolution. There should be no out of the blue coincidences or waking up from a dream. It must be a believable solution created by the cause and effect through lines of your story, unless of course you don’t care whether you lose a potential fan. Believe me in this economy, or any economic situation, with the number of books published every day, you do not want to alienate even one potential fan.
Think of a mystery as a way of examining the dark side of human nature, a means to explain he perplexing questions of crime, guilt and innocence, violence and justice. The oft repeated phrase, “By killing, the evil killer rips a jagged hole in the fabric of society.” And your tale begins as someone calls for help. Your protagonist/hero/sleuth answers that call.
Mysteries come in many genres or subgenres if you chose that term. The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, by Evan Marshall lists over twenty of them. Other books list fewer, but in short—you could say that ever genre could be turned into a mystery. The cozy whodunit mystery’s star has always been Agatha Christie or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle like in style. The hard-boiled private investigator and the classic puzzle are more of that ilk. There are also police procedurals, action/adventure/thriller, and espionage, the psychological and romantic suspense and more. As I said any genre is fodder to be turned into a mystery.
Suspense: What happened, who did it, why? Events that interrupt or block your sleuth/hero’s orderly solution, or resolution to the crime with all the twists and turns it takes to get there is the suspense that keeps your reader glued to the page.
A Crime: It must be a crime of some consequence. Usually it’s a murder in the modern mystery. It becomes a mystery when solving the crime is the central issue of your story rather than it being something rambling around on the edges as a secondary issue.
A Secret: Margaret Lucke in her book Writing Mysteries says, “…the heart of the mystery is the secret.” And the writer tries to keep the reader from discovering the secret before he allows the sleuth to reveal it. As I’ve illustrated in a chapter in Writing Wide, Exercises in Creative Writing, think of a mystery as blowing a bubble with bubble gum. Holding back while forcing the gum between your teeth, blowing ever so carefully so as not to let the bubble burst and reveal your secret before you are ready. Knowing the secret (the who, why, how) before you begin writing gives you control over your story. The killer leaves foot prints. IN another chapter in Writing Wide, I explore the various aspects of these footprints or clues and how to keep the killer’s separate from the other characters in the story. Tracking down these footprints/clues is your plot for your mystery story.
A Detective: When your sleuth takes on the challenge and the moral burden to root out evil, to assign guilt, and to impose good, your story begins. “The creation of complex and believable characters is essential to the writing of a successful mystery,” Sue Grafton says in her introduction to Writing Mysteries.
James N Frey, How to write a Damn Good Mystery, adds that “…three dimensional dynamic characters, who create a complex believable plot for you, if you let them, fuel the mystery with menace, suspense and dramatic conflict.” A big part of creating character is motivation. (For a more in depth look at building characters to populate your books check out my book Characters In Search of an Author available from Filbert Publishing or any good bookstore.)
Orderly resolution: Which we discussed above must be, believable and follow logically out of the clues and characters you’ve already set up in your story.
You will find a tip sheet for the mystery writer in the handouts for this lesson.
Try This Exercise:
Take the parts of a mystery as outlined above and see if you can add one thing – either a word, a couple words a sentence for each category a sort of very bare sketch of an outline for your mystery.
A) Suspense (the--what happened)
B) The Crime,
C) The Sleuth,
D) A Secret,
E) and finally an orderly resolution.
Select your crime, tell us what happened, who the sleuth is accidental or law enforcement, what would be the resolution – how, what, when, for instance. You can reorder these however they make sense to you. Have Fun. Next time we will talk about Modus Operandi.
If you want feedback put your assignment or questions in the Lesson One thread – and I'll respond them as quickly as I can. Enjoy yourself.