As may of you know, I decided to try my hand at writing a mystery novel for this year’s Camp NaNo. Because, why the hell not.
Here’s the thing about mystery novels. There are a few good ones, a few bad ones, and then about the middle 80% are just mediocre. Of course, I knew that going in. What I didn’t know, not exactly, was how to avoid that mediocrity deathtrap.
I won’t bore you with the entire process, but now that I’ve finished Paper Tiger - my fifth novel, first ever mystery – I think I’ve got a better idea how to make a crime novel work, and work well.
So here I am to share my wisdom, small though it may be.
What I’ve Learned About Mysteries by Writing One, and Reading Many
- You HAVE to outline, and do so thoroughly. You, as the writer, need to know every little detail of the story from the first word. Mysteries are too complex to pants. If you’re going to drop enough hints to keep the story believable, you need to know whodunit from the beginning. Feel free to dispute me on this, but I will never agree with you.
- You need something unique. Mystery novels are a dime a dozen. What makes yours any more interesting than the hundreds of others sitting on the shelves? Personally, I think specificity of setting goes a long way. I recently reviewed Adrian McKinty’s The Cold Cold Ground. What made it so interesting? It was set in Northern Ireland during the troubles. That layer of historical intrigue made the story twice as compelling as it otherwise would have been. All mysteries follow a similar formula. You need something unique to make yours stand out. Consider Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. A classic PI romp, but the detective has Tourette’s. Consider Paul Tremblay’s The Little Sleep. A classic PI romp, but the detective is narcoleptic. Consider Tim Cockey’s Hitchcock Sewell series. A classic PI romp, but the detective is actually a mortician. You get the idea.
- It’s all about character. In this genre especially it’s easy to write the same characters everyone else has already written. The hardboiled PI. The damsel in distress. The crooked cop. The femme fatale. Avoid this at all costs. Mystery may have all its own conventions, but there’s no reason the characters should be any less developed than they would be in literary fiction. Round them out and make them real. And don’t name them Jack and Kate or John and Sarah. Actually, don’t do that ever. [Sidenote: Also don't give your characters super absurd names like Derrick Storm and Nikki Heat. With respect to Richard Castle, it's just too campy.]
- Don’t give away too much. You have to know who the bad guy is from the beginning, but that doesn’t mean that the reader should. If it’s obvious who did it from the beginning, nobody’s going to keep reading to find out.
- But you do have to give up some things. If you don’t give the reader any hints as to who might be behind it at all, they’re going to get to the end, find out who the bad guy is and go, “Huh?” You have to tiptoe along that fine line between “Well, duh,” and “What the hell?” It might be hard to find, but it’s definitely there.
- Do your research. This matters so much, especially in this genre. There are so many TV shows and books and stuff out there built around the ‘crime scene’ setup that you can’t afford not to know what you’re talking about. This goes for everything, but mysteries especially.
- Don’t be afraid to have fun. Mysteries that are nothing but doom and gloom and darkness get really tiresome really fast. Spice it up with some humor. Your readers will thank you, and that’s what they’ll remember.
- Resist the urge to be gruesome for no reason. Sensationalism requires no real talent. If someone’s been murdered, okay. But you don’t need write a murder scene as graphic as American Psycho unless you’re writing American Psycho. Which, if you aren’t Bret Easton Ellis, you really shouldn’t be doing.
- We have to care about the victim. Yes, it’s your detective’s job to find out who killed him. But if he actually wants to find out on a personal level, it makes the story that much more interesting.
- No invincible heroes. Mystery is one of those genres where writers seem to think that the physical limits of the human body don’t apply, for some reason. Your hero can’t be Superman. There’s no sense of peril. And a sense of peril is what keeps the pages turning.
Having finished novel 5.0, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. This is by far the fastest I’ve ever written a novel, and some of the most fun I’ve had. It’s an argument for getting outside your usual genre. I did it, I loved it, and I’ll probably do it again.
Good luck. Look forward to another liveblog once I start editing. It’ll be a good one.