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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Writing Mysteries...

My friend Kay and I once thought we'd like to dip our pens into mystery writing. We both love to read the genre, why not try to write one? Did I say we were brand new to the writing game and had no clue? (pun intended) I've taken a workshop or two since that thought crossed my mind, and I see how hard it is to write a mystery, especially for someone who struggles to come up with plots that don't leave threads hanging and guns on mantlepieces.

So this recent bit from the
ICL newsletter written by Jan Fields, made me sit up and take notice. With permission, I'm sharing what I consider a concise, readable, easy-to-follow take on writing mysteries.

Not that I'm planning to write one any time soon, but if I were, this would help. And, hey, maybe it will even help me figure out an easy way to plot any old story.

Feeling Mysterious?

Mysteries have been one of the most popular genre in literature since Poe created the first detective novel. In books, there are even thriving sub-genre, like cozies, hard-boiled detectives, and police procedurals, that have countless fans. Magazines like Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine have been feeding the adult reader's need for short mystery fiction for generations. But what about kids? Do children's magazines still want mysteries or is this the land of books only?

Many children's magazines do want mysteries. Boys' Life, Cricket, Highlights, Hopscotch, and more list mysteries among their acceptable story types. Many editors say they would love to get more good mysteries. So what makes a story good?
* A fresh idea with a clever puzzle.
* Strong characters.
* Lively, real dialogue.

In other words, the same stuff editors want in any story. So why aren't they getting these things in mysteries? Well, mysteries can be kind of tricky. First, you really need to plan a mystery before you start writing it. This flies in the face of the writing style of many (especially many newer writers). Thus, they come up with a possible problem - who took the teacher's special fountain pen? - and they know who the main character will be so they jump in and start writing. But, when the writer doesn't know who took the pen, often the result is (1) a solution that doesn't flow logically from the clues, (2) a solution that flows too logically - making it not a puzzle at all since everyone knew who the villain was well before your 'detective,' or (3) a solution that falls back on old clich├ęs (more on these in a minute.)

How do you plan your mystery? Begin by choosing the age group for the mystery. A mystery for Boys' Life will be very different than a young mystery for Highlights. Boy's Life will be more comfortable with putting the main character in danger and more comfortable with real "crimes." Mysteries for younger children are usually more focused on the puzzle aspect - a child sees or hears something unexpected and investigates to find out what caused it. Mysteries for the youngest reader are often these kind of cause-and-effect puzzles. They challenge the reader's thinking skills but virtually never involve moral questions or danger. So a mystery for a young reader might involve the family acting strangely and the child hearing odd noises - the solution might be that the family was hiding a new puppy to be given to the child for a special event.

Mysteries for older reader are usually more what we think of as "traditional" mysteries. To read a great example of this kind of mystery, check out Joan Lowery Nixon's "A Purr-fect Mystery," originally published in a Scholastic magazine. Notice that this mystery has something you often find in mysteries for young people - a double story problem. The mystery part of the story problem is finding a string of pearls but the personal side of the story problem is the main character's friendless state at the beginning of the story and how working out the mystery also changed the personal side of the plot problem.

The pacing for a magazine mystery is fast - you need to catch reader interest early and keep it throughout the telling. The solution to the mystery should be unexpected and unusual. Some "too common" plots include (1) the haunted house that turns out to be the wind, or a mouse, or some easily explained natural phenomenon mixed with a vivid imagination - if you're going to have a haunted house, make the solution unexpected; (2) the "stolen" item where the thief is either an animal or the owner's own forgetfulness - make your villain unexpected and unusual. If you have to have the thief be a raccoon or a magpie, make the puzzle leading up to the resolution so tricky that we're actually surprised to find a common solution and impressed by the clever path we walked to reach it.

Also, do take care when titling your mystery. I've seen writers who give the ending away (or strongly hint at it) in the title. Make your title interesting and lively but not revealing. The solution to the mystery must be (1) logical from the clues given, (2) elusive so that it requires some work on the part of the reader to figure it out ahead of the main character, and (3) surprising. If we see the end coming from the beginning, you need to dig a little deeper for more twists.

One thing you must keep in mind for magazines is that they are virtually all more conservative than book publishers. Although book mysteries (even for middle readers) sometimes involve deaths or violence - magazine stories almost universally never do. Book mysteries can have the main character doing fairly dangerous stuff, but magazine stories rarely let main character indulge in anything dangerous (at least not mysteries for readers younger than teens.) Book mysteries can also have the main character lying to parents and magazine mysteries rarely do this also (again, sometimes for older kids - but it's still fairly rare and never without consequences.)

So if I haven't scared you off yet -- give a mystery a try. Readers will be glad you did.
Jan Fields

1 comment:

Lee Stokes Hilton said...

You know, as much as I like reading mysteries, I just can't see wanting to write one. But then, fiction has never been my bag. My book group, though, is reading Girl with the Dragon Tattoo next month. Supposed to be fabulous.