I have written a manuscript for a mystery, a legal thriller of sorts, and am in the process of re-writing it. It is my first. During this process I have discovered several things about writing mysteries but even more about myself.
I am lucky to be in a writing group with two men who are excellent craftsmen of the same genre. We critique each other’s work, and have become intensely familiar with each other’s stories. They have helped me tremendously. One is a retired attorney, like me, and the other is a reporter for CNN and former editor for the AJC. They can be merciless, but since I know they have made their criticisms thoughtfully, I regard their comments with respect and appreciation. They write differently than I do, however. Their books seem to jump miraculously from their brains to the page, chapter by chapter. I, on the other hand, am a plodder. I toiled through my first draft outlining several chapters at a time, concentrating on nothing but plot. I focused on the finer details of language and voice in the second edit. But this method seems to work for me.
Point No. 1: Mysteries are all about plot.
Hope Clark, a highly acclaimed mystery writer, critiqued the first twenty pages of my manuscript this summer during the Southeastern Writer’s Workshop. She kindly gave me a book edited by Sue Grafton entitled, Writing Mysteries, published in 1992 by Writer’s Digest Books. It is a compilation of several well-known mystery writers’ suggestions. First among the ten commandments of writing a good mystery is plot. Jermiah Healy, the writer of this particular section of the book, suggested that all other aspects of the mystery must adhere to the story line or plot, and that the “wrongdoer” must be punished in some way as well. It took me an embarrassingly long time to write my first draft, but I wanted to keep readers guessing about who was the actual murderer and also keep some sympathy for the accused. Primarily, I wanted to avoid the reader guessing who the actual murderer was until the very end to increase a sense of suspense.
Point No. 2: Character(s)
The development of characterization in a mystery is second only to plot. Most mysteries are written with an eye toward a series as well. It is difficult to write convincing characters who are capable of unlocking challenging legal or criminal puzzles time and time again. I have the beginnings of a second novel for one of the protagonists in my first book, and plans for a third. My main character is an attorney and although she is a civil litigator, she will find herself in situations where she will need to defend those accused of crimes. She is also a single mother of twin boys.
Rex Burns wrote the chapter on Chacterization in Writing Mysteries. He suggests developing character around one intense personal trait, such as pride, or a leathery toughness, and using that trait to describe even the physical details of the character. He also suggests using props to make the character more interesting, such as an orchid growing detective or a police chief who is a gourmet chef. He notes that Ian Fleming eventually gave more interesting facets to the severely one dimensional James Bond.
One problem we all face when writing a mystery novel is how to avoid the cliché in our characterizations. I found this to be a problem with some of my secondary characters in particular. This can be avoided by presenting fully developed characters, but there is not enough room in a book to fully develop all characters. Burns suggests using narrative voice and dialog to round out the character. In one scene of my book, a deputy sheriff was approaching the scene of a murder and is about to step into the house of a man whose daughter had just been shot. The reader knew nothing about the father at this point, but the deputy did, and let the reader in on what he knew. This helped to round out the father’s character.
Generally, character consistency is preferred throughout a novel. But a major character in my novel goes through a significant change toward the end of the book. This character also has a substantial communication problem. Showing character change is a challenge, but it was a natural process for this character and one that should demonstrate his humanity and strength. Such a change should move the book toward its logical and positive conclusion.
Point No. 3: Know Your Setting
I have always heard that one should “write what you know”. My story takes place in a southern college town in Georgia. It could be any one of several universities, and will seem familiar to those of us who have attended one of those institutions. The fact that I was familiar with the setting of the story gave me confidence as I was writing the plot. I knew the turns and twists of the road when the main character was kidnapped, and I knew what sort of issues would arise when she finally escaped. Setting sets the mood and tone for the story as well. It will give the story its ambiance and is essentially another character. Of course, if you don’t know your setting intimately, and are writing a story set in an exotic location for instance, the setting would be fun to explore or research in person and a good excuse to get away.
Point No. 4: Theme
Mysteries should involve at least one death by criminal act. (See Writing Mysteries.) I did not outline my entire book before I started writing, but instead had a general theme. I knew there would be a murder, and why. Not all homicides are motivated by emotion, but there must be a motivation for a murder in a mystery novel, whether it is passion, revenge, money or all three. The theme must exist before you begin writing the outline or the any of the chapters. I kept the antagonist’s incentive for the crime dangling in front of me as I wrote, like a carrot. My constant inspiration for the plot was my antagonist’s greed and the motivation for her acts. It helped me contemplate how others would react to her as well.
Point No. 5: Emotional Connections are Essential to a Mystery
Writing the twists and turns of the plot were so all-consuming for me during the preparation of my first draft, I didn’t make several emotional connections. I knew these were necessary to the story since a death, particularly a murder, is a highly charged emotional event. I thought they could be easily inserted at a later date. What I didn’t count on was how difficult it would be for me to demonstrate certain feelings and circumstances.
One of my characters is handicapped. I had a difficult time getting in his head and comprehending how difficult it was for him to communicate with others. I had an easier time understanding his emotive reactions than his communicative issues. I also discovered I was often stiff or non-emotive in situations which required a more tender approach. My legal background seemed to have desensitized certain responses. My manuscript seemed strangely flat where there should have been touching passages or excited exchanges. It was clear that I needed to get back in touch with the part of myself that existed before law school…before I took two thousand depositions and was exposed to too many harsh realities and tragedies. My sense of humanity wasn’t lost, but it needed cultivating. I needed to be reminded of the preciousness of life and that everyone was innocent once. What was it that made the antagonist become such a monster? What was the turning point in her life?
There is good and bad in all people if the truth is exposed in its entirety. But mysteries do not seem to allow for that sort of story-telling. They are simpler in construct. In a classic mystery, the bad guy does the crime and must pay. Nonetheless, it doesn’t hurt to understand the motivation behind the murder emotionally, and its ramifications. I am working on my best way of telling that.
Winning the Georgia Bar Journal 19th Annual Fiction Writing Competition for the short story entitled OUT FROM SILENCE, Cynthia Tolbert began working on a novel based on those same characters the following year. Cynthia practiced law for 28 years and is a free-lance writer for legal publications. She writes legal thrillers set in the south.