Mystery Writing: How to Plant Clues

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Yesterday I was watching a Brandon Sanderson lecture while I was on the treadmill. The discussion was on point-of-view and the benefits and limitations of both first person and third person. Love Sanderson’s in-depth lectures, but he clearly is not a mystery fan.

One of his students asked how to plant clues and reveal information. Obviously, your point-of-view character is going to have to miss at least some of the clues when you first reveal them. But the information needs to be there.

Sanderson recommended giving your character a blind spot. That’s not bad advice but let’s go into it a little deeper. Here are three ways to keep your character from looking clueless.

Your Character’s Beliefs

One of the best ways to do this is the have your character’s beliefs get in the way. Perhaps the POV character is investigating the death of a friend who is said to have committed suicide but the POV character knows that can’t be true. Or the POV character can’t believe that a friend is the killer because this person is a pacifist. Or the character doesn’t want to believe that an entire class of characters is capable of X, Y, or Z.

Whatever the crime/mystery is, you can set up your character so that they simply cannot believe that someone is guilty of this event. If they believe this firmly enough, they will misinterpret events and clues that would otherwise help them solve the mystery.

Then, when the reader gets the big reveal, the reader will look back and think, “Oh, I see how that worked.”

Something Is Beyond Your Character’s Experience

If you write for young readers, you can simply make something beyond your character’s experience. They are working out the rules to how things work in school or in the larger rules. They believe that everyone works under the same rules that they were taught at home.

Because of this, they don’t question information. Or perhaps they simply do not see things that might otherwise be obvious.

Your Character Doesn’t Get Why X Is Important

Last but not least, you can set up a situation in which your character simply misses something. There could be a lot going on. Or they could notice X but then an alarm goes off, people are rushed out of the room, and by the time things calm down . . . what was that your character saw? No one is thinking about it any more.

Each and every one of us passes by dozens, even hundreds, of pieces of information every day without either taking it in or correctly interpretting it. There is just too much! Your character doesn’t have to seem clueless if you give this person a good reason to miss specific clues.

–SueBE

Deductive vs Inductive: Know the Difference Before You Write a Mystery

Who took the missing cupcake?
Your character can use inductive, deductive or abductive reasoning to find out.
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Recently I saw a blog post on West 44 Books on the importance of inductive reasoning in books for tweens. As they explained, a story that uses inductive reasoning allows young readers to reach their own conclusions as they read the story. I wanted a more complete explanation as well as some information on deductive reasoning so I went to Live Science and found a post that explained both and a bit more.

In deductive reasoning, you start with a general statement or theory. You then make observations and reach a conclusion. That doesn’t tell you much, does it? Here is an example.

Major Premise: Reptiles have scales.
Minor Premise: Turtles are reptiles.
Conclusion: Turtles have scales.

Inductive reasoning starts with specific observations and moves toward the general. Here is an example.

Data: Every time I fly in an airplane, I get a sinus infection.
Hypothesis: The next time I fly, I will get a sinus infection.

There is another form of reasoning that Live Science discussed and that is abductive reasoning. You start with an incomplete set of data and form a conclusion.

Data: When I went into the kitchen, the cupcake I left in the cabinet is missing. I saw my brother leave the kitchen.
Conclusion: My brother ate the cupcake.

As pointed out by West 44 Books, Sherlock Holmes uses inductive reasoning. He observes, collects a lot of information, and then comes to a conclusion. Scotland Yard, uses deductive reasoning. They start the investigation with a theory in place and look for information that supports it.

So how does this work in your story? Perhaps you have a character who comes upon a crime, the missing cupcake, and then makes an accusation (abductive reasoning). They are challenged to prove what they’ve stated. It they only look for information that supports their statement, they are using deductive reasoning. When your theory is weak or false, you will eventually find information that contradicts it. But maybe this is how your character works early in attempting to solve the case. It is only when the find something that they can’t ignore that they move on to inductive reasoning and start making more comprehensive observations.

Hmm. That looks like an outline for mystery #1 in a series!

–SueBE

3 Skills to Master to Write a Mystery

The book club that I belong to met earlier this week. Our book? The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman. This book clearly demonstrated 3 things that you have to conquer if you are going to write mysteries.

A Cast of Characters

First things first, you are going to have to master a vast cast of characters. Osman had quite a task with the murder club (four characters), children of club members (2 characters), friends, spouses and love interests (5+ characters), victims and suspects (overlapping list that I keep losing count of), and coppers (2 main). Each character needs a name, a personality and a relationship with most of the other characters. And many of them are a bit over-the-top in some way. It is what makes mysteries so fun.

But there’s another tricky bit for the author. You have to introduce this ridiculous number of characters to your readers. And you have to do it at a rate and in a way where they won’t be completely lost. It is no small task.

A “Realistic” Setting

I say “realistic” because it doesn’t have to be real in the sense that it is a real place that is on the map and you can drive to. But it has to feel real. It has to be fairly complex with numerous places to look for clues, safe places, dangerous places, and home for all of those characters.

This book starts out in a retirement community. We get to see several character’s apartments, the activity or jigsaw room, the chapel, and more. There’s also the nearby town. Osman didn’t stop there. He took readers out into the countryside to several more English towns and even on an international jaunt.

And all of the settings felt real. We got the sights and smells and sounds. That’s a lot of sensory in put to keep straight.

Plot Threads

Last but not least are the plot threads. I can’t figure out how to discuss this without some spoilers. So, be warned. From here on out there be spoilers! Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

There is the murder that starts it all – a former colleague of the developer. Then the developer is killed. Then an extra skeleton is found in the graveyard. Each of these deaths involves a list of suspects and motives.

In addition to keeping all of those straight, you also have to know who was where when. You have to make sure that what you say happened could happen. You can’t have one character in two places at once or zipping from one location to another in the blink of an eye.

And as so often happens in a mystery, there are parts of it that happened years ago. People from way back when need to be tracked down and some of them have gone missing. Or have they? That’s something else to keep track of.

Mysteries are a lot of fun to read and also fun to write. But you have to be detail oriented and you have to keep track as you weave the many threads together to create a compelling story.

–SueBE

Rewriting, Revising, and Polishing

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The first draft of my cozy has been waiting and waiting and . . . yawn . . . waiting for me to get back to it. But I haven’t felt compelled. Fortunately, I’m in a mystery writer’s group with several other accomplished writers. Or perhaps I should said several other writers who are all accomplished. They have completed and published mysteries.

Today I talked with one of them about my manuscript. It finally hit me. I’m not looking at a revision. I’m facing a rewrite. What’s the difference?

Rewrite

When you rewrite a manuscript, you make substantial changes to the story. In my case, two secondary character’s are changing professions. One of my subplots is being completely discarded. This is going to impact my entire story.

But that’s okay.

I didn’t like my character. She seemed weak and whiney. And there wasn’t any way to fix this as the story stood. I’m not saying that every character needs to be an MMA fighter but I had to question whether or not my character would even have the get-up-and-go to solve they mystery.

How to solve this? By changing her backstory, what brought her to town, and the circumstances of her arrival. From start to finish, I’ll be reworking characters, how they relate to each other, and the plot. This is definitely a rewrite.

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Revision

In a revision, the story works. Your characters are three dimensional. The plot works. You’ve got a good setting. Your working on how you tell the story but that is not going to change in a substantial way.

Sure, you might be adding some transitions. And there could be clues to lay out in earlier chapters. You might even be taking out some things that aren’t necessary. There are sentences that repeat information relayed earlier. There could be a chapter that just doesn’t move the story forward. And you might be able to combine two characters into one. But the story? That doesn’t change.

Me? My story is changing.

Polishing

Last but not least, you polish your story. This is when you review individual work choice. You might go for a more imaginative verb or a more specific noun, but nothing massive is changing.

This is also when I read the story aloud. I want to hear the sounds of the words. I want to get a feel for how they interact.

Admittedly, I’m more comfortable revising than I am rewriting, but that’s okay. Fiction is still fairly new to me and I’m enjoying the learning process. Like I said, thank goodness I have a group of talented writers to help me along my way.

–SueBE

3 Cozy Mystery Quirks

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I had to laugh at this meme when I saw it. Cozy mysteries are quirky in a lot of ways and that’s something to keep in mind if you are going to write one.

Quirky Characters

If the main characters in a cozy isn’t quirky, one of the secondary characters is. I’ve read books where a character casts spells, at first accidentally, by cooking for people, sees ghosts, or can read characters emotions through touch. There are twins that complete each others sentences, early-modern characters who specialize in poison, and those with unusual professions like book binders, spinners, and more.

Quirky Settings

Cozy mysteries can also have quirky settings. They range from decaying manor houses to towns where every business is pet friendly. One is set in a mall with Asian American themed businesses.

Part of the setting can be an event such as a history themed festival where everyone, and everything, is just a bit too much.

The Crime

A cozy doesn’t have to involve a murder although many of them do. When I saw that meme I started thinking about contemporary ways for a character to die. Someone could sip a craft beer laced with cyanide craft beer. Or they could use tainted CBD oil. What about essential oils? Or someone with an all natural proclivity who misidentifies a vital plant? There’s virtual gaming and the various ways something could go wrong while a character is wearing a VR (virtual reality) helmet. Or a murder that actually takes place on Zoom!

Obviously, I’m having more than a little fun with this. But it also has me thinking. In my story, the victim gets shot. I could try to make it more . . . interesting. The killer could do something that implicated a specific character. A poison muffin would frame the local baker. A tainted taco the local food truck.

Think, think, think…

–SueBE

8 Musts for a Cozy Manuscript

Paperback Hallowe'en Party : A Hercule Poirot Mystery Book
Agatha Christie is considered by many to be the first cozy author.

Yesterday I spotted an article on cozy characteristics in Novel Suspects. I was eager to see how my own manuscript scored.

Amateur Detective

In a cozy, the detective is an amateur with no formal training in detection, police work, or forensics. I scored 100% on this category. My detective was a teacher but has not been in the classroom for some time.

Female

Although the article didn’t say that your amateur detective must be female, it did point out that this is the norm. The only cozy I’ve read with male detective was Christie’s Hercule Poirot. My detective? Female and a mom.

Career Steeped in Information/Gossip

Because the character is an amateur she needs a way to find things out. Often her job supplies her with a steady flow of information. This one is a problem. Not only is my protagonist without a career, she has just moved back to town. Although she grew up there, she isn’t “in the loop” when the story begins. This was a real challenge so her sidekicks supply much of the information. They are a pastor and a waitress.

Strong Community Feel

As the article explained, cozy mysteries are often series titles. The community is a rich part of these books and have to be someplace that readers want to visit again and again. I have a strong beginning here which I considered good enough for a passing score since this was only draft #1. (Ugh.)

Protag Active in Community

That strong community? The detective is an active part of it which brings her into contact with suspects and helps her find clues. Because my character has recently relocated, I need to do a better job of getting her where she needs to be.

Violence Off-Camera No Matter the Crime

Not all cozy mysteries deal with a murder. The crime can also be theft, blackmail or even arson. But the violence has to occur off screne because the emphasis is on the mystery and not the violence. I got this down on the first try.

Sex Off-Camera

Like violence, sex in a cozy only occurs off camera. And, yes, I failed at this but realized it was a failure before I had completed a full draft. I had to find another way for my character to find out that her husband was a busy boy. No walking in on the “crime.” That sound? That’s me breathing a sigh of relief.

No Swearing

This is another no no and while the swears are all pretty ho hum by today’s standards, I have to get rid of them. No worries there it will just take a little work on my dialogue.

So how did I score? 4/8 or 50%. Not great but they beauty of a first draft is that it is only a first draft. Most of this will be fairly easy to fix.

–SueBE

5 Things To Remember When Writing a Mystery

Amazon.com: The Likeness (9780143115625): French, Tana: Books

I just finished reading the transcript of an NPR interview with authors Tana French and Louis Bayard. I have to admit, I latched onto it because I love reading books by French. So it was interesting to hear how these two authors work. I came away with 5 key points to writing a mystery.

Write It Bit by Bit

French didn’t worry whether or not she could write a full mytery novel. She wrote the opening with the kids playing in the woods. Then she wrote the next bit. And then the next. Soon she had a whole chapter. She wrote the novel section by section without obsessing with the idea of a Whole Novel.

Know the Character

As an actor, French starts with character. In the Woods and The Likeness feature a deeply flawed main character. He may be intelligent and sensitive but he’s also a hot mess. In fact, he’s such a mess that he can’t help but lie both to himself and the reader. Any mystery is going to be a lot more intriguing if your main character is part of the problem.

Create a Mystery that Fits the Time

French also reminded writers that they need to create a mystery that suits the time period in which their story was set. A noble would have much less sway over a “common person” today than they would have had 100 years ago. Serial killers were a huge concern in the 1990s but are less so today. Choose carefully.

The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard

Know How Detection Worked at that Time

Bayard reminded listeners that a 18th century detective wouldn’t be a detective in the modern sense. Detecting wasn’t even a thing. Reasoning through a crime was a new idea.

Reading a Mystery Is Different from Writing a Mystery

Bayand loves to read series mysteries, specifically Alexander McCall Smith. But writing a mystery? No. He admits that he would quickly become bored if he had to work with the same characters book after book.

Mysteries are complex but these two authors are noteworthy for their abilities to pull readers. Check out the entire interview here and pick up more information on how to craft your own mysteries.

–SueBE

Tropes: Using them to their best advantage

During a recent snowday, my family took our positions in the family room and watched Anna.  For those of you who don’t know the movie, she is a beautiful girl who is also a brilliant Russian assassin.  “How many times are they going to make the same movie?” asked my son. “We saw the same thing with Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow.”

The next day, I read Margo Dill’s blog post on tropes.  For those of you who may not know the term, a trope is a common story line or story element in a particular genre.  Spy/assassin movies?  Someone is going to be a double or triple agent.  Romance?  The couple end up together?

The problem is that when you don’t know the tropes, you don’t know what readers or viewers expect.  Romance?  They are going to end up together.  Adventure?  They are going to find the treasure or make the escape depending on the adventure.

I could only think of one cozy trope – the amateur detective will solve the mystery.  So I wondered what other mystery tropes I might need to know about.  Poking around I found several lists.  They included:

  • The butler did it.
  • The murder victim is a jerk so there is no shortage of suspects.
  • There are no clues.
  • The closed circle where everyone is stuck in a limited area.  Maybe they are snowed in, on a train or traveling through space.
  • The victim is found in a locked room.
  • The detective chats up the murderer who gives himself away by revealing a clue that has not been made public.
  • Red herrings.
  • The old dark house as a location.
  • The suicide that is murder.
  • The fake weapon that wasn’t fake.
  • Dying onstage.

At this point, I’m only making use of the amateur detective and the jerky victim.  Oh, and red herrings.  I’m seriously not sure how you would do a mystery without red herrings.  But this list has definitely given me something to think about as I continue to write.

–SueBE

How to Create Suspense in Your Story

As I work on my mystery during NaNoWriMo, I’m keeping my eyes open for any tips on how to lay in clues and create suspense.  I’m already fairly good at using cliff hangers to create suspense.  If you aren’t familiar with this term, a cliff hanger occurs when the author breaks a scene mid-action.  The heroine is dangling over the cliff.  Will she make it to the top?  You have to go to the next chapter (or whatever) to find out.

I’m less confident in my ability to use foreshadowing which is when you hint at something to come.  It may be as simple as mirroring something in a subplot that will later take place in the plot.  This could be an important item being lost or a missed opportunity.

But in one a diyMFA pre-Halloween posts, Savannah Cordova added three more ways to build suspense to my list.  The first of these was using flashbacks.  Often we think of flashbacks as a way to reveal what happened before the story takes place.  But a flashback can also, much like foreshadowing, hint at coming action.

Cordova also discusses creating what she calls ambiguous characters.  Thsi character can be an unreliable narrator, either someone who is intentionally lying or who has misinterpretted a critical event.  In my mystery, I have a character who while very sure of himself passes on a lot of incorrect information.  This may also be a character who lies about their identity.

The Writer’s Journey also discusses characters who while initially allies later betray the main character.  This could be because she has done something that goes against this person’s beliefs or simply because the person was too afraid to take a certain course of action.

I’m not sure how many of these techniques will eventually make their way into my mystery.  But I’m fairly certain that it won’t happen until the rewrite.

–SueBE

An Arguement for Plotting

make things happen

The last couple of weeks, I’ve been getting ready to start writing an adult mystery, a cozy.  When I tried to develop my premise, I discovered that I just didn’t know enough. I needed to do more work with my characters.

I’ve also been a little iffy on whether or not I wanted to plot out a novel vs just pantsing it.  But this time around and really seeing the benefit of plotting.  My character works at a museum.  Initially, I thought she was the archivist of the museums book collection and documents because the “person of note” was a children’s author.  But that still felt generic especially when I started really getting into the character.  She seemed real but her occupation felt thin.

So I started thinking about my character and what kind of children’s author she would be passionate about.  Over the course of Wednesday afternoon, I came up with the name for and premise of the fictitious series written by the “person of note.”  I knew when the books were written as well as the moral code they represented.

It seems like a bit much, doesn’t it?  But the important thing is that it is going to play into the background of the town.  This will come into play perhaps not in book 1 but in later mysteries.  See – I’m thinking series.

But I wouldn’t have come up with all of this if I was just winging it – aka pantsing.  I needed the space and the time to develop her occupation.  And I can see now how this will complicate all kinds of things through the various books.

On one hand, I’m hoping that I don’t have to go this deep for every character but I have my suspicions that it would be worthwhile, helping to create a setting and a world that is only loosely based on anywhere in particular but feels concrete and real.  Plotting is definitely worth the effort.

–SueBE