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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Putting together a mystery

   
Author Topic: Putting together a mystery
enigmaticuser
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Tip gathering session. I'm puttering around with a mystery series (projects are starting to pile up), it's still a ways out, I can't even figure out the time period yet. But I've never written a mystery before (on purpose anyway).

It's a given that I should read some more mysteries, I've ready a couple like the "Cat who . . . " series which I liked, and Mary Higgins Clark "Zapped" which did not interest me. Suggestions?

Most of my experience comes from Monk. I like Monk because looking back (and sometimes looking forward, especially if you watch them in marathon) you can figure the mystery out. They aren't leaving out clues so that its impossible (ahem, Sherlock Holmes, I guess I have read a volume of those). So by way of distilling what I like:

1. The reader should be able to solve the mystery. What stands in the way is the perspective on the clues.

2. The marketed perspective should be a plausible, probable, alternative view of the same facts inconsistant with only a few seemingly irrelevent clues.

3. And of course, that perspective should be eclipsed a couple of times as new clues make the previous perspective implausible until the true account is revealed.

4. The protagonist should be involved in a couple near death incidents.

So that's what I've formed as my own opinion, but how do you form those perspectives? What are your tips for supplying those "seemingly irrelevent clues" without letting them appear relevent? I suppose someone is going to stumble upon the real account and your strategy for them is to muddy the water with doubt . . . and no doubt making some characters likeable and other unlikable will help them for an emotional attachment to one of the perspectives.

As near as I can formulate, my plan is to figure out the crime, then kind of develope the victim and work it back to motive. Then work it forward trying to figure out what the perp would do to cover their tracks, then as the detective protag walks through figure out which clues to obfuscate and which would be underniably noticable?

I suppose, reall the is noticable and what is obscure is kind of an emotional response, like the Magician entertaining you with his comic manner and his beautiful assistant, he doesn't tell you where not to look, he tells you where to look. "This is important," and thereby not noticing what is important.

Thoughts? Tips?

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LDWriter2
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Not much I can say on the how-to-except I have thought about doing one or three-but here is a link that might come in handy. It will cost something but I'm not sure if it's a lot.


Mystery

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MattLeo
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There are a number of books on how to write mystery novels. I've read several (off the top of my head I can't remember which) and they were all quite good.

There are a number of really important points that you've missed. For example, it's valuable to sketch out the story from the perspective of the perpetrator first. Then you do the detective, who must uncover that story and get past the red herrings the perp has dragged across his path. That's far more important than putting the detective in peril, which is just melodrama.

Here's another point to consider. In classic murder mysteries, the victim deserves to die; he's a blackmailer, or a manipulative bastard. The murderer is doing the world a service by ridding it of him. That means everybody has a motive to do the victim in, but the perp has an extra, more powerful *secret* motive (e.g., everyone hates rich Uncle Basil but Lady Florence blames him for the death of her baby). Because society can't tolerate such private justice, the detective rids it of the perpetrator, making everything right again.

The victim who deserves death and the sympathetic perp are less common in police procedurals. You see a lot of innocent people done in by psychpaths in those.

A skillful mystery has to have a limited number of suspects. Consider a serial murderer after his first kill. He's impossible to catch, because there are thousands of potential suspects. Any hack can make it hard for the reader to solve that way. You need a device to winnow down the field of candidates. That's why so many classic murder mysteries take place at country houses, or aboard ships. Again police procedurals can take a diffent approach; in fact we often know the identity of the perpetrator from the start.

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babooher
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Do con games fall into mysteries? I am thinking specifically about stories like Oceans 11. I have always thought those were a kind of mystery. Or the TV series Leverage.
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MattLeo
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Well, I think the caper story has some things in common with a mystery (protagonist and antagonist matching wits in a crime), but I think the caper story trades more in suspense, and a mystery depends more on supplying a final result which is satisfying to the reader.

In a caper story, the hero initiates action in the pursuit of personal gain. Usually there's an element of justice involved, but it has the flavor of a vendetta (he was cheated and betrayed). Time and time again he is put in danger as a result of his action, but uses his wits to evade it.

In a mystery, the hero reacts to the perpetrator's initiating the action. His motives transcend the personal; he's out to uncover the truth and set things to right. For that reason the obstacles he faces don't necessarily involve personal safety; they're usually philosophical in nature. How does he arrive at true and justified knowledge (epistemology)? Questions of ethics often come up. Should I pursue my best lead or obey my superior's orders? When the detective creates suspense by putting himself in harms way, it is likely to be to protect others.

In a nutshell, a caper story is a wish-fulfillment fantasy of the id; a mystery is a wish-fulfllment fantasy of the super-ego.

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enigmaticuser
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Good tips Matt. What would you make as the deliniating line from Mystery to Police Proceedural. My detective is a PI (in the vain of Sam Spade), so she'll clearly brake the law (I'm faily sure) or perhaps unclearly.

That sounds like a good way to look at it (writing the perp's story first), I guess I'll have to figure out who done it so I can then clutter the field =).

And I realize, near death is not necessary, but for myself that's part of it. That was my big problem in "Zapped" I think was that there didn't seem to be anyone in real danger, or I guess really it just seemed rather than personal protag danger, nothing seemed to be really at stake. Where as in the "Cat Who . . . " series there is a sense that the same person who killed before might be getting riled, while at the same time being distant enough to put the book down between chapters and laugh at the humor. But it always did end up turning into a physical brief, and comedic resolution.

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