How I Write Mysteries21:50
A while back, I wrote a post about the elements that go into making a great mystery. And afterwards, I kind of wanted to share my own process for writing in this genre. As a self-confessed chronic pantser who has a major aversion to anything that could possibly be classed as an outline, mystery writing really hasn’t come naturally to me. It’s taken me a while to find a process that works for me, and I’m certainly not claiming that this is the best process ever. But a process it is, and it is mine, and it works. And today I want to share it with you.
What’s The Big Idea?
Every mystery starts with a big idea. A murder. A theft. A kidnapping. Whatever it is, this is the first thing I know for sure about my book. Usually, when I’m coming up with my big idea, I also find out its unique or special factor. If it’s a murder, it’s committed in a waxwork museum. If it’s a theft, the thief is stealing a jewelled mask at a masquerade party. I try and nail down this idea as solidly as possible right off the bat.
This is the most enjoyable part of the whole planning process. In this step, I get to make a list of everything I’d like to include in the book. I might want twins to be part of the solution, or have parallel mysteries, that tie together at the end or maybe I’d rather like to shoehorn a cupcake shop in there somewhere. It doesn’t matter how random or out of place the idea is, it all goes on the list. The more ideas I get down now, the more I have to work with later.
Hero VS Villain
One of the other really important pieces I like to get straight before I start plotting the book is the identity of the hero and villain. It is especially important to know who the villain is as the whole solution to the mystery is based around that fact. But knowing who the hero is also gives me the chance to make the mystery more personal to them. Maybe it involves war crimes and they were a solider, or they know the villain, or the case is super personal to them because of a past experience. If I know who the hero is, I can work this sort of thing in right from the start.
Putting the Puzzle Together
This is painstakingly slow bit, and is probably the hardest step for me as a pantser. For a mystery to work, you have to do at least a little plotting, even if you’re a pantser (unless you’re super smart, in which case I salute you). Taking the pieces I’ve already brainstormed, I start fitting them together. Usually they go together in disconnected segments. I might have some ideas about the end, a section around the first murder, and a nice little sequence involving cupcakes. From here I build up around them as much as possible.
Activate the Timeline
This is as organised and as close to an outline as I ever get, but it does make the plotting and writing of mysteries much easier for me. Once I have enough plot to be going on with, I slot all the events in a timeline. This way I can see how everything pans out, whether there are any parts with too much or too little happening, whether the timeframe is realistic and, most importantly, where I have gaps in the plot.
At this point, it’s usually pretty easy to see where I need to do research, and this is when I start looking into that to help me make sense of the plot and fill the gaps in my story. I don’t really do a lot of in depth research at this point. Just enough to let me know whether what I’m planning sounds plausible or not. And usually this research sparks a few other ideas that are mighty helpful as well.
For me, this timeline is very basic. As a pantser, I don’t like working with lots of details, so usually I have a day, and a few bullet points for the important events. This gives me enough knowledge of the plot so that everything should make sense, I don’t get lost, and everything should tie together nicely at the end, but leaves all the fun bits to be worked out during the writing stage, which appeases my pantser personality.
Fill in the Holes
Timelining points out all the holes. And there are a lot of them. This is the point where I usually need a brainstorming buddy to help me work out how to bridge my solid sections and tie the threads together. This is the most time consuming, frustrating stage for me, and it’s only with the great help of my brainstorming partner and sister that I ever get through it.
The final step, after I’ve completed my timeline and brainstormed to fill all the holes, is to do one final check to make sure that everything happens logically. I also like to check to make sure things aren’t happening by coincidence, the hero has to work for the ending, and that things don’t run too smoothly.
Let’s Write This Thing!
After all the planning, checking and (shudder) outlining, it’s time to write the book. At this point I set out in my epic adventure, armed with my basic outline, and (hopefully) still full of enthusiasm for the original idea. Anchors away, and this mystery is ready to set sail!
So that’s how I write mysteries and thrillers. Have you seen my other post, Elements of A GoodMystery yet? Do you write mysteries or thrillers? Are you a plotter or a pantser? How much do you like to have planned before you start writing your book?