Saturday, August 1, 2020

Ingredients of a Mystery Novel


Kalo Mina.  That’s what Greeks say on the first day of a new month. Today, being such an August occasion (stop wincing Caro), I thought I’d take a shot at something utterly devoid of preaching, politics, and pandemic.  I want to talk about another P-word.  Publishing. Not the business side, mind you, but an elaboration of my take on the basic building blocks of mystery writing, with observations borrowed from true experts on the craft whose names I no longer remember. 


After all, what better time could there be to go out on a limb with such an inherently controversial subject than when our everyday lives make us immune to the strong opinions of others.


As you no doubt will recall, Snow White had seven dwarfs helping her create her story.  I’m no Snow White, and I’ve only got six to rely upon, but to me they’re just as dependable, even if not as cuddly. Permit me to introduce you to Characters, Dialog, POV, Plot, Setting, and Tension.


1.      Characters drive the engine of your story.  They convey what you want the world to know. They are the product of your innermost thoughts, your views of life, but to really get to know them you must spend a lot of time earning their trust. It’s an investment well worth it, for your characters are who will make you famous.  Readers remember characters far after the plot has faded, e.g., Dirty Harry, Harry Potter, Hamlet, Pudgy Wombat.


As for where to find those characters, I’d say look into the very core of your being for their essence. I know, that sounds all artsy-fartsy, but think of your heart as a storehouse of emotions and subliminal impressions collected over a lifetime of encounters.  As for character traits and appearances, I tend to pick those up through direct observation of passersby and jotting down notes. Accept that you’re a body snatcher, storing up parts and gestures to flesh out the souls of those characters you’ve found lurking about in shadowy places within yourself…and enjoy.


2.      As to how we bring our characters to life, my favorite building block on that score is dialog. Good dialog is like eavesdropping.  Read your dialog aloud. Does it sound natural, does it fit into the setting, and most importantly, does your dialog bring your character to life consistent with your vision of that character’s unique voice?  To grasp what I mean, I recommend reading poetry and great plays, as you’ll gain an appreciation of how cadences and rhythms bring dialog to life.  For those of you adventuresome enough to attempt the most difficult of all dialog—dialects—I recommend you read Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga.  Once you’ve made it through its first 50 pages you no longer need dialog tags, for he’s masterfully caught your ear with a unique dialect for each of his characters—including the narrator.


3.      With that mention of narrators, we arrive at POV, more formally known as Point of View. POV is what holds all the other building blocks together.  Indeed, how could any of us have made it through Moby-Dick without Ishmael telling us the story from his POV?  One should never underestimate the value of a likable narrator.


Most writers choose between first person and third person points of view.  First person is harder to pull off because the reader knows no more than does the protagonist, and that can lead to some awkward devices straining to get information before a reader that the protagonist could not otherwise be expected to possess. Third person POV allows for greater flexibility, but lacks the immediacy of first person telling. And of course, there are some notable POV shifting authors.  Ultimately, it’s your book, expressing your POV on POV. 


3.      Which brings us to Plot. Everyone struggles with plot.  Stephen King suggests tossing your characters into situational conflicts and letting them figure their own way out, advice consistent with the classic admonition that you should never try to fit your characters into your plot.  Once you have a basic story line in mind, let the plot evolve through your characters. 


Yes, I’ve drawn a difference between plot and story.


Story is a narrative based on time, a series of events flowing chronologically (The King died, and then the Queen died.).  Plot is a narrative based on what caused events to happen, a series of events deliberately arranged to create dramatic significance (The King died, and then the Queen died of grief.).


The same story can be told using different plots. Queen died because she too was murdered, or because she partied too hard celebrating the King’s death, or her horse threw her and kicked her to death on the way to the King’s funeral.


Plot is what makes your way of telling the story come to life, so make certain your plots are vivid and continuous, and don’t leave any loose ends hanging out there to frustrate the reader—unless you mean to.


5.      Setting is my personal favorite of the six elements, which makes sense since my books are named for places all across Greece.  Still, that’s not in any way inconsistent with my belief that characters are what drive a mystery.  I say that because, in my books, settings are characters.  For some, setting is of little concern beyond serving as a generic venue for telling the story, so a particular location doesn’t matter beyond being a city of a certain size, a farm, an ocean, a manor house, or a boxcar.


But no matter the level of importance you attach to the setting for your work, always bear in mind that nothing turns off a reader’s faith in an author more quickly than a story setting Chicago on the ocean—barring a tale set in post-apocalyptical climate change America.


6.      And now we’ve arrived at tension, the emotional roller coaster ride element so beloved by readers of our genre. Tension heightens interest by relying upon the same basic three-step process used by comedians in telling a joke: setup, buildup, payoff.   One simple way of achieving tension is to reverse the polarity of a scene.  If a scene starts out positive for the protagonist, have it end on a negative note. That keeps your reader turning the pages, which after all, is our goal.


Here’s an example.  At the beginning of the scene it’s dusk, and we find our hero racing his super-charged police cruiser across an empty, two-lane, West Texas badland blacktop highway headed for the kidnappers’ hideout; a place he’s discovered through two days of knuckle-busting, call-in-every-favor, no-time-for-sleep police work.  Our hero’s thoughts are focused on how he’s going to rescue poor Nell without any back-up, and we, his readership, have no doubt he’s going to do it.  At least not until three mule deer dart out of the brush directly in front of him doing nowhere near his cruiser’s 90 MPH.


Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to put on my mask and walk into a bank, unnoticed.




  1. Great advice, Jeff! We used the last suggestions in Deadly Harvest. Except it was a cow. Mule deer are scarce in Botswana.

    1. A cow would be a more likely terminal experience at 90 MPH. Not the cow, the car.

  2. Actually, Bro, at 90 MPH, I think it would be the the car AND the cow.

    1. I agree, you don't want to hit anything with that massive core body weight, unless you're in a 16-wheeler...or preparing a BBQ.

  3. My family was driving back from Durban to Johannesburg many years ago. Even though we were going quite slowly, we hit a cow that unexpectedly decided to see what was on the other side of the road. Result: cow 1, losing a few teeth; car 0, in need of extensive body work. Moral: don't hit animals while driving.

    1. AH,the inspiration for the cow in Deadly Harvest?

    2. Once I hit a white-tail deer while driving a Corvette convertible on a winding road in a state park by my farm. It was sunset, the top was down, and the retractable head lights were on and protruding solidly up from the hood when I hit the deer at 30MPH. luckily it got hung up on the headlights because had it not, it would have swept up the hood, over the windshield and into the car, kicking like crazy with razor-sharp hoofs.

      I still light a candle for that deer.

  4. Great information, given clearly and amusingly! THANK YOU for stressing the importance of getting it right.Nothing throws me off of a story faster than a writer playing fast and loose, faking details about real places or facts.

    1. Thank you Tonette! I agree. I once began reading a book where the author opened with the protagonist standing on the edge of the sea on Mykonos watching the tide roll in. Since Mykonos and the Aegean have no observable tides, I got no further into the book.