I recently spent time browsing through my rather dusty bookshelves, taking stock of the great reads I’ve collected over the years. Many are intricate, classic mysteries written by some of the most successful and admired authors of that genre and era. Why were they so popular? What made them such a success?
Writing a classic mystery novel is a complex process that requires careful thought and planning. Here are three of the most important considerations for authors in this genre:
Plot Structure and Clue Placement:
The classic mystery is intricately designed with a sequence of events occurring within a believable timeline. Clues—neither too obvious nor too obscure—and red herrings are essential plot elements planted at key points of the story to build tension and suspense. That structure allows a gradual revelation of details to guide the discerning reader through the story toward an eventual resolution that ties up all loose ends and leads to a logical and satisfying conclusion.
Character Development and Motivation:
Characters, especially the detective and the perpetrator, must be well-rounded and have clear motivations that drive their actions. This can add depth and make the story more engaging. Secondary characters also play a critical role, as they often contribute to the plot through their relationships with the main characters, their secrets, and their alibis.
Setting and Atmosphere:
The setting of a classic mystery often plays a critical role in the mood and the unfolding of the plot. It must be described in a way that adds to the tension and supports the story. Whether it’s a gloomy mansion, a small village, or a bustling city, the setting must be depicted in a way that complements the tone of the mystery and aids in the unfolding of clues.
Writing a mystery requires a delicate balance between these elements, and a failure in any of these areas can lead to a less-than-satisfying reading experience. Many successful mystery writers spend significant time planning and outlining their novels to ensure that these aspects are all carefully considered and integrated into the story.
Here are examples of classic mystery novels that particularly exemplify each of the three considerations I’ve listed. First up is Plot Structure and Clue Placement and I’ve listed a work by Agatha Christie.
“The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” by Christie (published in 1926) is, I believe, an excellent example of a meticulously crafted plot structure and clue placement in a classic work. Christie employs a series of twists and turns, carefully planting clues that lead to a shocking and unexpected conclusion. The use of an unreliable narrator and the placement of red herrings are particularly masterful.
As an excellent example of Character Development and Motivation in a classic mystery, I think “The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett (published in 1930) fits the bill as it showcases character development and motivation as key elements. Sam Spade, the protagonist, is a fully realized character with complex motives, and the villains have clear motivations that drive the plot forward. Relationships between characters are intricate, and the interactions are essential in unraveling the mystery.
As for Setting and Atmosphere, I will recommend “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier (published in 1938). The classic setting of the Manderley estate as a critical component of the story is very effective. The eerie and atmospheric mansion almost becomes its own character, and the descriptive language paints a vivid picture that adds to the mystery and suspense. The setting creates a gothic tone that deeply impacts the unfolding of the plot. The opening line of the story is unforgettable: “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.” Classic.
I held these three rules close and emulated them when writing my own work, “Mystery Of The Death Hearth”. For anyone wishing to write an effective, compelling, and engaging mystery in the classic style, I suggest dusting off a copy of each of those works to read again. Their influence can still be seen in contemporary mystery writing.
Surviving The Writing Experience
I have encountered many aspiring writers who face challenges while working on their manuscripts and I am one of them. Writing a book is a significant undertaking that requires discipline, patience, and perseverance. However, many writers struggle with various pitfalls that hinder their progress.
One of the most common challenges writers face is writer’s block. This occurs when the writer cannot think of new ideas or struggles to put their thoughts into words. Writer’s block can be frustrating and demotivating, leading to procrastination and loss of momentum.
I’m looking in the mirror here, so to speak, but some writers are their own worst enemy. I’m talking about that annoying condition called self-doubt. Doubting yourself and your writing abilities is, unfortunately, a hurdle writers face. It can lead to anxiety, a lack of confidence, and even writer’s block. As writers, we can struggle to believe in ourselves and our work. This can cause us to second-guess our ideas or even abandon of our projects altogether.
Making time to write can be a perpetual problem. Let’s face it, balancing writing with other responsibilities such as work, family, and social life can also be a challenge. It can be hard to find time to write consistently, and the pressure to manage multiple responsibilities can affect the quality of writing.
Looking for a solution? Fortunately, there are a few solutions to these writer’s struggles. One of the most effective ways to combat writer’s block is to take a break from writing and engage in other creative activities. This can stimulate new ideas and provide fresh perspectives. Time management is helpful–in fact, crucial. Set realistic deadlines, prioritize writing time, learn to say no to distractions. Make writing a priority. Setting a routine and writing every day can help build discipline and improve your writing skills.
Overcoming self-doubt can be tricky but victory can be achieved by focusing on your writing strengths. Don’t be so hard on yourself, we all go through it; give yourself the right to stray from the writer’s path so practice self-compassion. Try setting achievable goals and allow yourself to celebrate small victories along the way. Joining a writing group or seeking feedback from other writers can help boost confidence and provide constructive criticism.
I think with these solutions in mind, we writers and aspiring writers can overcome these hurdles and complete our manuscripts and other writing projects with confidence.
Slogging along on a manuscript or other piece of writing? Taking longer to finish than you expected? Exhausted trying to complete that description, paragraph, sentence, scene, dialogue, or other story element? Mr. Leonard just might have been on to something when it comes to writing.
Elmore Leonard (October 11th, 1925 – August 20th, 2013) was a novelist, short-story writer, and screenwriter. His earliest novels were westerns but he didn’t limit his work to that genre. Among his best-known works are “Get Shorty,” “Out of Sight,” “Hombre,” “Mr. Majestyk,” “Rum Punch” (adapted as the film “Jackie Brown”), and short stories that became the films “3:10 to Yuma” and “The Tall T,” as well as the FX television series, “Justified.”
For authors seeking publishers and marketing help you should know it’s a dangerous world out there full of pitfalls, and offers of help aren’t all they are cracked up to be. In fact, those offers may be scams.
I’ve been expending a lot of words and time lately warning about the latest scam phenomenon to hit the writing world: fake publishing and marketing companies that, through outrageous prices and worthless services, extract enormous amounts of money from unwary writers.
Based in the Philippines (despite their apparent US addresses, phone numbers, and telemarketer names) and focusing primarily on small press and self-published authors (particularly authors who’ve published with one of the Author Solutions imprints), these companies recruit writers with relentless–and highly deceptive–phone and email solicitations. Some do provide the services authors pay for, albeit at seriously inflated prices and often of poor quality. Others just take the money and run. I’m hearing from a growing number of writers who’ve paid five figures in fees to one–or, in some cases, more than one–of these scams, with next to nothing to show for it.
Given how fast the scams are proliferating (I learn about a new one every few weeks), I thought it would be helpful to gather all the information I’ve put together about them in one place.
To read Victoria’s entire list and the rest of her informative post at Writer Beware click https://accrispin.blogspot.com/2019/08/from-philippines-not-with-love-plague.htm
If you haven’t visited the Writer Beware blog, I would encourage you to take a look.
To avoid misunderstandings, make sure your writing accurately reflects your thought.
What’s the matter, writer? That blank page in front of you got you down?
You say your bucket of creative motivation is empty? You fear the procrastination monster has come to stay? And the writer’s block is too big to overcome so you’re waiting for the magic writing fairy to land on your shoulder and deliver perfect pages of prose, sublime sonnets, or perhaps inspirational ideas?
Well, get over it. It isn’t going to happen.
Here’s a newsflash: Your dreamy muse is busy elsewhere with a happy rainbow unicorn in a field of delicious, colorful jelly beans under a marshmallow sky and not likely to return anytime soon.
In the meantime, here’s a word of advice, a solution to your problem: write.
“Bad writing precedes good writing. This is an infallible rule, so don’t waste time trying to avoid bad writing. (That just slows down the process.) Anything committed to paper can be changed. The idea is to start and go from there.” –Janet Hulstrand
“Self-doubt, exhaustion, and confusion are part of the process. Embrace them and don’t stop writing to examine what you have. The world is full of people trying to perfect chapter one.” –Kerry Greenwood
“If you are struggling with writing a character, write 20 things a reader will never know about your character. These will naturally bleed into your writing and provide a richness even though you don’t share the detail.” –Barbara Poelle