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.
Victoria Strauss over at the Writer Beware site has some important information if you use works of art or images not of your own making on your blog or other online presence. From her post:
“Here’s how Wikipedia defines a copyright troll: a copyright troll is a party (person or company) that enforces copyrights it owns for purposes of making money through strategic litigation, in a manner considered unduly aggressive or opportunistic[.]
This kind of copyright troll creates and registers copyright to content that they then make widely available online, to increase the possibility that people will re-post it without permission. Using search technology, they find infringers and use threats of litigation to shake them down for cash settlements.”
Here’s a link to her original article. Good read! When the Copyright Trolls Came for Me – Writer Beware
No doubt we are living through despairing times. Many writers, myself included, find it difficult to concentrate on writing with our minds focused sharply on current events.
One of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury, used writing as an escape. This quote by him is inspirational, even motivational.
I don’t live in California but I do write and this post from Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware Blog with reference to an article from Authors Guild makes for interesting reading especially if you are an independent, free-lance writer.
This state law now requires companies to provide both protections and benefits for free-lance workers, including writers. As a result, many free-lance writers’ contracts have been terminated.
If you live in New York or New Jersey, be aware these two states are considering similar laws.
In some cases, this law also applies to book writers.
Take a moment and visit Victoria’s post to learn more.
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.
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
I discovered this list of top ten tips on how to survive a relationship with a writer over at www.writerswrite.co.za
Numbers 4, 5, and 10 are definitely sage advice.
Top Ten Tips
1. Never ever ask when the book will be published.
2. Do not ask a writer if they wished they’d written the latest best seller.
3. Never say you’re writing a book. Never ever say you’d also write a book if you only had the time.
4. Don’t call the police if you happen to see a writer’s browsing history. The average writer is not planning to poison you, hire a hit man, or move to Afghanistan. It’s simply research.
5. Leave the writer alone when the writer is actually writing. You have no idea how difficult it is to enter the zone.
6. Don’t pick unfair fights with a writer. Writers do get their revenge in print.
7. If you do want to fight, make it memorable. The writer is always looking for material.
8. If your writer wanders off to a party, don’t panic. Writers love to inspect the host’s bookshelves and medicine cabinets.
9. Buy your writer notebooks and cute pens as gifts. Do not buy flowers. Chocolate is also acceptable.
10. Leave your writer alone when a rejection letter arrives. After the deadly silence, screaming, crying, moaning have subsided, offer your writer a cup of coffee or tea. And a cupcake. Add a huge hug.
Anyone care to add to the list?
Here’s my addition:
11. When your writer is sobbing at the keyboard and staring at a blank screen, bring one bottle of wine (glass optional) and quietly leave without comment.