It’s All a Mystery

New visitors to my blog might be a bit confused. Is this a poetry site? A place for flash fiction? One in which I go off the deep end in a depressive heap?

You’re not alone; I am also confused.

There may not be a term for what I do here, specifically, besides ‘impulsive’ or ‘whimsical’ or maybe even ‘nonsensical.’ If pressed, I like to say that I write on “many topics and in many styles of expression.” (That’s from my résumé.)

Despite this, there are two genres that I avoid: romance and mystery.

We’ll go into the former later, Dr. Freud. I only want to talk about the latter today, because I …can’t. I can’t write a mystery. “It’s not that difficult,” you might say. Or, “But, but, but -many of the stories I’ve read of yours reveal something the audience didn’t know. That’s mystery, you know.”

They’re really not, because of my approach to writing new stories. That approach is, basically, having a general idea of a theme or direction and then writing. Little details, dialogue, descriptions, and humor crop up as appropriate while I write. In a sense, I am as much in the dark as the reader until a resolution presents itself somewhere as I go.

So, today’s question is: How does one write a mystery? Plotting? Red herringing? Do you know every twist and turn and intentionally-wrongly-accused character? Do you *gasp* know whodunit from the outset?

If so, how is it any fun to write?

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Looking to solve The Case of What I Did Last Week? Here are the spoilers:
Wednesday, January 16: “How to Win Friends and …Nevermind,” my admittance to social ineptitude.
Thursday, January 17: “The Cure for Depression,” the beginning of a series originally posted over at The Bipolar Writer Mental Health Blog.
Friday, January 18: Winner of the Weekly Terribly Poetry Contest. Congratulations to second-time winner, Molly Stevens.
Also, a re-post of Peregrine Arc’s writing prompt. VISIT; WRITE SOMETHING!
Saturday, January 19: Announced the tenth Weekly Terrible Poetry Contest. Enter, if you dare!
Sunday, January 20: “Home Life Poetry.” I may need to get out more on Sundays.
Monday, January 21: Some answers to Len‘s Sunshine Blogger Award Nomination.
Tuesday, January 22: “Wilhelmina Winters, Eighty.”
Also, “A Day in the Life” (a re-post of a poem I wrote on this site) at my mothering blog.
Wednesday, January 23: Today!

55 thoughts on “It’s All a Mystery

    • Welllll… my question has a lot to do with my attempts to sit down and literally write a mystery: something to solve, someone who committed a crime, clues to find, etc. I’m wondering if all that needs to be mapped out, maybe with yarn lines and newspaper clippings?

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    • Hmmm…. In light of that, you’ve reminded me that I don’t venture in too horrific of horror, either.

      If I can’t read it (e.g., can’t be alone in the bathroom at night because I’m too scared), I can’t write it. 😀

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  1. The two genres which you avoid are my two favorites to read and also to write. Therefore, I will give you a little insight on how I approach writing a mystery. First of all, it is essential for you to know I am a visual person. Pretty much everything I recall is remembered in colors, images, sights and sounds. Almost as if I am watching a movie. I write the same way. I SEE my story in front of my eyes. I SEE my characters. I know the color of their hair, how it glows when the light hits it, I know every inch of their body, how they move, (gracefully, lumbering, hand gestures etc.) I can even smell them. I am a sensory writer.
    So my characters all have appeared in my mind as three dimensional people with physical characteristics and with flaws before I have started writing them down. ( Don’t forget the flaws…All good characters have their tragic flaws don”t they?)
    But here’s the thing. When I write a mystery it isn’t just a mystery. I need it to be a period piece, a paranormal, or have something else going along with it to make it work for me in order to bring it to life. The scenery, time and place are as essential to a mystery as the mystery itself. It brings the reader in and can be used to mesmerize, fool, transcend the reader into being foolish enough to take that walk on a “dark and storm night”… So, before I even think about what the mystery is, I create the mysterious in my setting. I set the stage!!!!!!

    Perhaps this stems from my theatre background, but visual effects are important. They create a mood. Plus, the actress in me wants to envision the costumes too. I always have a specific wardrobe in mind…. which is why I love period pieces. It adds to the mystery. So I pretty much see my story evolve as it would as if I were watching it on stage or on film. I watch it unfold before me and then I write it.

    Of course there must be a few red herrings. Every good mystery has to have a few. And yes, I usually know “Who done it”. I have an idea of where and how I want everything to happen and then I start writing. But, I don’t write until I see and know my characters. VIVID people come to life on the page when they are three dimensional. Think about the best characters you loved in literature. They jumped off the page and were literally walking around right in front of you as you read about them. Know everything about your villain… even if the reader doesn’t know him, you do!!

    And, you need to give everyone a motive for committing a murder. That way the reader gets confused. You want to keep them confused and surprised. And while I may know who my villain is, I do sometimes go off in other directions. I don’t write out detailed outlines. I have most of it in my head. Sometimes I will write down a character study for my protagonists and villains to make sure Ive got them right…But once I have a basic idea I run rather wild with my ideas….

    I have solved almost every mystery Ive every read, so I try to veer away from the usual plot twists. That’s why I like to add a touch of paranormal to spice things up. Also, if you go back in time the reader gets caught up in the history and will be more surprised than if it something occurs in the present day. Lets face it, using a cell phone is not as suspenseful as not being able to contact someone if they are in trouble and there is a murderer on the lose…
    Once again I have gone into teacher mode… oops. Mysteries are quite fun to write. AND I always do my research. If I am in a different time I want my story twists and turns to be accurate. Oh, and romance??? I try to add a little romance into everything I write. It not only distracts the reader, but it offsets the harshness of a murder or disappearance…. So those are just some of the ways I write mysteries…. “The game is afoot”…

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  2. Chelsea You talk about the violence thing…. I stopped writing a novel because it got too heavy, too violent. Several years ago I was a member of Mystery Writers of America and went with a group of authors into a prison to interview a convicted killer. (Police were with us). This criminal was terrifying but gave me a real true to live image of a murderer for a novel I wanted to write. Several of the writers used him as their muse for the villain in their upcoming books. So I wrote quite a few chapters switching every other one starting with one chapter from the POV from the main female protagonist and then next chapter from the POV of the bad guy whose identity was kept a secret from the readers .they read his thoughts but he was a shadowy figure…. His character became more clear as the book went on. Meanwhile the main character had a love interest… does her thing and all the while is being stalked by this terrible mystery man. The book got scarier and scarier and then I finally had to stop writing it. In order to make the villain do what he needed to do I had to create a really evil human being. One horrible enough to kill and torture someone and I just couldnt do it. I would wake up at night crying, imagining him and so I stopped. It was an excellent story. I had a publishing company interested but at the time my youngest son was 4th grade, I was teaching… and so I would write when I got home after feeding my family and putting my son to bed. I couldn’t write about a monster like that. I’m not cut out to write about truly evil people. It is like my characters live while I am writing them. And I had to stop in order to kill this thing I created. He creeped me out. I don;t know how Steven King does it. I can create a bad guy…. but not a demon. Yuck.

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    • Wow.

      I am also having a side discussion with a friend about empathic personalities, and we both feel too much in social situations… what you’ve described goes along with that.

      I think a similar thing happened with Heath Ledger. Though I dislike disturbing violence so much, I went to the theatre to watch “Dark Knight” because I knew he had done such an excellent job acting The Joker. And, he had. It’s so tragic, but not surprising that he later overdosed after acting that character.

      You were smart to stop and I agree with you on all counts. I think Stephen King is just able to compartmentalize somehow.

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      • Yes, some people can compartmentalize. Theatre, acting is hard when you play evil characters. Ledger was a method actor. So was I. You literally become the character. And on stage you perform each night or rehearse and go home. But in film you do retakes over and over and over and have to stay in character. Even so, when I played Juliet and her Cousin Tybalt was killed I literally sobbed because I had created subtext of a detailed backstory of when Juliet and her cousin Tybalt would play in the garden etc. I created this bond so that when I as Juliet was told he was killed I immediately burst into tears. Because those false memories came flooding in. Actors do that. I had to play one of the witches in Macbeth and that was creepy. I always wanted to play Lady Macbeth but at the time was considered too young. Now I am glad. I think her character would have haunted me for eternity. “Out out damn spot!”

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        • Yes, completely. I haven’t been able to get into acting because I hold back on any character -but know I would have to be a method actor as well.

          Yeah…. makes for amazing acting, but the characters can stay with you for life.

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          • Very true. I was watching Amy Adams and another actor talk about some movies they had done and each one said they put those characters aside, yet in an instant could bring them back. That is so true. Out of nowhere I would be teaching and I’d read a line from a novel or play I had performed and instantly I would remember lines and have to hold back tears. Lines from decades ago would come crawling up and I would feel anxious as if I were that character again. That is why actors and writers are sensitive souls…

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  3. Actually he is. I saw him on the PBS show “Finding Your Roots”. And he is a sensitive guy. He just has a wild imagination. I had to stop reading his book years ago because they were too freaky for me. Except for his recent book about JFK. That was brilliant. A masterpiece.

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  4. This is very thought-producing, Chelsea. Basically, I think writers think too much, write too much, read too much, and put-themselves-into-little-convenient-genre-cubicles too much. Your previous commentator was proof of what I’m trying to say… far far too many words when it could have been said perhaps in a sentence, and in the end I didn’t have a clue what she was trying to say. It reminded me of J.K. Rowling who didn’t know how to shut up. If you want to write mystery (or romance) stop cogitating on it and do it. (That’s what I reckon).

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  5. I think Lesley covered most everything useful – but, as a primarily pantser-type writer, I thought I’d toss in a little something.

    I haven’t written murder mysteries, but I have written a lot of suspense/intrigue that relies on discovering plots and conspiracies. What I do is have a bad guy, an idea of what said bad guy did in the past, and then force them into a situation where they must confront someone with a need to figure out that past activity. Somehow, I’m able to wring a story out of that character dynamic. I’m not published, though, so maybe my advice should be eschewed!

    Thanks for the question! Comments have been informative.

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  6. Mystery. I just began a story with that element. Maybe I’m oversimplifying, but I just know something and hold it back from my reader. I give hints. SK is my fave. Since I was 18 I wanted to be him. That was forever ago!

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  7. I have mystery elements in my horror novel. My characters surprised me at times but like another author said, I, too, see my writing like a movie going on in my head. Writing to me is not a all about outlines and strict type A, by the book. Structure helps, yes and is needed and a good thing, but you can’t force or try to control the imagination… At least I don’t think you should. The human brain collects all sorts of ideas and memories. Let it come out into the narrative. 😊

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