Transferring Mystery Writing Skills

By Kris Neri

Although I now write in multiple genres, including fantasy and general fiction, I’m glad I started my career writing mysteries. The principles involved in moving a mystery forward and unraveling a crime are adaptable to any form of fiction. If adaptation is even necessary — a crime or the element of danger or some puzzle is often involved in many novels today, including cross-category novels, such as urban fantasies and paranormal romances.

Basically, the principles are the same whether a story involves a body found before the fireplace in an Agatha Christie-type vicarage or if a time-traveling pharaoh is secretly creating unrest in Egypt to reclaim his throne. (Hey, that’s not a bad idea.).

I’d like to share with you a couple of the more manuscript-killing mistakes I’ve seen in my students’ and writing clients’ works, in the hopes that, if you’re making these particular errors or an equivalent in your WIP, this will help you to sidestep them.

One of the biggest mistakes I see in student WIPs is that there are no false trails. In mysteries those are called red herrings, but false trails are a necessary part of most novels. If your protagonist knows precisely how to meet her goal easily and instantly, the journey is unlikely to engage too many readers or to fill an entire novel. Strangely, though, I’ve had more students fight me on this point, insisting that false trails aren’t realistic.

Actually, that’s precisely the way real life works. With any problem, we pursue the most obvious solution first, and only try less obvious solutions when that fails — usually because, at the start, we can’t see the full extent of the problem. To use a real life example I dealt with recently…imagine you’re ready to leave your house, but you can’t find your keys. You look where you usually put them, then you check your purse (Assuming you carry one — adapt the example if you don’t.), eventually removing everything in the purse in search of them. Then you look in rooms that you might have carried your key ring into…. Finally, it occurs to you that you changed to another purse briefly yesterday. (Why did you do that? Got me. I know why I did, but not why you might. Work with me here.) When you look into that alternate purse, you find the keys slipped into a pocket. You see, you didn’t remember changing purses, and until you factor that into the equation, you didn’t see the full picture.

That’s the way it works in a novel, too, only on a more complex scale. Our characters don’t always appreciate the full extent of the problem their goal represents, and they grasp at what seems to be the most obvious solution at that time. As long as the false trails are organic to your storyline, and not some device you’ve created simply to slow your protagonist’s success, they will engage your reader.

Another common problem I see is that newish writers sometimes share too much and the wrong kind of relationship backstory. In the crime genre, that usually means the history shared between the victim and villain, or the heroine in danger and the bad guy pursuing her in a woman in jeopardy suspense novel. New writers often justify their backstory faux pas in terms of fairness to the reader, but full disclosure at the start doesn’t actually benefit readers. Readers want their vicarious adventures to involve both struggles and surprises. If you lay out precisely what’s coming, with a detailed explanation of why, you can kiss surprise goodbye.

And this principle has broad implications for every kind of novel. If you want any element to play out with a strong, surprising impact in the climax, you can’t push that element into the reader’s face prior to that high point. That element has to be there, mind you, sown in subtly, but you don’t want to draw attention to it. Not too early anyway. We novelists are like magicians, engaging in slight-of-hand, luring attention away from true nature of the trick, so the surprising outcome will have greater impact. We’re always saying, “Look here, don’t look there.” Until, that is, we’re ready for “there” to take center stage.

I love that genre-bending has become so popular today. Not only does it let us reach into other areas for new readers, it also lets us stretch our imaginations beyond previous limits. Mostly, though, by looking at writing tools at their most fundamental level, we see how to adapt them to new arenas. That means we fill our toolboxes with great new writing tools.

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Kris NeriKris Neri writes the humorous Tracy Eaton mystery series, featuring the daughter of eccentric Hollywood stars, the latest of which is Revenge on Route 66, a madcap romp along the Southwestern Mother Road. She also writes a humorous paranormal series, featuring a questionable psychic who teams up with a modern goddess/FBI agent. Her latest magical novel, Magical Alienation, was a 2012 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award winner for fantasy. Kris teaches writing online for the prestigious Writers’ Program of the UCLA Extension School and other organizations, including the Sisters in Crime Guppies. And with her husband, owns The Well Red Coyote bookstore in Sedona, AZ. She welcomes friends to her website, her Facebook page, and her blog. Follow her on Twitter.

Special Giveaway: Kris is giving away one copy of her book, Dem Bones’ Revenge: A Tracy Eaton Mystery, to one U.S or Canada resident who leaves a comment on today’s post before midnight Mountain Time Friday, August 23rd. The winner will be announced here on Saturday.

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About Patricia Stoltey

Patricia grew up on a farm in central Illinois so naturally had to use the old farm in her first mystery. The second Sylvia and Willie tale takes place near and in the little touristy gold mining town of Oatman, Arizona. Patricia's third novel, a standalone suspense called Dead Wrong, is scheduled for release November 2014. Visit her blog at http://patriciastoltey.blogspot.com.

10 thoughts on “Transferring Mystery Writing Skills

  1. Julie Luek

    Oh such fantastic tips. I’ve never tried my hand at writing mysteries, but it’s a genre I very much enjoy reading. Thanks for the post!

    Reply
  2. Patricia Stoltey

    Learning to write mysteries appears to be great training for writing in any genre. Thanks for a helpful post, Kris, and thanks a bunch for agreeing to be a guest from time to time on the blog.

    Reply
  3. Lisa Brown Roberts

    How did you know I switched purses yesterday?! :) Seriously, great advice. Mystery writers are amazing magicians, and I think writers in all genres can learn from their deftness in redirection, hidden clues in plain sight, and intricate plots.

    Reply
    1. Kris Neri

      It’s all smoke and mirrors, and it’s great fun to play with them. The principles really do apply to all fiction. Thanks, Lisa.

      Reply
  4. Sharla Rae

    Kris, great advice. I don’t write mysteries but it’s easy to see from your explanation how these rules apply to all genres. It’s not easy knowing how much info is too much and too soon in any book. I think what makes it difficult is that we need to show character motivation and the “how much is too much” gets tangled up in that. Thank you fo the timely reminders. :)

    Reply
    1. Kris Neri

      Thanks, Sharla. It’s always a judgement call of how much to give. We never want to confuse the reader, but we do want her intrigued.

      Reply

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