Writing a Mystery Doesn’t Have to Be a Mystery

Today I am migraine free though sore, and I shall attempt productive procrastination instead of hiding in video games, tempting as it might be.

My love of mysteries goes way back to some of the first stories I remember reading, like Boxcar children mysteries, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys as well as all the mystery shows and movies I used to watch, including Perry Mason and Diagnosis Murder and many, many others. By middle school, I’d read every Mary Higgins Clark book I could get my hands on and eagerly looked for others like them. I shifted later to a focus on historical mysteries, though I still enjoy mysteries of all sorts.

So I am speaking from a reader’s perspective but also as a writer (and I reread my own books, so there’s that, too) but probably not an expert to anyone’s mind.

That said…

I think the best thing to remember regardless of genre is to start with interesting characters.

I’m not saying they all have to be likeable or that they should be perfect, but I have a pretty good memory and if you asked me about some of those books I read even as a kid, I could tell you now what happens. Yet I reread my books several times (never creasing the spine, I might add) and would enjoy them. However, that is only possible when I as a reader am invested in seeing the characters reach the end of their journey. If I like them or their story is compelling, I can read it again and again.

If not, forget it, I’m not even sure I’d bother taking that book to a used bookstore.

Secondly, if you’re going to write a mystery, don’t get caught up in solving it all before you start.

You don’t have to know who did it. Part of the fun of reading is figuring it out, though I am usually good at predicting it, so if all the story has got going for it is that (again, I stress having good characterization,) it’s a miss. I generally start with a general sense of what happened and why.

As long as I have a motive, I can usually figure out the rest along the way. I’ve even changed suspects in the middle of the story as long as it felt genuine to the way things and characters were developing.

A mystery doesn’t have to be complicated.

Police shows have spoiled us by convincing us that crimes get solved in an hour or less (forty minutes these days.) And they add drama by adding more deaths. That isn’t necessary at all. I’m not saying avoid tension or suspense or not to have any cliffhangers or twists. That’s not it. There’s plenty people can do over the course of a plot that leads them to their ending that doesn’t need all the fancy stuff or a lot of drama. I love amnesia plots for being able to reveal things a bit at a time, but there’s life besides investigation. Let it happen to the characters and suddenly your ten chapter story is thirty-five and twenty thousand words becomes almost two hundred thousand and you wonder where the last two months of your life went.

(I am not kidding. I have lost track of how many times this has happened.)

The world of your mystery is just as important as your characters.

Are you writing in the present? The future? The past? Those things affect how your case develops and how your characters react to things. Nothing drives me crazier than a modern attitude slapped willy-nilly on a character from the past. I’m sorry, but no. They were most likely not progressive, they’d have strong opinions based on their time period, and it would not agree with your world view. It’s a thin line to walk with female characters, in particular, because you may want a strong one, but that goes against Victorian convention. Acknowledge that as she solves the mysteries, and it’s okay. Ignore it, and people like me who have a bit of a history interest are going to be frustrated. Also, remember technological limits. Or defy them by writing in the future. Or on another planet. I’ve got some of those.

Is the setting local or far away? Is the planet itself a big part of things? I have a story where the planet itself stores the memories of everyone that has ever lived on it and special people can access them. This changed their whole system of government and world, creating a lasting but fragile peace. That’s the thing, though, where people are effects how their story plays out, so don’t forget that when you’re making a case, it can change just by adding a “road” after “street.”

(Yes, Greeley, it is still ridiculous that there are street roads and street courts and street lanes. You are a strange city.)

Mysteries do not have to be horror shows.

You can tell a mystery story without a lot of gore or violence. This is my preference, and I believe they’re called “cozy mysteries.” If you want to tell the story with gore and violence, you can, too. That’s a valid choice. Still, the shock factor and a lot of violence aren’t necessary. Implication can do a lot. Fadeouts can be used to great effect.

Also… not every mystery is a murder mystery. Plenty of things are mysteries without being about murder.

Mysteries may require research. Strange research.

I admit I enjoy watching shows like Forensic Files and learning about how they solved crimes. That fascinates me, too. And I sometimes wonder when my browsing history will get me in trouble because I’m looking up odd things that would raise eyebrows at best. I also find inspiration in tragic stories I’ve read about and other true crime stuff.

Be prepared to look into random things you never thought you’d want to know and wish you’d never seen a photograph of, ever.

Mysteries do not have be solved by law enforcement professionals, though this is common and usually amateur detectives have someone on the legal end that helps them.

If you can find a realistic way of making an amateur sleuth work, roll with it. Or maybe the mystery is one ordinary people get caught up in, and that’s interesting, too, as much as I like detective shows. I’ve got a mix of both kinds of stories, and I like them all. It can be a bit of a risk to go with the amateur even if the regular cops seem a bit overdone or cliche. An amateur who makes all the police look like fools walks a thin line. One who has unrealistic abilities and insights is not enjoyable to read about. Fandom would call them a Mary Sue/Gary Stu, and that’s become a real insult over the years.

And now I’m drawing a blank on other things I’ve learned as a reader/writer, but there are more things I could discuss if my brain hadn’t stopped working. These are also general pointers, so if someone had something more specific to ask about, they could.

Why Two Stories Can Be Better than One

It has been a while since I did a bit like this, but I’ve had some random thoughts these days about various things related to writing. I’ve been thinking about writing a lot lately, largely because I’m not doing as much as I’d like and because I’m in yet another one of those phases where I can’t see my writing clearly and it’s just awful.

So there are a few things I do when this happens, and I don’t know if they would work for anyone else, but I’ll talk about one of them now anyway.

This is something basic, at least to me, and something I do anyway, most of the time, at least. It’s partially because I’m a multitasker. I window flip like crazy when I’m writing or I play on my phone. I can’t do just one thing at once. It’s kind of annoying, to be honest. Still, this long ago led me to work on at least two stories at once.

Crazy, some say. Most people I mention this to tell me they can barely work on one, and I understand because I have those times myself. However, for the most part, I don’t do well unless I can flip between at least two stories. I can run three. I’ve also run four, but I don’t recommend it. That was hard for me, and I’m a fast, compulsive writer.

I like having at least two stories to switch between as it can help when I get stuck on one story to change to another. Another reason I do it is because I need what I call a “palate cleanse.” What I mean by that is that sometimes stories can take emotional tolls on me as a writer or at least on the characters, and I need a break to clear my head, maybe chase away some negativity, and come back to it later. So it’s easier to have something to work on in the meantime. It shifts the tone, keeps things from getting too dark, and it can help unravel the knots in another story.

That’s part of why I like prompts so much. They can jumpstart those bits that need to be unraveled. It can help the shift between stories or just find a way back into older ones. I haven’t had much success with that of late, but I am back where I have more than one story going, and it is somewhat of a relief.

(It’s also very much not because now I have two stories to angst about and wonder if they’re any good and worth continuing.)

I won’t tell anyone that they have to start a second story when they’re stuck or that they should write two at once unless they’re comfortable with it. Still, I find it can be helpful, so I’m putting it out there as a possibility.

One thing I will also say is that mixing genres is a gray area here. I write sci fi, mysteries, and historical fiction, sometimes in combination, and one thing I have noticed is that some don’t mix well. For instance, historical and non-historical are particularly difficult to pair up because you’ll forget that the technology didn’t exist or you’ll change speech patterns and even topics of conversation that weren’t popular at the time. Or there’s advanced technology or abilties in sci fi that aren’t there in a different story. On the other hand, it can also be a great palate cleanse to jump from a historical to a modern or vice versa. It can be quite liberating one way or another.

Oh… I may also need to add this disclaimer, and for the most part my fic readers aren’t available to ask, but I would caution against expecting someone to read both stories at the same time, if you are fortunate enough to have someone who reads your stuff in progress. (And if you do have such a person, thank them and value them.) Still, some will, and that’s also very nice (and rare) and quite possibly more valuable than any suggestion of two stories could ever be.

It occurs to me that if you wanted to see an example of me doing two stories at once, I already have one in place on the site. I wrote A Perfect Sunset and The Stolen Name at the same time. I had two ideas, couldn’t pick, didn’t feel like I could disappoint the few people who voted in my poll, so I wrote them both.

I guess it worked out, right?

Things in the Works

I suppose it’s too soon to tell, but along with coming home from vacation with a cold and a migraine, I did come back with a renewed dedication to getting some stuff in order for publishing more stories and fixing other files.

I mean, I’ve been saying for years there’s an updated look for the site we were going to do.

We’ve changed at least two covers that need to be fixed, and at least one other is in progress.

Today some progress was made, and if things go well, there will be another book in print officially, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself in saying stuff.

Also, I am hoping or maybe just debating starting up a new serial.

And if the migraine ever lets up, maybe I can get back to the Kabobbles Sing Along Album Challenge.

Vacation Saga Day Fourteen: The Cold that Nearly Thwarted the Drive Home

So I woke up feeling a bit icky again Saturday morning, with either a migraine forming or just the head cold being obnoxious. It was not a great feeling, but I was able to help load up the car, prompting Grandpa to state that there was no way we’d had all that stuff in the bedroom, but we had.

We shared my leftover shrimp pasta for breakfast, and it was super yummy. Then we headed out, stopping for some Caribou and to shop our favorite store, Vintage Point. There was a lot of neat stuff there, and we surprised them by telling them we were driving back. They even said they would have opened early for us to get on the road. That was nice of them, and we got some neat stuff, much more than we should have.

We were almost on the road when I remembered the lefse, so we stopped and got some. We even picked up lunch from the charity fundraiser for homeless kids outside the store.

We went on, making our usual stop at the Redlin center in Watertown. It’s always beautiful to see, even if I’ve looked at the paintings before. They usually have different stuff in the gift shop, and this time was no exception. We had a hard time choosing our one souvenir for the trip and heading out.

I drove for a bit after that, since Mom figured I should try before I got really bad, and my headache was not terrible at that point. So I drove until Sioux Falls, but that was as much as I could do as I was getting nauseous. The cinnamon roll might have helped a little, since I was able to resume driving after Sioux City, but I only lasted to a rest area outside Lincoln and that was it.

I was getting worse cold-wise and very not up to much because of my head hurting. The attempt to nap failed completely because I’d start sneezing or coughing and couldn’t rest. I doubt Mom got much rest, either, but she continued on anyway.

I kept trying to be better enough to drive again, but it didn’t happen. Mom had to drive all the way back home, and once there, I took some extra strength cold medicine and went to bed.

But we made it home safely despite the cold and my inability to drive, so there’s that. Now to resume life as usual and all the projects I left behind.

Vacation Saga Day Thirteen: Catch of the Day: Dirt

So the cold that I’d sort of felt coming on for a while really decided it wanted to come in full force on Friday. I did not want to get up at all I felt that icky.

I did, and after breakfast and a bit of repacking, I went out to join Grandpa in the sorting process again. I knew he wasn’t going to stop until he had it done, and as much as Mom’s suggestion of staying in bed so I could be rested up appealed to me, I went out to help.

It was not the funnest job ever, but I made enough progress so we could take my bucket and fill the holes in the yard where Grandpa wanted them filled in, and then I sorted more.

I ran out of space in my bucket a second time, so I went back and finished up the yard with what I had, filling in as much as I could, and then I helped finish up the last of the sorting. It took most of the day to do it, ending just in time to watch Let’s Make a Deal.

I showered off the dirt, and we went out for dinner, trying for an early bird’s special at Red Lobster, but it was the wrong day for that, apparently, as it was Friday. I ended up with the usual, since I am such a creature of habit.

Grandpa had avoided my choice as he felt his Walt’s favorite were soggy last time, but they were fine to me. I even made one of mine do a little dance on its way to the cocktail sauce (I was feeling a little silly as I was sick.) It was a bit too much food, as usual, but the best part of meals like that is that they’re two meals, and I can enjoy the next one later.

We were leaving in the morning, but I figured it would be a good breakfast, so I kept it.

After we got back, we played cards. Whist went badly again (I may never win a second time) but I won dimes, so I guess there is that.

Vacation Saga Day Twelve: I Still Don’t Understand Yardwork

So Grandpa had done part of the edging while we were gone, but there was more to finish with an extension cord. It was about as easy as it was the first time, at least when it came to the parts not along the driveway, which was newer.

We had finished most of the front when one of Grandpa’s neighbors came over and offered a power edger. Mom told him we were almost done, but he told us to tell Grandpa not to be shy about asking to borrow it.

I kind of wish we had because Grandpa gave us more to do when we finished the first part. We did that, too, and I carried back the extra dirt only to learn that Grandpa wanted to sort it out to use to fill in holes.

Sorting dirt.

Grandpa and I sat with buckets and separated it from the old grass, sifting it through grates. I got half a bucket the first day and then we ended up taking a break to run some errands.

So I escaped the pile of dirt temporarily, but it was not to last. There was more for the next day.

Vacation Saga Day Eleven: Reality Invades

So we really wanted to stay another day at the lake, but Mom forgot something important at Grandma and Grandpa’s, so we had to go back as things were due by the end of the day.

I had an errand of my own, something to mail, so after our semi-lazy breakfast, Kathy was going to let me use her printer to print out the label.

Well… that turned into a project because the computer downstairs was dead, and the new printer did not want to install properly. We had to go through it twice and it errored twice, but in the end, I got my label printed, my package packed, and we were set to go.

We had a brief stop to make to get our maple cookies, as that store in Detroit Lakes is one of few that has them all the time, and so we were there when we finally heard from my uncle and ended up stopping at his house to see him and my other aunt on our way out of town.

So we almost spent the whole day at the lake again in spite of things, but we made it back to town for the necessary things, got Grandpa a second battery for his spedometer, and ended the evening quietly again.

Vacation Saga Day Ten: Quiet Day at the Lake

One of these days, I’ll take a working vacation that just means writing.

I almost had that kind of day out at the lake.

There was a bit of a storm overnight. It didn’t last terribly long, but it was rather loud with thunder and lightning and heavy rain while it did last.

I was awake for it, though it wasn’t a long storm. We rose leisurely, had breakfast of puffy pancakes even more slowly.

I camped out in the chair, feet up, and worked on my story. I had some background stuff I wanted to get down for my latest bit of inspiration. Sadly, I haven’t finished anything I started before or done much work on the Kabobbles Sing Along Challenge, either. It’s been a bit hard to etch out writing time in amongst my other projects, and looking up lyrics and stuff… not as easily done as when I’m at home.

I did get some quality cat time with my aunt’s cat who looks a lot like mine (seriously, this cat could be a triplet with Maxwell and Stranger.) That was nice, as I’ve been missing my cat like crazy.

I even took a nap since I was falling asleep attempting to write.

We ended the night out on the deck in front of the fire, talking and drinking our Skips. It was a good, relaxing time that I think we really needed.

Vacation Saga Day Nine: The End of One Journey

It took a while to get started, seeing as it was a long day before in some ways and also because the main task of the day was to unload the Maxwell and it was not possible to back up into the driveway because there were cars in the way.

It was about lunch time and rather hot by the time we got started, but the car went into the driveway easily enough, with Grandpa’s neighbor advising him to “gun it.”

We unloaded the Maxwell, got it started and backed into the garage with only a few minor hiccups in it not wanting to go down the trailer ramp (need more muscles, perhaps?) and Grandpa called it the end of the journey.

Then Mom asked him if we were putting the trailer back, and he said, “Oh.”

So we had to back the trailer in a bit more. I misunderstood when I was told to watch the fender (I was watching the trailer, not the Acadia.) Grandpa was a bit frustrated, but we cleared that up, and I stood in my proper place, making sure that he didn’t hit the house. It was difficult to get the trailer just where it was wanted and usually stored as “the house was in the way.”

Grandpa even asked us to move it.

But we got the trailer in place and Grandpa said, “Now it’s the end of the journey.”

So we went inside to cool off and ended up confirming plans with my aunt to head out to the lake since Grandma and Grandpa had a day trip to go on. After some more confusion there and a promise to finish edging, we left to go out to the lake.

It was very hot, so we didn’t feel like cooking and went out to dinner at a place on the other lake. Mom and Kathy got experimental with jalapeno Bison burgers (one with peanut butter, one with cream cheese) that they split half and half and deluxe bloody Marys. I got popcorn shrimp that was very tasty and a Lake Breeze Cocktail that was rather good but I forget all that was in it.

I didn’t get carded for once, which made me strangely happy.

Afterward, we came back, made skips, and sat up talking for a while before eventually calling it a night. I guess that’s the end of another kind of journey as well.

Vacation Saga Day Eight: Pancake Machine for the Win

I didn’t really sleep after the car run. I wanted to, rather desperately I might even say, but it just didn’t happen. It was a combination of the snores and whimpering going on around me from my room companions (Mom and Grandpa were snoring, Grandma was apparently in pain and making other noises) and the room, which was excessively musty as well as the people making noise in the halls. The joys of staying a hotel, am I right?

Still, while I didn’t sleep, I wasn’t insta-migrained, which was nice, so I was in a decent enough mood in the morning. I wanted coffee so I followed Mom down to the continental breakfast and got some while she got hot tea for herself.

And then we saw it. A pancake maker, but not one like we’d seen before. This was no pour in batter and flip it when the light went off or a wafflemaker, either. This was an assembly line for pancakes. You pushed the button and it dispensed the batter, sending down a small conveyor and heating it until it was brown, dropping it out on your plate. This thing was fun to watch, even if I wasn’t in the mood for pancakes. Mom said they tasted good.

I told Grandpa about it back at the room, then Mom and I took some bags out to the car to load up. We rejoined them in the breakfast room, and I found Grandpa at the machine. I asked if he’d had any yet, and he said, “Only eight.”

I laughed. That thing was pretty neat.

We got underway again, did our usual stop in Rogers for antiques, found lots of neat things I would have bought, and a couple I did (I gave into my vinyl obsession again but I held my ground when they tried to be ridiculous about a record) and we made it home without any incident, though admittedly, by the time we left the second antique store, a migraine was forming. I definitely had one by the time we stopped for lunch, so I skipped eating.

We made it back to Fargo okay and made an easy night of it, with me attempting to nap away the migraine after unloading the car and not accomplishing it.

We played cards. I lost. Twice.

I still want a pancake machine.