My “Process” for Writing a Mystery

Partway through NaNoWriMo this year I realized that while I had not intended to, I had created a textbook setup for a mystery story. So in the spirit of the month I decided to kill someone and then work out what happened.

There was one character, an obnoxious woman who was more willing to say what she really thought than polite people might in some situations. Lots of people had reasons to hate her. So if she dies, there’s automatically a whole bunch of suspects.

But I needed Marta for the actual plot of the story I had started to write, and while I have no problem killing characters I like, in this case she was much more interesting than the people around her, and she helped move the story along. So I put the body of her rival in her room, naked, tied to the bed, and dead. Of course security is such that only Marta can open the door to her room, and she stands to gain a great deal with his demise. Or it might have just been wild sex that got out of control. Marta seems like she might be capable of that.

So now I had a mystery! Which meant I needed a clever set of circumstances that only an even cleverer person could unravel. How did I approach this problem?

I wrote facts.

Lots and lots of facts. People talking to each other, exchanging facts. People disputing facts by using other facts. Facts that disagree – is one a lie or did the writer just try another tack? Facts about the security, facts about politics, facts about things happening back on Earth, facts about Marta’s childhood, facts about rivalries and politics and factions among the passengers and factions in the ship’s crew. Facts about espionage and underwear, and a shoe in the corner while the other is under a table. Facts about where Marta went and who saw her, and where the victim was supposed to be at the time. Lots of facts about where video surveillance was in effect, and where video surveillance was possible. Facts about who on the ship can open doors in emergencies, and who decides it’s an emergency.

In writing, “exposition” is the word used for dialog or other verbiage that exists to convey facts. One should measure out exposition in the proper dosages or risk becoming tedious.

I won’t elevate my factorrhea chapters even to the level of exposition. This was dumping your kitchen junk drawer out on the table and sorting through all the random shit to see if any of the odds and ends in there fit together. Or perhaps didn’t fit together in an interesting way.

Then when nothing obvious appears, go find more junk drawers.

I was starting to get some interesting ideas, and things were coming together. The Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas has been quite helpful in that regard. I am at the stage in the story where it would be fun to hang out sipping beers with OSoMRaHBI and folks like y’all and come up with the best way to get that door open. But alas, now is not the time for gathering over beers and brainstorming stories.

At the end (of the month), I skipped ahead so I would be able to write the end to the story I had intended to write. Marta is there, and reveals why she was on this trip at all, but this is a story in the Tincaniverse, and it owes a certain voice to its predecessors, and a certain way to end. I really enjoyed the last two days, as I crafted the ending I had thought about for several years now.

But there’s still a mystery in there, buried under all the junk spread across the kitchen table. It would be fun to find the magic combination of facts that would be both surprising and satisfying to a seasoned mystery reader. Or at least gather around a whiteboard with a bunch of “helpers” and have fun with the junk.

3

Left Turn at the Door Lock

For NaNoWriMo this year I am writing a novella that takes place in the universe I created for a series of short stories I wrote a while back. It is Science Fiction, with a mild Golden-Age feel, that is very character-centric. It is about a group of people, “spacers”, who are outcasts and misfits, socially awkward to the point of debilitation, and therefore ideal space explorers.

I have been stumped on a few other short story attempts in that universe, and I realized that the story I was trying to put together just didn’t fit in the mold of the previous stories. The ideas were more complex, and there was more actual action.

So I’ve been cranking away on a Novella, and I have reached the following situation: A bunch of people are on a vast spaceship. They occupy less than a tenth of the available space, but they are all crammed together. There are factions that hate each other, there is a woman who makes a habit of provoking those around her — and sleeping with them, too. There will soon be a mysterious stranger — extra-mysterious, since they are hurtling through the vast emptiness of space at the time. Some people on the ship are less surprised at his appearance than others.

I had just got to a part where the elderly female main character is learning about the privacy rules on the ship and the “unbeatable” lock that is on the door to her berth, when I realized something. This is unequivocally the setup for a mystery story.

It would be fun to write a mystery, I think, but there’s a catch. Mysteries are tricky. Mystery novels are much more of an interactive read than most genres, as the reader assumes the role of a detective following the same clues as the detective in the story. This leads to an important contract I have written about before: the author cannot withhold facts from the detective reading the story at home; the reader has to have access to all the information. This leads to a good mystery writer disguising (but not withholding) important clues and using misdirection, but in the end it has to all hold together, simultaneously surprising the reader, impressing them with the ingenuity of the detective in the story, and not pissing them off.

Which means planning. It means knowing who did what when, and who saw them do it. It means, for instance, knowing whether anyone besides the captain of our giant ship can override the door locks, or how control of those locks is transferred if the captain is unable to fulfill his duties. It means coming up with what the cause of death really was, what it appeared to be, and why it’s impossible that anyone could have done it, even while almost everyone on the ship had a reason to want to do it.

That’s a lot of work for NaNoWriMo. Work I’m simply not going to do.

But… that doesn’t mean I can’t write a bad mystery story, one that violates the mystery contract. It just means that the result, even if I do manage to keep the novella scope and actually finish a draft this month, will be less of a draft and more of a sketch, while I figure out all that stuff as I go along. When that process is done, I would then still need to go back and turn it into and actual mystery story.

Will I try to write a mystery? Tune in next time to find out!

1

That Girl and Me

She calls her bedroom the “Pretty Pretty Princess Room.” The walls are a pale purple and there is a canopy over the bed. It is the room she wanted as a child and now by god she has it. The shades of purple and green work well together, along with her red hair and (usually) green eyes.

There is a door in that room that is always closed. In the mornings light comes through the crack under the door, so there must be a window or a skylight in the space beyond. I don’t know anything else about it, however. It is a mystery.

It took me a day or five to articulate just what it was that I most liked about That Girl. She has a sexy brain. It’s a brian that puts things together in unexpected ways and never forgets to have fun doing it. When we were together hardly an hour went by when between us we didn’t come up with a new get-poor-quick scheme, complete with catchy marketing name. Oh, yes, we are a dangerous pair when it comes to inventions and words. Sure, anyone might come up with Laundermatic, but Albino Formula Laundermatic? I think not. We are quite the team. (There is another idea, mostly hers, for a book. I’m mentally building the table of contents now, but I might be soliciting input from the blogosphere. It’s gold, baby. Pure gold.)

For the record, it’s not just her brain that’s sexy.

We talk about a lot of stuff, That Girl and I, crazy and serious. Stories from our pasts, introductions to the people around us. There was one big, giant topic that we danced around most of the time, however. The future.

The future is a sneaky bastard, hiding in the most innocent of pet names and endearments, lurking in the way we refer to each other to friends, waiting for words that imply a promise neither party has the right to make.

The future did peek out occasionally, of course — rarely overtly — but when That Girl said, “who knew this would happen?” she let her emphasis of the word carry the future into the conversation, if only for a moment. This was something big enough to make space for, sometime, somehow. I sure as hell didn’t know this would happen, but I had known that I could like That Girl, and, well, isn’t that this? Wasn’t that in the back of my head when I decided not to set my return date to Prague before I left?

Today we said goodbye, at least for a little while. The future tromps along, with or without us, no matter how hard we work to ignore it.

In her bedroom is a door. I could have opened the door, and seen what lay beyond. I could simply have asked. But as long as I don’t know what’s in there, there is an incompleteness to my visit, an unknown that will not allow closure. Sometime in the future I will open that door. Until I do, there will always be a future with That Girl and Me together.

Danger…?

Between Calgary and Edmonton I saw several signs that looked like this:


It was a good thing these warnings were up. Those unicyclists juggling while on a rough road can be a real hazard.