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!