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.

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