by Jacqueline Diamond
Today we have an amazing guest. Jacqueline Diamond is the author of 101 novels! Yup. You read that right. Jackie writes in many genres, and she’s recently returned to writing cozy mysteries. She read a lot of contemporary mysteries to prepare, and discovered what made her—as a reader—put down a book. Now she can give us the skinny on what NOT to do when you’re writing a mystery. A lot of these tips apply to other genres as well…Anne
Not again. Please, not again.
Struggling to conquer my fear, I reach out and click on the screen. No! I draw back in horror, the air suddenly heavy in my lungs.
Damn. Not another mystery novel that starts with the villain slashing up an innocent young woman.
For my 101st published novel, I returned to a genre in which I hadn’t written for more than a decade: the murder mystery. In preparation, I read or at least scanned the initial pages of numerous mysteries. Dozens were bypassed based on a few pages. Even those that made the cut to Buy Now sometimes proved disappointing.
We can’t always create unforgettable classics. But we can avoid mistakes that undermine our hard work and discourage readers.
I won’t dwell on problems common to all forms of fiction, such as head-hopping and multiple grammatical errors. Today’s subject is writing mysteries (not thrillers or romantic suspense, although some of the same cautions apply).
Let’s demystify it with a dozen ways not to write a mystery.
The blonde-dies-at-midnight opening
A nasty villain stalks and murders an innocent woman in the prologue. Maybe this still sells, but I’ve heard from a lot of readers that they’re sick of it. (I can NOT read these books anymore. I call this the Law and Order opening, because they use it in every one of those TV shows…Anne)
Of course, it’s fine to start with a crime. Just make it unusual in some way.
The hi-I’m-Sally-and-here’s-all-about-my-messed-up-life opening.
Cozy mystery readers do want to meet your engaging heroine as she ventures into a new town or career, but remember the old advice to show-don’t-tell.
Put the reader into a scene. Or, if you must start by addressing the reader directly, move into action within a page or so rather than dumping all the back story and introducing us to a long list of characters.
Now for clichés and other problems that can weaken the rest of the book.
How many times have you read a mystery in which the detectives fixate on the wrong suspect and ignore clues that amateurs spot almost immediately?
Today’s police are well trained in investigative techniques. Do thorough research—and don’t rely on TV shows. I recommend starting with Forensics for Dummies (2nd Edition) by D.P. Lyle, MD. It’s thorough yet readable.
A main character with no special talents who stumbles into clues.
Don’t have your sleuth accidentally solve mysteries—unless you’re very, very funny (as with Jana Deleon’s delightful Miss Fortune series). One of my pet peeves is when the heroine’s friends insist that only she can catch the killer, yet the author hasn’t established that she has any detective skills.
For my Safe Harbor Medical mystery series, I considered how my obstetrician hero, Dr. Eric Darcy, could legitimately help solve murders affecting his patients. I came up with two reasons: patients and their families trust doctors and share concerns that they might not disclose to the police. Also, doctors have access to privileged medical information. Although under certain circumstances it must be shared with law enforcement, much of the time it’s confidential. That doesn’t prevent the doctor from using it to help him figure out who the killer is.
(Note from Anne: yes, my “sleuth” Camilla is of the stumble-upon variety, and her only superpower is being very, very polite, so people tend to open up to her. But I hope the fact the stories are wild comedies makes that okay. 🙂 )
A classic puzzle mystery is not the place for seat-of-the-pants writing, unless you’re willing to revise extensively. The reader expects genuine clues among the red herrings and a solution that plays fair. What’s unfair? Setting up half a dozen suspects and arbitrarily picking one at the end.
I’m delighted when readers tell me they couldn’t figure out who the killer was in The Case of the Questionable Quadruplet. I made sure to plant clues, but used sleight-of-hand to keep the reader’s attention focused elsewhere.
Giving the villain nothing to do throughout most of the book.
While the main storyline involves your hero or heroine following a trail of clues, behind the scenes the villain should be pursuing his or her initial goal and scheming to avoid getting caught.
The result will be a better-developed plot with less need for arbitrary twists.
Ignoring the police after the initial crime scene investigation.
I’m referring to cozy mysteries, of course, since this wouldn’t happen in a police procedural. Even though they can’t discuss an ongoing investigation, the police shouldn’t be just sitting around waiting for an amateur to solve the case.
Dr. Darcy’s best friend, Keith, is a homicide detective. We hear about his activities both from witnesses he’s interviewed and when he occasionally lets information slip by accident. Also, my widowed hero’s sister-in-law, Tory, is a PI who fills Eric in about what steps the police would be taking.
Focusing too hard on the plot
When the characters remain little more than placeholders, like avatars in a videogame, we get bored.
Give them issues and conflicts that enliven the novel. For instance, Tory and Keith recently broke up after he cheated on her. They clash frequently, and put Eric in the middle.
He has his own personal issues to resolve. These interweave with the storyline and figure into his responses.
Creating a main character too dislikable or foolish
The reader needs to care what happens to him or her.
Your main character should be flawed, but if she consistently lets herself be manipulated or he often drinks himself into a stupor, readers will lose patience. Even in a humorous mystery, don’t mistake irritating for funny.
Whatever the main character’s occupation, he or she should act the part. Example: a doctor wouldn’t assume that a head injury is minor. A police officer stays aware of his or her surroundings. An estate attorney is very precise about the terms of a will.
Forgetting that murders are shocking and deaths are tragic.
While the author and reader know the book is a murder mystery and that corpses are to be expected, the characters should react believably.
Showing too much.
While putting the reader into the picture is important, be judicious. Write only those scenes that pack an emotional punch or in which something changes.
Don’t be afraid to summarize the boring stuff, such as that the heroine talked to three people who had no idea who might have killed the victim. (One of my pet peeves. I wrote all about it in my post on Why Show Don’t Tell Can be Terrible Advice...Anne)
Neglecting to find your own voice.
Even if you’re writing in a familiar tradition such as noir or light cozy mystery, do it your way.
For me, it was a challenge see the world through the eyes of a thirty-five-year-old male M.D. I did a lot of research and considered each scene and development carefully. I was also glad to hear from readers that, despite the suspenseful tone, Eric’s wry observations sometimes made them laugh, since humor is part of my natural voice.
I’d like to add a thirteenth suggestion. As a reader, I appreciate when the author finds an unobtrusive way to recap from time to time what we’ve learned and who might be a suspect. When I set a book down for day or so, I don’t always remember who’s who and what the clues were.
I hope I’ve helped you write a mystery that readers will love, enjoy and recommend. Now, go slay ‘em!
by Jacqueline Diamond (@jacquediamond) May 15, 2016
What about you, scriveners? What are your pet peeves in the overused plot department? What makes you stop reading a book? When you pick up a mystery, what do you look for?
This week Ruth has a short post on those fair weather friends who evaporate just when you need them. And Anne has part 4 of her series on Poisoning People for Fun and Profit. This week she talks about the most poisonous creature on the planet–the tiny poison dart frog.
For her 101st novel, USA Today bestselling author Jacqueline Diamond launches the Safe Harbor Medical mystery series with The Case of the Questionable Quadruplet.
A former Associated Press reporter and TV columnist, Jackie has sold mysteries, medical romances, Regency romances and romantic comedies to a range of publishers.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
In The Case of the Questionable Quadruplet, young, widowed obstetrician Eric Darcy is stunned when the mother of triplets claims to have borne a fourth baby, a quad, that was stolen from her years ago. When someone murders his patient, Eric believes the police are dismissing a vital clue, and teams up with his PI sister-in-law to investigate, never imagining his own life might be in danger.
Available in ebook or print on Amazon
MYSTERY AUTHORS! Here’s a list of 15 small presses that specialize in mysteries and do not require an agent for submissions. It’s compiled by “Authors Publish” Newsletter–a great resource. As I wind down this “opportunity alerts” feature, I recommend subscribing.
GREEN BRIAR REVIEW CONTESTS $10 ENTRY FEE. Categories poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. Up to three poems per entry. 1st Prize for poetry $250 and publication. Nonfiction and fiction deadline May 31, 2016. 1st Prize in each $250 and publication. Limit 6,000 words. Poetry deadline May 30. Fiction and nonfiction deadline May 31.
Literary Death Match 250 word Bookmark Contest. Judged by Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket). Must be under 250 words. $1000 first prize. All finalists will be invited to read at LDM events near where they live. $15 for one entry $20 for two. Enter via submittable. Deadline May 16th, 2016
THE ROCABERTI CASTLE WRITERS RETREAT October 7th-12th, 2016 Held at Rocaberti Castle, Figueres, Spain (75 miles from Barcelona.) Not only is this the vacation of a lifetime in an enchanting castle, but participants get real publishing and movie deals here. Out of the eleven writers who attended the first Rocaberti retreat, one had her script optioned before the end of the retreat, two are currently in the midst of negotiations for books and scripts, and deals are in the works for several others. If you put “AA” for Anne Allen on your application, you’ll get a 10% discount.