by Janis Patterson
I’ll admit I get a little put out when people (including some writers) say “Oh, I could never write a mystery – how do you think of all those clues and where to put them?” Usually, when I’m wearing my romance-writer hat (yes, I write both, along with several other genres), these are the same people who say “Oh, I could churn out one of those stories if I ever had the time.”
To me that is as stupid as someone saying they can cook a roast but could never cook hamburgers. Or vice-versa. Writing is a learned craft, and the basic tools are the same whether you write confession stories or blockbuster action-adventures or small town cozy mysteries with a bakery shop (sometimes a needlework store) and a romance.
Yes, I am the first to admit that there is an element of magic in writing, of taking twenty-six simple symbols and turning them into a story that will touch and enthrall the reader, but magic – like luck – really does seem to prefer the prepared who have worked like the devil to learn their skills.
But magic aside, writing is a craft. Sometimes when I start a mystery I have a hazy idea of who and why, and that often changes, sometimes several times, but as I write along I leave a strong story behind me. If I may steal Deborah (Debra?) Dixon’s mantra of ‘goal, motivation and conflict’ I’ve found that following that guideline for almost every scene (excluding a very few, very short ones used mainly for transition from one arena of action to another) as well as for the entire book makes it much easier. In real life we sit around, we dawdle, we have purposeless (though sometimes pleasant) conversations, we sit in traffic, we… whatever, but in a book we don’t have that luxury. Every word, every action has to count and either explain why our characters/events are the way they are and/or bring us closer to the climax/resolution.
I’ve told this story before, but in my mystery THE HOLLOW HOUSE for the first two thirds of the book I was absolutely positive I knew who the killer was. Then – boom! All of a sudden I realized that wouldn’t work. Well, it would have worked because I’m the author and what I say goes – sort-of, but dramatically it was a bust. Rather than start over again or back up and throw out great chunks of wonderful, deathless prose <grin> I kept on writing and within a few pages I knew who the murderer really was. Except – another chapter, and the whole thing started over again. He couldn’t be the murderer. Gritting my teeth I forged on.
To make a long story short, if it’s not too late, this process repeated itself five times during the last third of the book. I was getting alarmed, as I was running out of potential villains, and will never subscribe to the ancient trope of a convenient homicidal maniac wandering around who just happened by and had never been mentioned before. Grimly I went on, and in the next to the last chapter suddenly all was revealed to me. I will admit that by this time I had ceased to feel like a writer and more like a scribe, just taking down what I couldn’t control.
But the final solution was perfect. Things could not have worked out better. The only thing that made me sigh with apprehension was that now I would have to go back through the entire manuscript and put in clues. I was as astonished as anyone could be when on rereading I found that they were already there. Who knew? Magic? Anyway, I think I put in two or three more, just so I would have the illusion of being in charge…
So perhaps I should restate my premise – writing is work, writing is a skill is available to just about anybody who will study and practice. And the magic? I think it comes creeping in on little cat feet (sorry, Mr. Sandburg) under the cover of study and practice just waiting to jump out when you expect it the least. And it doesn’t make any difference whether you write mystery or romance or horror or action-adventure or any of millions of other kinds of stories – the building blocks are the same. But you do have to learn how to use them.