What Makes A Mystery?

by Janis Patterson

We talk a lot about writing mysteries, reading mysteries, enjoying mysteries, but it’s seldom discussed what a mystery is. Leaving out the religious definitions, Dictionary.com says

  1. any affair, thing or person that presents features or qualities so obscure as to arouse curiosity or speculation
  2. a novel, short story, play, or film whose plot involves a crime or other event that remains puzzlingly unsettled until the very end
  3. obscure, puzzling, or mysterious quality or character

So at heart a mystery seems to be an obfuscation, either deliberate or accidental. I can deal with that. It isn’t easy, but I can deal with it. It comes down to making the unknown known, and the writer has the unenviable task of revealing it piece (clue) by piece. That is after he created the story and then covered it up! It is a delicate balance.

Taking a ‘mystery’ and making it into an enjoyable and reasonably coherent novel is a daunting process, whether it’s the question of who took Aunt Ida’s coconut cake to finding a vicious and seemingly omnipotent serial killer. The process is – or should be – the same. Even if it isn’t the first scene in the book, when you’re plotting you need to start with an action by an unknown – i.e., the crime, be it coconut cake or murder. Then you must follow the carefully laid clues but seemingly random clues found by the sleuth, be he amateur or professional detective, and by examining these clues eventually uncover the truth. Don’t forget to complicate the process with a fair amount of believable red herrings and some conflicts/problems caused by the people involved.

The trick to doing this is not to be too obscure or too obvious. And I’m a firm believer that your sleuth has to work at finding these clues and therefore find the solution to the mystery in a logical and sort of organized form. You should also put in enough clues that the reader, if so inclined, has a decent chance of solving the mystery. Now I’m perfectly aware there are mysteries which are widely read and even some celebrated writers who break these rules. The most famous example is Raymond Chandler, who admitted that sometimes even he didn’t know how his sleuth solved the mystery – it just happened. Raymond Chandlers are few and far in between, though; the quality of his writing was so good that neither readers nor critics seem to care. Don’t try to duplicate this. Odds are you can’t.

Another rule-breaker is often the currently popular ‘fluffy’ cozy mystery. The sleuth is usually a woman and she usually has a ‘cute’ job – owning a bakery or specialty coffee cafe or floral shop or something similar. She has or wants a boyfriend, who often turns out to be a policeman of some sort, and a bunch of ‘zany’ or ‘quirky’ friends. All too often in this kind of story the mystery is of secondary importance to personal relationships and the personal life of the sleuth. It’s an overdone trope, but some sleuths still express a passion for shoes which takes up a lot of the story space. Which is fine, as long as that is the sort of story is what the reader wants.

What is not acceptable, however, is when in whatever kind of mystery the sleuth does little to no sleuthing. Clues seem to appear with no effort on the sleuth’s part. The solution is highly reminiscent of the deus ex machina so beloved of Greek and Roman playwrights. I call that a cheat. A mystery shouldn’t need a god to step down from Olympus to unravel a story so complex it is beyond the ken of mere humans.

It is good that there are so many variations of mysteries – puzzles, non-lethal crimes, capers, murders, serial killers, fluffy cozies, traditional cozies, hard-boileds… there is a style of mystery for every reader. I only hope they follow the rules that make a mystery a good story.

Why I Write Mysteries by Saralyn Richard

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I love reading and writing in all genres. I’ve taught creative writing to high schoolers and adults, and I’ve rarely met a story or a writer that I didn’t enjoy getting to know, but when it comes to writing novels of my own, I choose to write mysteries. I could tell you the reasons have to do with suspense and tension, tight plots, clues, character motivations, themes of good vs. evil, or other such elements, but the truth is simpler.

I love mysteries, because in no other genre is the connection between reader and writer so vivid. When an author lays out a mystery, she is ever-mindful of the reader. She unfolds the crime and investigation clue by clue, scene by scene, in a sometimes tortuous path toward solution. She hopes that the reader is traveling along the path, enjoying the adventure every step of the way. If she plants a clue in one chapter, will the thoughtful reader recall it in a subsequent chapter? Will the red herrings be identified as such? The author hopes to strike the perfect balance between foreshadowing and surprise, so the reader is captivated and delighted.

Every single time a reader responds to one of my books, I feel a new thrill, as if seeing the story through new eyes creates a wholly new perspective, one that I may never have considered before. A mystery is an invitation to the reader to come along with the detective, to match wits with the criminal, to bring his own clever ideas to bear upon solving the puzzle. The synergy created by the author-reader partnership is intellectually and emotionally stimulating and rewarding.

In MURDER IN THE ONE PERCENT, a group of the country’s wealthiest and most powerful elite gather for a birthday party in the lush, peaceful Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania. When one of them is killed, and almost everyone has a motive, young Detective Oliver Parrott realizes this will be the case to challenge his intellect and to test his moral compass. Figuring out who comes to the party with murder in his heart and poison in his pocket becomes an active mental exercise for the reader. As the author, I am literally one step ahead of the reader, leading him by the hand, with an enigmatic smile on my face.

Book Blurb:

Final cover w quoteSomeone comes to the party with murder in their heart and poison in their pocket…

A powerful and rich playboy, a rare but naturally occurring poison, a newly divorced woman with an axe to grind, and pressure from the former President of the US—these are just a few of the challenges that African-American Detective Oliver Parrott faces when he answers a routine call for back-up and discovers someone died at a country estate the morning after an elaborate birthday party. When Parrott learns the deceased is the wealthy former US Secretary of the Treasury and just about everyone at the party had a motive to kill him, he realizes this will be the investigation to make—or break—his career.

Buy Links:

https://www.amazon.com/Murder-One-Percent-Saralyn-Richard/dp/1626947716/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1517072668&sr=8-2&keywords=murder+in+the+one+percent

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/murder-in-the-one-percent-saralyn-richard/1127890200?ean=9781626947719

https://black-opal-books.myshopify.com/products/murder-in-the-one-percent

http://www.saralynrichard.com/bookstore/ 

Author Bio:

Galveston Author Saralyn RichardAward-winning mystery and children’s book author, Saralyn Richard, is a writer who teaches on the side. Her children’s picture book, Naughty Nana, has reached thousands of children worldwide.

Murder in the One Percent, ©2018 Black Opal Books, pulls back the curtain on the privileged and powerful rich. Set on a gentleman’s farm in Pennsylvania and in the tony areas of New York, the book introduces Detective Oliver Parrott, who matches wits with the country’s elite.

A member of International Thriller Writers and Mystery Writers of America, Saralyn has  completed the sequel to Murder in the One Percent, entitled A Palette for Murder. Her standalone mystery, A Murder of Principal, will be released soon. Her website is www.saralynrichard.com. 

Social Media Links:

My author’s website is http://www.saralynrichard.com. https://www.facebook.com/saralyn.richard,

https://www.twitter.com/SaralynRichard,

https://www.linkedin.com/in/saralyn-richard-b06b6355/,

https://www.pinterest.com/saralynrichard/,

https://www.instagram.com/naughty_nana_sheepdog/ and https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7338961.Saralyn_Richard.

I am available to meet with book clubs and organization members. Contact me at saralyn@saralynrichard.com.

Clues, Magic and Little Cat Feet

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.”

Grrrr.

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.

6 Deadly Sins of Writing a Mystery by Paty Jager

Every mystery writer wants to write the best who-dun-it. The one who kept the reader guessing to the end and then has the reader saying, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming.”  But the writer has to beware of the 6 things that can make them lose readers.

  1. Fair play – All clues discovered by the detective must be made known to the reader.
  2. The murderer must be introduced in the story before he is announced as the killer. Someone can’t appear in the last chapter and then is announced as the murderer.
  3. The crime being solved must be significant. Murder, kidnapping, blackmail, theft something that has a significant impact on the story.
  4. The solution can’t be stumbled on. There must be detection done by the protagonist(s). A web of clues that not only misdirects the sleuth but the reader.
  5. The suspects should be known and the murderer among them.
  6. Keep the story to the solving the crime, don’t toss in unnecessary things to throw the reader off.

If a writer keeps these in mind and takes the reader on a journey of discovering one clue after the other, you can still keep the reader guessing as each suspect is slowly dropped from the list.

I like to bring the murderer into the story not as a character on the page but as a character that is alluded to. I used this method in my latest Shandra Higheagle Mystery, Killer Descent.

Some may say that having my amateur sleuth’s grandmother come to her in dreams would be a no-no as stated in number 4. But the dreams don’t give her the clues, they direct her to seeking out the clues. She still has to decipher the dreams and then find the clue. I have a post about it here.

I’m currently writing the next Shandra Higheagle Mystery, Reservation Revenge. Setting it on an actual reservation has been giving me some logistical challenges, but I’m excited to see where the clues lead me. 😉

About Me:

Paty Jager is an award-winning author of 25+ novels and over a dozen novellas and short stories of murder mystery, western historical romance, and action adventure. She has a RomCon Reader’s Choice Award for her Action Adventure and received the EPPIE Award for Best Contemporary Romance. Her first mystery was a finalist in the Chanticleer Mayhem and Mystery Award and is a finalist in the RONE Award Mystery category.  This is what Mysteries Etc says about her Shandra Higheagle mystery series: “Mystery, romance, small town, and Native American heritage combine to make a compelling read.”

All her work has Western or Native American elements in them along with hints of humor and engaging characters. Paty and her husband raise alfalfa hay in rural eastern Oregon. Riding horses and battling rattlesnakes, she not only writes the western lifestyle, she lives it.

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Clue, Clue, Who’s Got the Clue, or How to Sneak Your Way to a Good Mystery

by Janis Patterson

Writing a mystery means walking a very fine line.

You want to play fair with the reader and give him the chance to solve the mystery. Sort of.

Readers love to play along and see if they can match/beat your sleuth to the correct solution. In almost every case (so said because there is an exception to everything) nothing makes readers angrier than the solution just coming out of the blue with nothing leading up to it. Worse than that, it’s lazy writing.

So how do you do play fair and still mystify the reader?

Be sneaky.

Put your clues out there, but make them appear to be inconsequential, throw-away things that have no relation to the case. Also put out fake clues leading to a different conclusion (some call them red herrings, but I don’t like fish), but put them out in two ways – some as inconsequentials and some as great big whacking things that might as well have CLUE in blinking neon above them.

No one said you had to play completely fair, did they?

There’s also a traditional ploy called a MacGuffin. Sounds sort of like it should be some kind of fast food, but it’s real – trust me. The MacGuffin is a lovely tool of misdirection. That’s the word I’ve been looking for – misdirection! Just like a magician, you direct the reader’s attention in one direction with one hand while the other hand – in semi-plain view – is actually doing the trick, but no one is really looking at it.

Anyway, the MacGuffin is what everyone in the book seems to want – such as everyone believes the vicar was murdered in a foiled robbery attempt to steal an ancient chalice. All the characters go rushing around trying to figure out who wanted to steal the chalice and why, while the vicar was really murdered because his tulips were certain to win the annual flower show away from the Grande Dame of the village who dislikes losing. The chalice is only a MacGuffin. Now that’s an extremely simplistic example, but in reality the MacGuffin is one of the best tools in the mystery writer’s arsenal.

MacGuffins and misdirection – use them well, and you will keep your reader happily amused and hopefully confused. Or is it the other way around?

(For those with very good memories, you know I wrote this blog several years ago. I am reposting it now because (1) it is still true and relevant and (2) for several days before this appears and for several days after I am up to my earlobes in a very intense professional conference. It seemed better to share a ‘golden oldie’ than to just cobble together something or skip posting entirely. Hope you understand. Also, because I will not have my computer available, please forgive if I am not able to okay comments until this madness is over. I promise I will then!)

The Perfect Murder Weapon

by Janis Patterson

We all believe that killing someone is easy as pie (remember, I’m speaking of in pixels only here) but it’s not as simple as it seems. The main trick is doing the deed and getting away with it. I mean, letting your character get away with it. Harder still is to make it so your sleuth can find enough clues to solve the mystery without making your killer seem like an idiot or your sleuth some sort of psychic/savant. What’s really hard is when your villain is so smart you really have to work to make it possible for your sleuth to catch him. I’ve had that problem in my current WIP, so I know whereof I speak!

One of the main things to catching a killer is the murder weapon. Guns and knives have traditionally been regarded as men’s weapons of choice, while poison is regarded as a more of a woman’s weapon, the rationale being that women are dainty little creatures of great sensibility who don’t like to see blood and gore. Really? And they kill people? Give me a break.

One of the main choices of murder weapon is dependent on its availability and traceability. A gun? Who owns it and how did the murderer get it? With the forensic ballistics available today – not to mention the creeping cancer of the gun control nuts – it’s harder and harder to make it believable that a villain can just grab a gun, shoot someone and get away with it. Of course, there are workarounds. The gun could be stolen. The gun could be bought on the black market. The gun could be ‘borrowed’ with the intent of framing the legitimate owner. Something else to be considered is that so much information needed to catch the villain – ballistics, registration, etc – is not available to an amateur sleuth unless they can wheedle it out of a policeman.

Forensics today can trace a knife down to the minutest measurement and shape and, if it is unusual enough, to the brand and store from which it came. If I were going to commit a murder with a knife, I’d go to the local Target or WalMart and buy the commonest knife I could, then afterwards boil it in bleach to kill any blood on it and donate it to some charity or other or leave it in a batch of kitchen utensils at a garage sale – after carefully wiping off all fingerprints. Of course, this is assuming the killer is strong enough both internally and externally to handle the strength necessary and the resultant blood, which is going to get all over his clothes. If you want to see how hard it is to stab someone, take your murder knife and stab a big, thick roast. It’s hard to get a knife deep enough to cause a fatal wound, but not as hard as stabbing a real life person, because the roast isn’t fighting you back!

Then there’s poison. First of all, where does the killer get it? Today so many of our commonly available compounds have had their poisonous elements removed or neutered. There’s nicotine, of course, sold for e-cigarettes, and it’s commonly available, but how do you know how much to use, and then there’s the problem of getting it into your victim. Same with prescription meds, which are generally fairly traceable because of limited availability. There are also the plant based poisons, but first you have to know about them, and again think of how much to use for a fatal does and how you’re going to get the resultant product into your victim Unfortunately for the killer plant based poisons are notorious for being both variable and unreliable. Poison contents vary according to the plant, the location where it was grown, the season of the year – and the phase of the moon for all I know. You never really know if you’ve gauged your dosage correctly until your victim either dies or survives. Also, this is considered rather esoteric knowledge, known to a smallish group of people (other than mystery writers) and fairly easily traceable.

For the hardy, there is always the staple of your two hands and a good old fashioned strangling. Of course, you have to know the victim well enough to get that close to him, and you have to be strong, for he will be fighting you. Strangling takes a great deal of strength as well, which basically rules out the delicately built person strangling a larger one. It also is harder than it seems. Life is tenacious, and it takes at least four minutes if not longer to strangle a person until death is assured, no matter how easy and quick it seems on television. Same objections with smothering. Unless the victim is unconscious your villain will both have to subdue and smother. Not easy.

So – is there a perfect murder weapon? Not that I know of. Every one has plusses and minuses, and in its way that is perfect for the mystery writer. You can choose one that fits your villain and your victim, but each method has built-in clues and difficulties that can, with a little accuracy and lots of creativity on your part, make it possible for your sleuth to capture your killer, no matter how smart that villain thinks himself to be.

Also, if you’d like to read the article The American Research Center in Egypt did on me and my upcoming novel A KILLING AT EL KAB, here’s the link – http://www.arce.org/news/u162

Clues, Clues Everywhere, or The Truth Hiding in Plain Sight

by Janis Patterson

What is a clue? I can hear all of you now saying “Duh! A clue is something the sleuth notices that helps solve the crime.”

Okay, that’s right – as far as it goes. The problem is, how do we make a series of clues that will help solve the crime that is neither so blatant that the story is over on page 19 or is so esoteric that the reader doesn’t understand it even after the crime has been solved and the clues explained?

I remember reading an Ellery Queen mystery (sorry I don’t remember the title – I was only seven or so) where the deciding clue was based on a particular letter of the Phoenician alphabet. The murder was cleverly done, as I recall, but the idea that both the killer and the sleuth (Mr. Queen) would be in the same rather mundane place at the same time and both know the Phoenician alphabet so jarred on my infant sensibilities that I remember it to this day. As I recall the setting was a house party at a rich man’s mansion, but I might be wrong about that.

Adding in clues is sort of like adding garlic to a casserole; too little and it is flat and uninteresting, but too many and it is unappetizing or perhaps even unswallowable.

In my opinion, the best clues are the ones that grow out of the characters and the storyline in an almost organic process. The truly best clues are the ones that sometimes even you don’t know are there.

An example. Years ago, when I was writing my first Janis Patterson mystery THE HOLLOW HOUSE I knew from the beginning who the murderer was going to be, but as I am a pantser, not much else. The story was ticking along quite well until about five chapters from the end, when I suddenly realized that my pre-determined murderer could not have done it. I floundered around for a while, then all of a sudden ‘Wow! Of course! So-and-so did it.’ And I wrote on, for another half chapter or so before once again it came to me that my new murderer couldn’t have done it. Truth is, from that first realization to the climax I changed the murderer some five times. Finally, as I was desperately trying to decide who did it, I suddenly realized who it was – someone I had never considered.

I don’t know why I had never considered this person, but it was perfect. The only bad thing was I knew I’d have to go back through the whole book and put in clues pointing to this person. Sigh. However… when I did start through the book, the clues implicating this person were all there already. I think I added two.

So – clues not only have to be there, they have to be subtle. How did I do it? I don’t know. The creation of a book, in case you hadn’t noticed, is very much akin to magic.

One way, I believe, was put forward by some famous mystery writer years ago – sorry, but I don’t remember which one. He said that the best way was to make everyone capable of being the murderer, then exonerate them one by one, just like your sleuth. I know there are those mystery writers who pre-plot every clue, and there are some who do it very well. Joy go with them. I can’t do that – I would be so bored that the book would never be written. I guess I have to be as much of a sleuth uncovering the truth as my detective.

Commercial : For those of you in the Denver area and those of you going there to attend the Historical Novel Society conference, I will be there both at the booksigning and presenting a paper on Egyptology and Elizabeth Peters. Ms. Peters (aka Barbara Michaels and Dr. Barbara Mertz) was an incredible author and a friend. She is very much missed.