Sunday, July 29, 2012
Writing a mystery.
(Felix Valloton, Swiss, 'At the Cafe,' 1908.)
When writing a mystery it’s important to pay attention to the expectations of the readers.
While the occasional person who reads your book might be a first-time reader of the genre, the odds are that they have read quite a number of mystery books, and they’re looking for certain things. They hope to get something out of it, which is an entertaining puzzle that ultimately makes sense.
It’s self evident that readers of romance are a looking for romance, readers of westerns are looking for justice, and readers of horror are looking for thrills and chills.
In the mystery I’m writing now, ‘The Art of Murder,’ which takes place in Paris during the '20s, I have read and thought about what others have to say on the subject. While the genre probably does have limitations, not least of which is structure, you could probably do what you want with it. Most are familiar with Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s noir futuristic mystery where Harrison Ford tries to catch a bunch of murderous replicants, who escape their world of labour and confinement and sort of go looking for what to them must seem like eternal life.
But in my book the technique varies perhaps in the technical sense. So far, I have just under 50,000 words and no chapter titles. How does that affect the writing? In some ways not at all. But by not picking a chapter title, and then writing what comes to mind regarding that title, the structure of the book is still open. Most would agree that the body should come first in a mystery novel. One source says in the first three chapters, and I can’t argue against it without sort of committing myself to proving it in writing…be that as it may. But now when the time comes, I can figure on a 65-70,000-word novel, decide just exactly how many chapters it should have, and then simply divide up the material accordingly.
This is purely nuts-and-bolts stuff. The actual content doesn’t suffer. In fact, it makes it easier to write. When I have an idea, I simply tack it on to the end of the book. When I come to the end of the idea, I put a scene break. I use three asterisks, jammed up against the left margin. There is no stylistic or format considerations here, although the copy I write for fiction is as clean as the copy in this blog post.
And when I get another idea, I tack that on too.
What this does is to keep the material flowing, even if it’s only 250 words. The next bit might be 700. Who cares? When I go through the book fleshing out sights, smells, and sounds, the feel of gravel on a wood floor in stocking feet or whatever, I can just pay a little descriptive attention to the sections that need it. Those that need more get more. And each chapter can be about the same length, as logic and structure seems to dictate.
As for a body in the first chapter, no one can really say just how long the first chapter of a mystery really ought to be, but I think in mine he’s pretty much in the first paragraph; or at least one of the bodies is.
As this series was inspired by Georges Simenon there is in fact a double mystery, which I sort of refer to as a ‘figure-eight’ structure. It has two loops, a variation on the circular story structure. Going by Ridley Scott, structure doesn't interfere with saying what we want to say, and it can cross genre barriers without losing everybody.
Anyhow, I don’t care if you’re selling a whole lot of books or just a few, but there is a whole ‘nother world outside that door and between my novel and this post I’ve done 1,150 words today. And I’m not a replicant, slaving away on some prison planet, doing the bidding of some evil master who merely exploits me like a steer or a hog.
The life outside that door is also worth living, and no one gets out alive anyway.