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The world of mystery writing is a vibrant and exciting place. The vibrancy comes from the thrill of the hunt, the chase, the sacred quest. Like the knight on horseback questing for the Dragon or the Holy Grail, the modern-day sleuth takes on the challenge, and the strict moral burden, to root out evil, to assign guilt, and to impose good.
In simplest terms, the object of the quest is payment. The quester who brings home the Grail (treasure, secret, amulet, sacred child, et cetera) is rewarded by money or love, by a flagon of ale, or perhaps by a royal pardon. On the other side of the equation, the evil dragon who steals the child or who devastates the peaceful village must pay for the crime in dragon's blood. And if you replace the evil dragon with a more modern monster--the killer fish of Jaws, for example, who disrupts the tourist trade in the peaceful seaside hamlet of Amity, Long Island--the payment is still made in blood. In a classic clash of Good versus Evil, the fish who eats people dies to make the town safe. And whether the evil force is a dragon, a fish named "Jaws," or a serial killer called "The Beast," payment happens at the climax of the story.
In mystery fiction, the killer is the ancient dragon who pays for taking the victim's life. By killing, the evil killer rips a jagged hole in the fabric of society. The jagged hole makes everyone edgy. Edgy people respond with panic: What if the fabric rips some more? What if the next rip is closer to home? What if it rips up my street? My neighbor? My family? Me? Where is the end to this awful ripping and tearing? How do we stop it? Who is responsible here? To repair the hole, to restore order to society, someone calls for help. That call for help, whether note or phone call or a client's visit to a rundown office in San Francisco of the 1930s, is the kickoff for your mystery tale. The quester who answers the call is your sleuth.
As the instrument of society, the sleuth's job is to set things right. The process for setting things right, for knitting up the fabric, is ritual sacrifice. Ritual sacrifice, making the killer pay, makes everyone feel better, especially when the blood is offstage: "I feel quite pleased," says Miss Jane Marple (the sleuth in The Body in the Library), "to think of [the killer] hanging."
Miss Marple feels pleased because the killer who pays by hanging tried to frame a "fall guy," someone to take the killer's place on the gallows tree. As we'll see later in this book, the police in The Body in the Library are so hungry for a scapegoat to pay for this killing that they build a killer profile to fit the wrong man. While the police track the trail of the designated fall guy, Miss Marple cracks the case. Miss Marple has to hurry to the rescue (the action in Body takes only a couple of days) because she understands society's urgent need for payment.
Knowing the importance of making the killer pay is the writer's secret weapon. Knowing this secret early on, before you begin writing, gives you control over your story. From that first weekend when you start writing, the killer, who may not enter the book until you're halfway through, is your focus. Killers leave footprints, clues to follow, objects in their wake. Tracking down the clues gives you the plot for your tale.
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The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery guides you through the process of writing a mystery in fifty-two weekends. Each weekend has a specific task. On Weekend 1, for example, you'll create your killer, the villain who takes a life, the one who must pay. A big part of creating a character is probing for motive: Why does the killer kill? What drives this monster to take a human life? Because motive lurks in the past, your quest will lead you into "back story," a traumatic event in the early life of your killer, a dramatic turnstile between innocence and experience. Using your writing as discovery, a kind of brainstorming on paper, will help you find answers. Was your killer born to kill? Or was your killer driven to kill by circumstance? What was the circumstance? How old was your killer? When did your killer become a monster?
Probing a character's past in a paragraph or two is important preparation for writing the story. It's also fun to dig up secrets. Depending on the book you write, the way you structure your tale, you might share these secrets with the reader very early. Or you might wait, holding off until the end. Probing the past gives the writer access to knowledge not available to the reader. This knowledge is power. Because you know the secrets, you maintain control of the story elements. Because you maintain control, you have the power to decide when and where and whether or not to use this information. If your story calls for it, you can plug this secret information into a dossier, a police file in a manila folder: "Killer M," the file says, "lost her mother when she was eight. Her father died when she was sixteen.
"She made her first kill when she was thirty-five. The victim was an innocent teenager. The motive was greed. The killer had a plan. She wanted the house on the beach, the big bank account, the big man in town."
Writing your way into a character's past unearths motive not only for the killer, but for the other main characters as well. Probing motive tells you why the victim dies. It tells you why the sleuth detects. It tells you why the sleuth's helper helps. Digging into motive sharpens your powers of analysis and observation. Since writing a mystery is a rational act, you'll be exercising your analytical muscles when you write, when you create, when you plot, and when you read other writers.
Having Fun with Writing
Creating characters for your mystery is fun. You build a body, a shape with height and weight and substance, mind and memory. You add a face, ears and eyes and teeth. You add secrets unearthed from the character's past. To cover the secrets, cloaking them from the reader, you dress the character. To make use of the wardrobe you just created, you bring the character into a scene in your story. One way to bring a character into a scene is wardrobe items: the femme fatale enters dressed like a shabby Cinderella; the killer enters naked, wearing a towel over one shoulder. Another way to bring characters onstage is through action that reveals character: the sleuth hides behind a cloud of cigarette smoke. If you write action before you know what it means, then the action pushes you to ask a question: Why is the sleuth hiding?
A scene in fiction is like a scene on the screen or stage: a single action or a series of linked actions played out in a single setting in a finite period of time. King Lear howling on the heath is a scene from Shakespeare. Hannibal Lecter killing Pembry and Boyle inside the makeshift cage in Memphis is a scene from Silence of the Lambs. Scarlett O'Hara proclaiming, "I'll never go hungry again," at the midpoint of Gone with the Wind is a scene.
Scenes help the writer envision the page as a stage. In this book, we use the term onstage to bring a character into the story. Scenes help you organize your material into units of dramatic action. Getting organized makes plotting a breeze.
In mystery writing, the scene that starts the quest for the killer is the "Crime Scene," that grim place of death and blood that is cordoned off by yellow police ribbons. One trick to scene writing is to analyze what's going on as you write.
Inside the circle is sacred turf. Access to the sacred turf is limited. To understand the power of the sacred turf inside the closed circle, the importance it holds for your writing, try playing various character roles. Dive inside the head of a character. Put yourself into the scene.
In Role One, for example, you become the Head Cop. You flash your badge. A uniformed officer raises the yellow ribbon. You pass under the barrier, a threshold-crossing into the place of death.
There's no immediate conflict here, no drama rising like steam from the page, so you try another role. In Role Two, for contrast, you become the eager Crime Reporter. You replace the Head Cop's shiny police shield, symbol of power and authority, with a press pass. Practicing your writer's craft, you move in for a close-up of the press pass. It's creased and worn. The upper right-hand corner is torn away. There is a black rectangle where a photo used to be glued on. You shove your press pass into the face of the uniformed cop. The cop smirks, shakes his head, and waves you back. No entry allowed.
To lock on to drama, you write things down as you analyze your Crime Reporter's emotions. If you were that Crime Reporter, how would you feel? Would you feel frustrated? Thwarted? Left out? Angry? You want a story and you have paid your dues in the profession and now you deserve a shot. The time is 4:00 a.m. on a cold, wet night and you're here at the crime scene because everyone else is sick or covering other stories. You've spent five years writing obituaries. They're cutting staff at the paper, downsizing, and you need this break. To survive, you need this story, right here, right now, tonight. And that cop waving you away makes you mad.
Trying out for Role Number Three, you leap from the head of the Crime Reporter into the shoes of a relative of the deceased. What do you say to this uniformed functionary to get inside the closed circle? What amulet of authority do you flash? Do you really want inside? How do you feel about death? Does it scare you? Does it excite you? Are you the killer? Do you know the killer? Did you see the killing?
In Role Number Four, you go for it, leaping from sobbing relative to the cooling corpse. Playing the dead victim gets you the top spot inside the closed circle. Playing dead in a mystery puts you at dead center. It's cold here. Wet and chilly and dank. Why are you here? How long have you been here? How are you dressed? How did you die? What is the last thing you remember before dropping off the edge? Would you like to be cremated? How well do you know the killer?
When you write a mystery, you write to entertain. The key to entertainment is drama. Drama, whether on the stage or the screen or the printed page, is produced by conflict. Role playing at the crime scene helps you define dramatic conflict. A simple definition of conflict is two agendas clashing. In real life, conflict arises when your agenda (you want your teenager home by eleven p.m.) clashes with the agenda of someone who is not you (your teenager bops through the door at 2:30 a.m.).
In the world of fiction, conflict arises when the agenda of Character A clashes with the agenda of Character B. In the role-playing crime-scene scenario above, the Crime Reporter's agenda is to get a story. To get a story, the reporter must cross the yellow police barrier and snuggle up to death. The agenda of the uniformed policeman is to stop unauthorized entry to the closed circle. To the reporter, the uniform is an obstacle to be overcome, a wall between herself and the story. To the uniform, the reporter is a nuisance, a nonentity. No badge means no authority at the crime scene. A simple action, if impeded, brings conflict into your story. The first conflict you write about in your mystery is about control: who controls the crime scene and who does not. Analyzing the roots of this conflict allows you to explore the elements of fiction: dialogue, action, and setting.
Dialogue is your shortcut to dramatic conflict. If the Crime Reporter says "Coming through," and if the uniform answers "Back off, babe," the sparks of conflict are already flying. If you write the scene and then step back, what do you see? What are the shapes? What are the patterns?
Stepping back from the crime scene, you see a closed circle of sacred or sacrosanct space defined by a threshold, the yellow ribbon or yellow rope. The threshold is controlled by a threshold guardian, in this case the uniformed cop. The drama in your scene is created by an outsider who wants inside who gets stopped by an insider whose job it is to guard the sacred space.
Because it evokes the power of myth and legend, sacred space is an important concept for the mystery writer. If you are inside and X wants in, you write about what it means to be inside the closed circle. If X barges in, you lose control of the turf. Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith, opens this way, with the sleuth losing control of the crime scene to an officer of the KGB: "A squad of KGB agents in plainclothes were led from the cars by a squat, vigorous major called Pribluda." When Character X invades the sleuth's sacred space, he sets up a conflict that helps you write faster and better.
Preparing to Write
At each step in the writing, The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery offers advice, suggestions, tips, and specific instruction. The mark of the eager beginner is to start writing willy-nilly, before the preparation is done, before the plans are drawn, before the characters are dressed to enter the story. A carpenter building a house needs plans, supplies, a foundation, models, helpers. A writer writing a mystery needs a plan, a model to follow, characters with the strength to carry the plot. The mark of the professional is to prepare before you start writing.
You have fifty-two weekends. Each weekend is writer's gold, a precious sacred time devoted to the writing. For the first few weekends, while you're trying out new writing moves, the learning curve will feel steep. Your notebook will burgeon with material, your computer will boil with the fires of creation. Teach yourself to be patient. Starting out right is important because it girds you for the long journey of writing the book. For a long journey, you need strong legs.
You'll write the book in three phases. Phase One is the first draft, where you write to discover what you know and what you need to know about this case. In your first draft you write fast and loose, flying along, the wind in your face, leaping and laughing and having fun. Phase Two, your second draft, is more thoughtful, more reflective. In your second draft, you write closer to the page, filling in gaps you left on your speedy first writing. You think a lot. You brood and analyze. Phase Three, your final draft, is a planned rewrite that pulls the book into shape.
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Warming Up. Writing is exercise. Warm up before you write. To warm up, you can speed-write or do stretching exercises or jog around the block. Writing is rhythmic, so any rhythmic activity will help you get started.
Mind Mapping. Mind mapping means you doodle on paper as you map the workings of your mind. There are two basic forms of mind mapping: 1) the branching diagram Tony Buzan describes in Use Both Sides of Your Brain; 2) the cluster diagram used by Gabriele Rico in Writing the Natural Way.
Jumping In. When we create, we take the plunge w
From the Trade Paperback edition.