"How do you do it?  I could never write a mystery."  I'm sure most mystery writers hear this question often.  I teach a mystery writing course at a women writers' retreat in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York -- a perfect setting for a murder, with mountains, a lake and an island a short canoe-ride from the old Lodge.  In fact I've written a short story called "Murder in the Boathouse" to be published soon in the Retreat Anthology.  I teach my writing students that it's not so intimidating a task if you just break it up into its natural sections.  Any mystery must have five ingredients.

  (1.) a Detective, with or without a sidekick.  The detective may or may not be a human.  Dogs and cats make popular detective series and I've used a pig named Priscilla in some of my stories -- pigs are really smart animals, particularly the old heritage breed of pig I use.  (Yes, I did my research on a heritage pig farm - this breed likes to take off on "walkabout" but they always return; I witnessed such an episode.)  I use two nosy Puritans as detectives because Puritans were supposed to be nosy to keep their neighbors on the straight and narrow, and nosy makes a good detective.  A sidekick is handy because he or she can be in other places while the detective is busy at the crime scene.

(2.) the Setting.  I emphasize the setting because it should be chosen with serious consideration.  It's a clue to the mystery and may BE the mystery, aka: Salem in 1692, a foggy London street or a canyon in the Southwest.  My setting is Boston in the 1690's and I'm really lucky in that you can still find 1690's Boston walking from the Common down the dark little side-streets to the Union Oyster House shucking oysters at the bar since the early 1700's, to the North End past Paul Revere's house, up Copp's Hill to the burial place of the Mathers, father and son,Puritan ministers who are featured in my books, often using Cotton Mather's own words which are unintentionally funny.  From this spot you can overlook the harbor and easily imagine the forest of wooden masts and furled sails the Mathers saw in their day.  (I have to note here that it was father Increase Mather who, returning from England, stopped the Salem Witch Trials cold.)  Not every American city has such an ambiance ripe for mystery writing, although Jane Haddam's Armenian community of Philadelphia is certainly a major part of the story.

(3.) a Victim, either of murder or theft.  The victim may be a nice person or a nasty one; I often transfer persons I know and don't like to the grave via my writing.  Change details, of course.  I've been told that they never recognize themselves anyway, but why take a chance on getting sued?

(4.) a Villain.  You can't make the villain too obvious or you spoil the fun of solving the mystery for the reader.  I mean, just one look at Darth Vader and you know he's the Bad Guy.  You can even write the story from the villain's viewpoint, if you're Agatha Christie or Dostoyevsky.  And make sure the villain has an element of humanity in him. No one is totally evil -- think of Tony Soprano or the Godfather movies.  Even Darth Vader had his redeeming moment.

(5.) Clues and Red Herrings.  The Greeks had a Deus ex Machina, a God who could drop down from the skies and solve the problem for everyone.  That doesn't work nowadays, although some well known writers have used this tactic.  When the murderer comes out of left field and has never been introduced into the plot, that's cheating. You have to plant clues within the body of the story so the reader can figure out the answer, at least when he/she looks back at it.  Remember the man out walking his dog in chapter three? He used the dog to meet women....   (Did the dog do it?  Only Steven King can make that work.)  Red Herrings are clues that mislead the reader in the wrong direction.  Maybe a bystander saw a flash of red cloth and Madame Nicholai has a red cloak in her closet....  Perhaps there's a paw print on the floor -- but the victim feeds the neighbors' animals.  Sprinkle red herrings as well as clues throughout the story -- it's fun!

If you divide the mystery into five parts it becomes a much easier task to tackle, doesn't it?  Good luck and good writing.

Death of a Cape Cod Cavalier Blurb:

"Relaxing on Cape Cod isn't easy when there's a body floating in the Bay. Hetty Henry, on the Cape for a shipment of oysters and friend Creasy Cotton, there to preach to the Natives, find that murder, sex and business are a strange mix." 


Bio:  M.E.Kemp is the author of five historical mystery with a sixth in the works; she also writes short stories and essays.  Kemp  lives in Saratoga Springs, NY with hubby Jack and two kitties, Boris and Natasha, who are her most severe critics - they often shred her stories to bits.      


Jackie Houchin said…
Thanks M.E.(me?) Kemp for the mini mystery writing course. I feel like I've had an afternoon visit at your Lodge retreat. All those 5 things are very necessary to a mystery, but the thing I struggle with is the PLOT. What happens to the victim by the villain at a certain place that one or two smart people discover after following several WHAT happens? That's my conumdrum within a mystery within an enigma.... or whatever Churchill said.
Great post!. Thanks, Marilyn for guesting her.
I loved this post too. Wonderful tips.

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