How Not to Write a Mystery

computer and desk
Pat’s office

Pat here! To be totally frank, I come to you unprepared today. I’m drafting this on Friday, and the blog, with pictures yet, must be edited, revised, formatted, and up by Monday. I’ve been running behind the last month or two, which is unusual for me.

I’m generally one of those really annoying people who plan ahead and finish early. I stress out if a deadline looms and I’m not ready. Not only does preparation ease my anxiety, but it pays off in other ways. I once had a publisher close its doors without paying its authors, using as anlock and contract excuse that writers never met deadlines, thus voiding their contracts. Maybe others hadn’t, but I had two books sitting on my editor’s desk. They might want to close their doors, but first, by golly gee, they had to pay me a significant chunk of change for books they never published. It’s nice to have one’s bad habits rewarded!

But times have changed. My deadlines are more flexible. And I don’t know if I’m slowing down or if trying to plot mysteries is just more difficult than romance. I’ve always done a plotline involving some mystery or suspense, but the romance has always been the driving factor. Now that the romance has taken a back seat and I misty mountainhave to actually know who the villain is. . . I drag my feet.

I’ve always known I “fly into the mist” when I write because I’d lose interest if I knew the ending. But writing a mystery without knowing the villain just does not work. Believe me, I’ve tried. So I need motivation to keep writing. Romance usually works, so I nudge my characters toward romantic situations. Only this is a Regency country house where everyone knows everyone’s business. Realistically, only a few of my well-bred characters will do more than kiss until the vows are said. Longing looks do not drive a book!

Which means my weird combination of not actually knowing how the book ends and having to write clues leading toward that non-existent ending is a very effective time-waster. I sit in the sunshine with my trusty gel pen and spiral-ringed notebook and scribble fascinating scenes ray of sun in forestand interactions, letting my characters run loose.

And then I come back inside, type it all into the computer, throw half of it out,  and edit the other half to ribbons to make it conform to what needs to happen. And after all that cutting and slicing, I have to go back and read over the week’s words to make sure the glue in between the pieces holds.

And the glue tends to be research, I’m learning. Mysteries thrive on tiny details the reader might not know or might simply enjoy reading about. Unfortunately, that can work against us. I have read way too many mysteries padded with details about the house, the town, the hobby, or all of the above, so that I give up caring about who did what and delete the book without finishing. So I have to be wary that my obsession with renovating a crumbling manor or the history of the English church or book auctions holds events together, pushing the plot forward, and not book cover creating stumbling blocks to the action.

This is why they say it’s easy to be a writer—all we have to do is cut open a vein and let it bleed over the page.

Are you a procrastinator? Or are you right there on top of the calendar and clock?

And what do you find in mysteries that please or irritate you?



10 thoughts on “How Not to Write a Mystery”

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful post, Patricia. I’ll admit to being guilty of procrastination, but I do generally meet deadlines.

    Hmm, what do I like/dislike in mysteries? I enjoy believable scenarios unless it’s a paranormal mystery in which case the sky’s the limit!

  2. If I have no idea who the culprit is, or the situation plays out to be no murder but a strange series of events that cause the murder, then I feel good about the ending.

    I has to be varied enough in circumstances to intrigue me all the way to the end, and then surprise me.

  3. Your comments really encouraged me. As a writer just coming back to the craft, I enjoyed reading about your process. I have been dithering about a book based on a true story that happened in the 1940’s in Chicago ( when I was five) and a light bulb came on while I was reading…

  4. I particularly like mysteries that require collaboration between two investigators, where collecting clues also provides the matrix for developing romantic emotions. Eventually the mystery can be subsumed beneath the romance either in a one-off or eventually in a series. I assume that the mystery will be solved so the romance can dominate my interest! Good luck … looking forward to reading the result!

  5. I used to read many mysteries, but I was always hunting for a relationship of some kind in them, be it romantic or friendship, and I’d lose interest in mysteries that did not have that element. I find I have no interest at all in the sort of mystery that has no real characters and only moves puppets around or plays tricks on me. Also I have been known to quit reading mystery series in which the continuing or central characters had no relationship, or had a stupid one. I am enjoying your current Gravesyde Priory tales because the books do contain relationships and the characters seem real and individuated. (I could do with a checklist though.)

  6. I’m half & half on procrastination. Some things just have to be done on time but if there’s wiggle room, I take it. As for mysteries – I love them – especially if some romance is involved. The only thing I hate is when an author leaves you with loose ends or doesn’t fully explain everything.


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