Have you ever read a mystery novel that was so good that whenever the killer is unmasked, you sit back and say, “how did I miss that?”
Agatha Christie was the Queen of Crime, the Titan of Twists, the Ruler of Red Herrings, and the Countess of Cozies. I remember fondly reading my very first Christie, And Then There Were None, at the tender age of 11 or 12, and being floored when the killer was unmasked. How on earth could that person have been responsible? But then upon a second (and third, and fourth–hey, I loved that book!) reading, I realized that the killer could not possibly have been any other person.
Of course, I’m attempting to write my own murder mystery, and let’s just say I have a long ways to go before I’m even worthy to on the fringe of Christie’s esteemed court.
To help me on my journey, though, I recently came across this gem of a book, Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel by Hallie Ephron. In 30 succinct chapters, Ephron breaks down the process of writing a mystery novel, from planning the personality and character of your protagonist sleuth, the makeup of the victim, and the supporting characters that may or not be suspects or villains, to writing that dramatic opening that will catch a reader’s attention and the how to incorporate clues, red herrings, and misdirection.
What makes this book so unique, though, are the numerous exercises and worksheets that accompany each chapter, which can be downloaded from the publisher’s website (a godsend, since I HATE writing in books!). Honestly, I’ve only made it to chapter 2, because I’m trying to get the most out of it by actually filling out the worksheets. The second chapter is all about fleshing out your main character, the sleuth, which sounds easy, right? I’ve had my main character, Mira Welles, pretty established for a long time, both in my head and in the first draft I’m currently 54,000 words into. I know her looks, personality, backstory, etc. But these worksheets actually made me dig deeper by asking questions that seem pointless but actually can inform the writer (and reader) about the character: What does your character wear to work? What do they sleep in? Is their hair color natural? Any tattoos or piercings?
Another worksheet asks about personality traits: What does your character find humorous? What is their capacity for violence or intimacy? What kind of swear words would your character say when annoyed or angry?
Perhaps the most telling of all, and something I had to really think about, was the “Under Duress” worksheet: What would your character do if they get a bad haircut? Get propositioned? Discover condoms in their significant other’s possession? Discover their best friend is embezzling?
Through all of these different worksheets, I’ve discovered a lot more about Mira than I had previously, and since I hope to turn this story into a series, these really help me flesh her out for book one, and add more about her in subsequent stories. Now on to Chapter 3: The Crime and the Victim’s Secrets!