Building a mystery.
As a notebook junkie, the early stages of this mystery-writing experiment required me to compile my stationery system.
I’ve shared the general overview of how I keep a process journal on other platforms, so I’ll let you check that out separately, should it be of interest. Here on Oh! Murder, we’ll confine ourselves to the part of this method that’s been exclusive to mysteries.
For me, a good mystery — and any good book really, is about believable complex characters. In literary fiction, we see characters face challenges and come up against obstacles, but in murder mystery, we have to take these elements even further.
What believable scenario would cause a person to commit murder?
Those of us who read mystery regularly are willing to suspend disbelief in certain arenas. This is particularly true when talking about a cozy mystery series.
For example, how many people in an idyllic village have to die before readers or viewers find it fishy? After twenty four years, people are still watching Midsomer Murders, which has boasted as many as 27 deaths in a single episode. (Four Funerals and a Wedding, which came out in 2006, included 15 murders and 12 additional deaths, although not all of these occurred in the present day of the episode).
However, this is not an isolated case. I happily read Val McDermid’s Tony Hill series and watched the televised version despite the statistical impossibility that every single murder could turn out to be committed by a serial killer.
Once we’ve accepted that readers are ok with fantastical killing sprees, what do they need to believe to be hooked?
The psychology of a murder mystery.
A mystery takes us through the puzzle of someone dying unnaturally up to when we learn whodunnit.
The different sub-genres take different stances on who dies, why, and how much of it we see.
In a crime drama, the victim is usually innocent of any real wrongdoing, and their death is more a reflection of the mind of the killer. Think aforementioned serial killers with a strong preference, a partner of someone who lost their cool, or something as simple as being in the wrong place at the wrong time and learning something the killer wishes they hadn’t.
In these cases, we need to believe that the killer is far enough beyond redemption or incapable of believing there’s another way to solve their problem in order for them to kill.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have the cozy mystery. In this realm, we have the nasty victims who have it coming. The reader rarely sees them die onscreen or on the page, but in early scenes of the story, considerable time is spent getting reader to empathize with anyone who might kill them.
Here we have the violent partners, blackmailers, extortionists, and other antisocial or unsympathetic types readers know instantly are going to get bumped off before long. This realization doesn’t cause them to lose sleep or feel anxious going about daily life.
To illustrate the contrast: I read the initial Scarpetta novel by Patricia Cornwall, in which the profile of the victims (women who lived with roommates who often traveled for business) was eerily similar to my own, and couldn’t sleep for weeks afterward. On the other hand, I have never struggled to sleep after an episode of Midsomer Murders or when reading G.M.Malliet, Rhys Bowen, Hannah Dennison, M.L. Longworth, Louise Penny, or even Donna Leon, who even toes the line between crime and cozy.
The first step developing the series.
I was clear from the beginning that my series wasn’t going to take place in a tiny village where the population had to be replaced in each installment, nor did I want to give myself nightmares or have to move out of my apartment, as Lars Kepler did after mistakenly basing the killer’s apartment on their own.
Writing as M.C. Williams, I endeavor to toe the line between cozy and gritty. I seek a victim who won’t be mourned extensively, but who the reader can understand was acting in a logical and believeable fashion, if only to themselves.
Drawing on my psychology background, my first stage has been picking the following:
Names for the cast
Identifying the victim(s)
Guessing who likely did it
Motives for nearly everyone in the story
The first few weeks were scratchy notes on the overall scenarios. I like a Christie-esque closed circle mystery, but one that doesn’t happen in a country house. This was the challenge I set myself and sketched out in my first notes.
Finally, I had to determine who was going to investigate and solve this murder. Once again, I preferred straddling two conventions: I didn’t want a law enforcement professional who solves the mystery because it’s their job. I also didn’t want a complete outsider, who is simply nosy or incredibly unlucky. The concept of the reluctant expert appealed, and so I found a solution that satisfied me:
An academic criminologist, a sought-after speaker who’s attended numerous conferences in the field and therefore knows investigators around the world, who has expertise, but not the crime-solving job title. McDermid’s Tony Hill couldn’t resist hanging out at the police department and often risked his academic responsibilites profling killers. That wasn’t right for me.
My character enjoys her work and doesn’t want to leave the university world. However, on a lark, she herself wrote a mystery for fun, using the knowledge she gained through her work to write a book as stress-relief and entertainment.
Unfortunately, the book got into an agent’s hands, sold, and has now become an incredibly popular and lucrative endeavor causing two problems she didn’t want:
She is now famous, and quite recognizable
She has book deadlines as well as semester deadlines
In the middle of this irritating scenario, I have found my main character:
Iris Drake, PhD.
This is wonderful stuff. I've been deeply interested in the construction of murder mysteries, over the years, and you gave me some new food for thought.
I am loving this! Not only have I ordered a couple of books from your list of authors but I’m fascinated by how a murder mystery is put together.