Foundations of a Murder Mystery
How I laid out the first in the series
Welcome to the first official episode of the Oh! Murder podcast. In this installment, I share the tools and process that have helped me, mostly, keep the mystery straight in my head.
It was quite fun to ponder the thought process that lead to the creation of Iris Drake, the setting of the first in the series, and how I am organizing the process, which has turned out to be quite different than novel drafts I have worked on before.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
My cork board aka “The Murder Board”
Fashionopolis, by Dana Thomas
Transcript of Episode One:
This is Oh Murder, a podcast about writing mystery. I'm Caroline Donahue, post of The Secret Library, a writer and a writing teacher. Murder Mystery is a genre I've loved all my life. And in this show, we'll dive deep into what makes a mystery. You'll hear my audio diary about writing a series plus interviews with mystery authors, sharing their approach to the genre.
New episodes available weekly.
Welcome to the first episode of the O Murder Podcast. It's been a great joy to focus on mystery the past six months, recognizing that it has been a genre that I have loved ever since I was first reading, really, and to think there are still things about it exclusively. Has been an exercise that continues to pay off and gets more and more fun and entertaining [00:01:00] the more time I spend on it.
When I first started the Secret Library Podcast, I remember thinking about focusing on writing as a topic and speaking to authors, and I had a discussion with my husband about, Starting this show and said, okay, well what if I run out of things to talk about? What if we're just saying the same things over and over again?
And then we said, well, then the worst thing that will happen is that we would end the show and it would be something to offer that people could listen to. But now nearly seven years later, it's still going because there are still things to talk about. And so in developing, Oh! Murder as a smaller, more intimate show, I have the same concern. Focusing just on mystery, potentially, thriller and espionage as well. But [00:02:00] focusing just on that genre, aren't we going to run out of things to talk about and I suspect the answer is no, because just like any good book, any good story, it keeps evolving. The more attention you pay to it.
And it has been a new experience for me to experience mystery from the point of view of the creator, the author, I've been reading it like a fiend ever since I decided to write one and just diving in deeper and deeper to the process. So I wanted to share in this first episode the, the steps I've taken to develop the first book in the series, which will feature, not an amateur detective, but a non.
Police enforcement detective is how I'm thinking of her, Iris Drake, [00:03:00] and just sort of how the story came together and what I see for this series going forward. But I wanted to set the tone and give you the framework. Essentially, I determined I wanted to write a mystery and started thinking about, as you've seen in posts here on Oh! Murder, what I like about mystery, what makes a mystery for me, what kinds of books I enjoy reading, and I found that while I enjoy the sort of amateur sleuth subgenre of mystery, I don't want the main character to be someone who's simply nosy. Basically, I didn't want a Miss Marple or someone who just gets themselves involved in other people's business, and that isn't because I don't enjoy books in that genre, but more, I didn't know that I could maintain that, and that somebody who was just a bit nosy wasn't someone I wanted to hang out with For many, many, many volumes in a series.
So what I determined was [00:04:00] I wanted a character who had expertise that would make her, because I knew it was a her early on, I wanted her to have expertise that would put her in the position of people turning to her if something happened and I was interested in a situation where people were outside of their usual reality and away from home when things unraveled.
I really like a locked or closed room or a closed house mystery. I also wanted for these stories — because I always saw them as a series — to take place in such a way that we weren't always in the same place. I love to read series like Commissario Brunetti, who is always in Venice, or Louise Penny's books with Gamache, where they're always in Three Pines and things change, but [00:05:00] we're always in the same place. Same with the Max Tudor series where they're always in the same village, but I didn't wanna have a Cabot Cove or a Midsomer Murders situation where anyone who's new gets killed or we wonder why the population of this county isn't completely decimated by all the murders that are happening there.
It just didn't seem enjoyable to me. Plus, I wanted the chance to think about different locations. So this combined into Iris Drake, who is an academic criminologist who also writes mysteries. She started doing this for fun and then, one of them got submitted and then it was a hit.
And so now she has two jobs and is a bit embarrassed that she writes these popular mysteries because she wrote them to entertain herself and they don't appear as serious so her academic colleagues, who make fun of her a bit for [00:06:00] the stories that she writes, but she enjoys writing them, anyway.
This was a way for me to imagine a character who would have the expertise necessary, and also someone who is an academic and a writer would have to travel either to promote her books or to go to conferences or to give lectures and so on. I also thought that someone who is attempting to balance an academic career and writing these mysteries would sometimes need to escape to write without distraction.
And unfortunately, for poor Iris, I never give her an escape. I have a list of about 17 different locations where she may go for events or conferences or even just a writing retreat. And unfortunately, there's always gonna be somebody who gets murdered.
So I apologize to Iris in advance, but this allowed me to imagine part of the enjoyable part, which is exploring a different location as well [00:07:00] as giving her a chance to solve a mystery with a different cast and not have the entire county of wherever she lived get destroyed. The first idea I had was, what's a limited place where someone can spend time?
I was fortunate enough that my in-laws were off on a trip — a small cruise through the Scottish Islands.And they had done this once before, which they really enjoyed. The landscape appealed to me, given the fact that it was not a Caribbean cruise where the water is friendly and if you fall in, it's not a big deal. I liked the icy water, the craggy coast and the sense of danger that the landscape gave, even as it's really beautiful.
So I decided, okay, well what happens if you put a very dysfunctional family on a ship in the middle of a bunch of other people? And [00:08:00] then it all unravels. The other issue that was helpful about this part of the world was: could the weather be terrible enough that the ship's communication would get cut off?
Or it was dangerous to land the ship in such a way that you've got a murderer or even murderers on a boat and the only person with any qualifications to look into this would be my character. And that was how this all started. Those were a couple of things that I thought about in developing the story.
I'm about 20,000 words into a draft. Now I'm planning to write a first draft that's about 50 to 60,000 words in the next month. That's what I'm going for, and then I'll do a reread and flesh it out, but I want to understand what happened first. The next stage is, I know there are two victims in this story, and I know who killed one of them, and I know why — [00:09:00] that was clear from the beginning.
But the sort of main victim, per se, is the patriarch of this dysfunctional family who's celebrating his retirement, and my challenge was to make a character or to envision a character who was so awful that multiple people would want to kill him. And I don't yet know who did it. I have written the scene where he's found dead, which was quite enjoyable, but I'm not quite sure who, who actually stabbed him (because in this case it's a stabbing) and how I conceived of this was I wanted to think of a character who was very disliked, even feared in his family system. But also [00:10:00] even beyond that, I wanted someone who had had a career that impacted people he had never met.
And one thing I like about mystery, and I believe Patricia Highsmith said this as well, is that you can explore serious issues in it because it's a propulsive genre. It's something people want to get through the story, to find out what happened. And so you can put things in there that would feel heavy handed in other genres.
And so I made this main victim a very high-ranking business executive in the fashion industry because to me, Having read an excellent book called Fashionopolis, it was clear how many people's lives were impacted and are impacted [00:11:00] by choices made in the fashion industry.
There's tremendous environmental impact. There are jobs that are moved, gotten rid of, companies downsized, or shifted to other countries. There's a lot of abrupt movement in the name of the bottom line, and many people's lives, businesses, lifelong industry and so on, could easily be destroyed by a decision made in a boardroom that never saw the people it impacted.
And so I liked the idea of a victim who might have no idea who his killer was, and therefore we can start to hide other people on this ship who have very strong feelings about him and that he wouldn't recognize. I didn't want it just to be about a dysfunctional family killing each other off. I don't know if it will be someone who is within the ship’s guests, but [00:12:00] I think that there may be someone who wants to kill him, at least one, someone who wants to kill this character who is on the ship with them, and that has been quite enjoyable to play with.
The other thing that I feel strongly about as a mystery writer is I'm not interested in writing books in which the victim is a helpless female. I think we have a lot of that trope in mystery.
We have a lot of serial killers who kill a bunch of prostitutes, or we have women killed by an angry, jealous, overpowering partner, et cetera. And while that narrative is real, domestic violence is real, women are overpowered and killed all of the time, that to me does not feel like an area that I want to be exploring, [00:13:00] nor a narrative I want to contribute to.
I'm not interested in that trope — I think most of a film that's not a mystery, Sin City, which I struggled with, is this “oh, poor woman gets brutally beaten up or killed, therefore, a man goes on vengeful rampage” and that isn't something I wanted to explore. I was more interested in male victims and what would lead to people resorting to murder as the only way to address their issue or feeling like their only option is to kill somebody off and the power dynamics present in that were something I wanted to explore more.
And so both of the victims in this book are male, and we will see if the killers are as well. As I said, for the main victim, I'm not sure yet. There's great enjoyment in putting someone on a ship with a bunch of people [00:14:00] who have plenty of reason to kill him.
I've been developing the characters such that nearly everyone could muster up the anger and rage necessary to kill this guy. We'll just see who finally goes through with it. And that's been the process so far. I've been looking at moments that I envision from the beginning. There's been moments that are clear to me that are present, and then I've been thinking of situations where different characters interact and where Iris can get to know them and learn more about who they are and how they're connected.
The challenge at 20,000 words in is making the setting interesting to me — and ultimately to the reader — because we're on a small ship and I've been setting conversations in different locations on there. They do in the initial stages make outings off the ship onto points of [00:15:00] interest, but ultimately the weather won't allow that to happen any longer.
So the challenge is not to make this boring and repetitive, and I think, probably around the 30,000 word mark, I will pause, reread, and look at what scenes need to be inserted to flesh the story out.
The actual blow-by-blow process of how I've been doing this is:
I make notes about scenes. I have a character list that I keep in front of me so I remember what everyone's name is.
Then I write scenes on my Freewrite Traveler, which is essentially a glorified word processor. I don't write on the computer for first drafts. It's too distracting. I want to go and look names up or research things, and then I'm down an internet rabbit hole. So I find the best thing is to draft into a machine which does not allow me to edit, does not allow me to scroll up, does not allow me to go [00:16:00] back. It's just get the words on the page.
Then I sync these drafts into Dropbox and copy and paste them into individual scenes inside of Scrivener.
Scrivener is where I keep track of my progress. Given that I want to get to a 55- to 60,000 word draft by mid-January, I'm shooting for about 900 to a thousand words a day, five to six days a week and it's been going okay.
I often go over this count and so that's how I'm drafting. Then I will export that draft into a PDF and read it on my iPad. There's a really nice program called Notability which allows you to make notes as if you're writing on a paper copy (if you have an Apple pencil) it is available for iPad. I'm not sure what other platforms, but [00:17:00] it is something that I have used and my students have used a great success to read PDFs and then making handwritten notes if that's something that you enjoy.
Because when I wrote my first novel, the bulk of a physical printed copy was pretty overwhelming, and so this is a way to have the feeling of that with the portability and lack of storage needs, at least physically in your home that you might require if you kept printing out physical copies and making notes on them. So Notability is great, and that's where I am right now.
I also have a giant corkboard on the wall, and I have had Polaroid- style photos printed for it. I pulled pictures of actors and public figures off the internet that remind me of my characters, and then I have written the name of the character in the bottom wide stripe of the [00:18:00] Polaroid area and then I have them pinned up on the board so I can look at them. And so I remember who is who. Cause we've got quite a large cast. And then I keep thinking, okay, who hasn't had enough time on the page, who have we not gotten to know? Because I want to balance it and I also want there to be more sense of, ah, I could see why this person would kill someone, or I could see what would push them over the edge.
And so that's been the challenge as well is to, to include everyone and to get them all in there. I think a big part of the second draft will be going back and making sure that we have enough characters in there and that it's clear who they are and that they're distinct from each other, and we all know who we're dealing with.
So that's where I am now. One final tip I wanted to share I recently decided, based on my enjoyment talking to Richard Osman on the Secret Library about the third Thursday Murder Club [00:19:00] novel, that I would reread the second in the series. The second might be my favorite of the three books because we already know the characters and the story is so propulsive, and it was so engaging that I read it in one day about a year ago, and I still remember it.
I remember what I loved about it, but I decided recently to reread it and I'm really glad that I did, because having already gotten through, knowing who did everything, knowing how the twist and turns happen, I'm now able to pay attention to the inner workings of it and his approach and his thought process about, okay, how am I going to get these characters from here to there?
How am I going to introduce this possibility? How am I going to make this all work? And so I'm learning a lot from. I think we tend to read mystery for entertainment. Those of us who love [00:20:00] it finish a book knowing who did it, and then we move forward. But I encourage you, if you have a mystery that you really love, or a writer that you really love, to consider rereading and looking at how the pudding is made, so to speak, or how the strings are pulled behind the scenes because there is quite a bit you can learn.
I think I'll leave it there for now. It's really lovely to explore this process, share what's going on, and to bring you behind the scenes as I'm working on this book, and I look forward to sharing more.
Thank you so much for listening. I'll see you in the next episode of the Oh! Murder podcast.