Relationships, moral dilemma or social situation, with some skill and unraveling can
create a mystery novel. A vague idea can certainly, if you have enough interests and
intrigue about it, carry a novel. Keep in mind the example used so often that it is nearly a
cliché –The King dies and then the queen died – is not story/novel length material. The
kind died, the kingdom mourned, in various ways. The queen faced serious setbacks and
troubles not to mention her deep despair at losing the love of her life. Now you have the
emotional connection you need to hook your reader. She eventually died, some say, of a
broken heart. There you have enough wiggle room for a murder mystery novel.
An emotional connection to your story idea is the first essential piece of the pie. "no tears
in the writer, no tears in the reader." Is an apt phrase here.
"Growing a novel is like doing an acrostic puzzle," says Marilyn Wallace.
Your first idea may not have all the pieces you need to solve your puzzle, but, as you add
characters, a fact or perhaps a place that nearly becomes a character itself, maybe a new
situation, you see your story idea grow with enough pieces to build a 80 to 100,000 jigsaw
puzzle, your novel.
Questions for every writer become more specific for the mystery writer. What if? Why this?
What next? As you grow your story you figure out and separate (at least in your mind) what
appears to have happened from what really happened.
In my novel Death by candlelight, (and I use my novel as an example because there are
no copyright issues and I know it like the back of my hand.) the trigger, the idea, was a
young girl crossing a span of unkempt grassy expanse along the Silverton Narrow Gauge
Railroad tracks in Durango, Colorado. The weed and grass growth sent thoughts of
snakes and black widow spiders through my mind. I watched her descend from a second
story apartment, down tall wooden steps. I assumed it was her apartment and across the
expanse of neglected foliage a block away was a line of businesses. I could only see the
backs of them and they didn't tell me what they were. Her apartment was also above
some sort of business. As she crossed the expanse of tall prairie grass and weeds in
her knee-high moccasins, her long chestnut color hair danced in a gentle summer
breeze, but her manner was not playful, not one of joy. It seemed she had a sadness, a
determination punctuated her gait. The story idea incubated while I worked at my day job
That evening I interviewed her, at least, on paper. Who was she? Where was she going
that morning? Why was she so sad? Her waif-like appearance haunted me. I couldn't
chance that idea escaping as others had. I sketched a quick and brief word picture of the
girl, the target, of my observation. I can still see her today, as if I merely saw her this
It was the catalyst, but her story grew and developed over a series of sessions as I
fleshed out her character, her problem, and the rest—her story grew into two novels. My
cover artist saw her in my mind's eye and crafted her and the essence of my story onto the
cover of Death by Candlelight and Candlelight and Shadows.
That chance encounter on my way to my day job became impetus for my career as a
Committing your ideas, your thoughts to paper, scraps stuffed into a shoe box, written on
3x5 cards or some other system, or jotted onto a computer file. (which you , of course
back up religiously. But that's another issue.)Whether your idea calls for a character
sketch, interview, detailed outline , or guessed or designed questions, once committed to
paper your idea is safe until you are finished with whatever else is on your writing slate of
After a visit to a particular tourist attraction, The House on the Rock in Door County,
Southern Wisconsin, I had my well so full of ideas, I thought I would burst. This happened
over fifteen years ago. I am finally writing the novel that is growing from that memory. Of
course, I will need to revisit the place to keep my facts true. Things change, the one
constant in this world is that things change.
I'm sure the frightening carousel and the huge orchestra, life sized, suspended from the
ceiling in one of the exhibits will still be there with the same sense of intrigue, awe and
fear these three exhibits in particular forged in my mind. The river boat and the giant
oriental flute player will remain alongside these more frightening memories, but he may
also appear in the novel. I filled a three-inch, three-ring binder with pictures and prose of
the vacation trip that led me to the House on the Rock. I'm finally comfortable enough with
my memories and the panic attack that the experience created in me, that I can write
"Orchestrated Murders, with my seamstress protagonist, Leona Augustine. She was
hired and delivered from her native Poland with no strings attached, I think at this point.
Some things become more vivid once they are anchored by the act of writing them down.
The biggest part of grabbing images that spark and dash like fireflies at night and may
look so ordinary by day break you wouldn't recognize their worth, if you hadn't jotted a note
to yourself about them, is just that, writing them down in some form.
A mystery writer's mind is always wide open, gathering, gathering, storing, storing. You
never know when two threads might come together or three and develop into your
breakout, best selling, mystery.
Marilyn Wallace again, "Mysteries have an enduring appeal because they tell stories of
people and passions, conflict and consequences, they chronicle the moral dilemmas
and interpersonal collisions of our times."
There will always be more ideas where these came from because one thing that never
varies is change, which fires the chain reaction of new ideas for the mystery writer.
Make your reading time absorbing. Pit your wits against the accidental sleuth, who may
be in a job like yours. Subscribe to my free e-zine Mystery Readers and Working Writers,
the free e-zine for mystery lovers. Get a free e-booklet “ A Nice Quiet Family” a very
short/flash mystery. http://www.billiewilliams.com
|A Mystery Writers Idea Pool
Beginnings: ignite, trigger and Flare
|Galleys Are A Scary Thing
Not Shipboard Galleys but Book Galleys
I’ve turned in my Galley’s the last step before publication. The scary part about them is I’ve
recently reviewed and passed yea and nay judgments on editorial comments by my editor as
well as looking for more corrections myself. So the book is all too familiar to me. I tried
reading sentences backwards to be sure I was seeing every word – Of course I read them
forward first. I found a few typos that still escaped the editor, copy editor and me. Now the
finals are back to me. They are what the world will see March 1, 2011 when they go live on the
I held, in the back of my mind, some advice on writing from a book I’ve been reading Hooked,
by Les Edgerton. He says in your inciting incident it is not about loud and action packed entry
into your story that what you need to hook your reader is rather “The intensity of the wanting is
what introduces an element of danger.” Lower the volume he says. I know that is true. If you
test it with a roomful of energetic, active youngsters – to get their attention you whisper, you
will see the accuracy of this statement.
E.F. Hutton knew long ago what Edgerton expounds to me. Remember that commercial that
ran so long ago. If you want to get someone’s attention Whisper. And they whisper “When E.
F. Hutton talks, everyone listens.” I heard then and I hear now…a hook doesn't necessarily
begin by cranking up the noise.
Begin with a small moment to create your inciting incident. He uses Thelma and Louise in
the movie as an example. I looked at July Heat – Judy July is sitting in her class room grading
student papers. She is a creative writing teacher in a small community college. Her student's
papers elicit memories or quandaries she'd rather not have, not here, not now…maybe not
She's plagued not by memories exactly but by what she can't remember.
The hook is the first brief, potent statement of what is the matter with the central character,
what his/her problem is, what difficulty s/he is facing. Edgerton says “…the pulsating pile up
of adverbs rarely add the punch that strong, stand alone verbs can.”
A fast start is made with short sentences, paragraphs and quick action or punchy dialog.
While a slow start is made by invoking a mood with the description of setting, time or place.
July Heat starts out slow. Yes, it's just a tiny classroom far removed from where she started,
so how can these student papers tear at her life and make her wonder what she is doing
there. When she only knows she can write because she has, under a pseudonym JJ
Watergate, are the ideas in those books things she knows intimately? Or are they just some
fabrication of an over active imagination?
The reader wants to know the circumstances of Judy's emotional tug of war. This is the
inciting incident. I hope it is the one that will pull the reader into the story – hooked until the
end. As I read through my galleys for the final time, I had a feeling that if Edgerton was right—I
had done exactly what I should have done. I’ve started my book in the right place. Only time
will tell, sales will show me if I’ve hooked and held my readers. I can only hope.