So you want to be a mystery writer

First, let’s see whether you qualify. If you’re standing at the lake shore on a gorgeous morning, looking at a blaze of autumn leaves reflected in the placid water, and there’s a canoe pulled up at a small wooden dock, and you think: “That canoe should have a body in it for my detective to find” – my friend, you’ve got the makings of a mystery writer.

Also, can you write sentences shorter than that last one? Good. May come in handy.

So you’ve got the makings, and you want to write mystery novels. Here are my tips.

You’ll find an independent income very, very helpful.

I know! I don’t have one either! My income is totally dependent. In fact it’s often reduced to standing on LinkedIn and craigslist, holding up a tin cup and a sign: WILL WORK FOR PRINTER PAPER. OH, AND INK CARTRIDGES, I NEED THOSE TOO.

Meanwhile, my employers, with a tunnel vision that I can only attribute to unhappy childhoods, insist on paying me to write dull business-oriented documents. I ask you, does the world need any more of those? No. What the world needs more of is mystery novels.

I start being helpful here. Well, kind of.

It helps to have an “in” with a police department. Even if you write cozies staffed with amateur detectives, you may end up needing a cop character, and you will want her to behave in a cop-like way. Or you can make him eccentric (eccentric cops are usually male), but you should still know the rules against which your budding Inspector Morse is planning to kick.

While you’re developing your “in” with the police, word your questions to them carefully. I once called a policeman with the following book-related query: “Suppose a woman named Zanthie meets a guy in an airport, and he asks her to look after his small daughter for a few minutes, and then he doesn’t come back, and the kid doesn’t speak English, so the woman takes the kid home with her, and – ”

“She shouldn’t take the kid home with her,” the cop interrupted. “She should take the kid to the authorities in the airport.”

“But if she does that, I won’t have a story.”

Click.

So how do we get around that one? Should we lie and tell the cop that Zanthie is spaced out on goofballs?

“But in that case,” he will interrupt, “she shouldn’t be driving.”

Cop logic. It’s so damned logical.

Timelines are helpful. Take my soon-to-be-published novel Fall Crush. (This is not the book that stars Zanthie. In Fall Crush, everyone behaves rationally. Well, except for the Frog Woman, but what do you expect from a spectral amphibian?)

In the course of writing Fall Crush, I created a five-page calendar in Word that lists every event in the book from July 21 through Thanksgiving 2008. This helped me pace my clues. It also charted developments like the progress of my heroine’s treatment for shingles, so I wouldn’t cure her in chapter 21 and start her scratching again two chapters later.

Okay, full disclosure. When I describe Fall Crush as “soon to be published,” I mean “in my dreams.” These are the same dreams in which I’m living in a flat in Highgate and dating Alan Rickman. Would you like to hear more about my dreams? No? Okay. The point is, a writer’s reach must exceed her grasp, or what the hell! As Browning might have said if he hadn’t come up with a better line.

The one indispensable guide to the writer’s life

And speaking of a writer’s dreams, the best advice I can give you when it comes to preparing for life as mystery writer – or almost any kind of writer – is to read The Unstrung Harp; or, Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel.

In this short illustrated work, the great Edward Gorey takes Mr. Earbrass through the writing process from soup to going nuts: from trying to think of a plot, through making diagrams (similar to my calendar), to seeing his characters assume “a fitful and cloudy reality” and re-reading early chapters (“Dreadful, dreadful, DREADFUL”).

"Why didn't he become a spy?"

Also, staying up all night (“neglected sections of the plot loom on every hand”); discussing with his publishers (Scuffle & Dustcough) “the ramifications of a scheme for having his novels translated into Urdu”; and lamenting with other writers “the unspeakable horror of the literary life.”

Buy it. Read it. Believe it. You will end up feeling like Mr. Earbrass in this image. Take that on board.

Then go ahead and write your mystery novel anyway. And please, let me know how it’s going. We can lament the unspeakable horrors together.

(Illustration by Edward Gorey, from The Unstrung Harp; or, Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel.)

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5 thoughts on “So you want to be a mystery writer

  1. Daniel, you’ll find Mr. Earbrass and other crazy characters in Edward Gorey’s book “Amphigorey; my copy was published in 1972. I’m not sure if Mr. Earbrass is available separately. Hope you find it!

  2. I don’t want to write a mystery. I just want to read ones that YOU write. And if you have any trouble with character names, I know someone who is an expert. love molly xo

  3. I’m no mystery writer, but I did think of a good name for a dectective the other day: Harlequin Smithers. Kind of has a ring to it, don’t you think? As always, I find your blog a joy to read. molly

  4. Thank you, Molly, aka @salamicat, aka @insearchofnovel. Your gift for naming people is such a joy. I’d love to work Harlequin Smithers into a mystery, along with some of your other crazy characters.

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