First off, for those of you who may live a little north of New York City, I’ll be signing books at a children’s book festival a week from Sunday, on September 25th, in Tarrytown. I’ll just be signing, not speaking, but I’ll be there for two-and-a-half hours, and unless a miracle happens, I’ll have time to chat. This is a wonderful event, with many terrific kids’ book writers. Details are on the website. Hope some of you can come!

On June 16, 2011  AngieBelle wrote, …I have read many mysteries and am always fascinated by how the author ties everything together- even in seemingly simple children’s mysteries, which are usually what I’m reading. How does one come up with all the details that lead to solving the mystery?

I’ve written two other posts about writing mysteries, one on May 27th, 2009, and one on January 6th, 2010, which you may want to look at too. These are additional thoughts. I said in the earlier posts that I’m a newbie mystery writer, and I still am. In fact, I would welcome tips from other mystery writers who read the blog.

In my first mystery, A Tale of Two Castles, I didn’t know who the villain was until I’d written two-thirds of the book, and this worried me, as you can imagine. But then this character did something revealing, and I knew. The advantage of this is that the bad guy’s identity may come as more of a surprise to the reader if it was also a surprise to the writer. I’m not saying that careful plotters and outliners can’t create mysteries that feel unpredictable, only that this is the approach that worked for me, on a single book.

I’m trying it again in the new book, Beloved Elodie (tentative title). I’m making several characters potential villains, and I’ve invented back stories for each that could give them a motive for the crime, the theft of a flask, which, if not recovered,  will cause hundreds of lives to be lost.

These back stories can supply the details that pile up in a reader’s mind. In A Tale of Two Castles again, two of my characters were spies, which I didn’t reveal until near the end of the book. Their undercover activity caused them to act suspiciously. I knew why but the reader didn’t, and I could sort the details out because of my secret knowledge.

The back story technique goes something like this: Madame Peppercorn is knifed to death at midnight. Mr. Marjoram is found with a knife. Congresswoman Thyme was seen loitering near the scene of the crime. Professor Basil was overheard arguing with Madame Peppercorn the day before the murder. Madame Peppercorn’s daughter, Miss Allspice, has been corresponding with a lawyer about declaring her mother incompetent. Doctor Nutmeg was prescribing sedatives to Madame Peppercorn for her anxiety. Detective Tarragon finds clues galore, details galore. The reader goes to sleep at night counting spices.

But the author knows the following: Mr. Marjoram had the knife to protect himself from a colleague who threatened him; Congresswoman Thyme lost her engagement ring somewhere near Madame Peppercorn’s estate; Madame Peppercorn demanded an acknowledgment from Professor Basil in his forthcoming book about rich old ladies; Miss Allspice is worried about her mother’s recent memory lapses; Doctor Nutmeg murdered Madame Peppercorn because she threatened him with a malpractice suit, which he knows would cost him his license. He visited her, ostensibly to explain his prescriptions, knocked her out with something that leaves the digestive system quickly (Is there such a thing?), and stabbed her to death.

The author can keep it all straight because he knows who’s doing what for which reasons.

I’m not as organized as the above herbal mystery suggests. I toss in clues and details willy-nilly, hoping they’ll come in handy later, but I do make up the back stories – usually. In A Tale of Two Castles I had a mild-mannered character speak harshly at one point. I didn’t really have a reason, simply that it was late at night and he was alone. My editor asked me to tie up that loose thread and fondly told me she was sure I knew the character’s motivation. I didn’t, but at that point the book was written. All the elements were in place, and I found the character’s reason, and it fit.

It fit because writing is magical or the human mind is magical, which I’ve said before on the blog. We plunk in details to enrich our stories, to flesh out our characters, hoping the details will come do double duty and be useful for the plot, but when we write them in we have no idea how that will happen. We keep writing and find, often enough to be remarkable, that this little thing, for example a character’s fascination with a certain painting by Toulouse-Lautrec, turns out to be the key to the entire story.

Some of what I throw in turns out not to belong, and I waste time on plot points that don’t take me the right way, but these come out in revision, and some points were interesting to explore even if ultimately not right. Writing isn’t efficient, at least not when I do it.

A few months ago I bought a book on writing mysteries, then read only part of it because most of the advice offered didn’t apply to fantasy. But I do remember one rule: neither too many suspects or too few. The author suggested at least three and no more than six, a good rule, I think.

In A Tale of Two Castles, suspects abounded because my victim was despised and feared by many. I narrowed the field simply by authorial spotlight. The people I shined my beam on were implicated; the hundreds of others never entered the picture. The mayor, for example, was present when the crime was committed, but I paid no attention to him, so he didn’t become a suspect.

Is this fair? I’m not sure, but without this technique many stories couldn’t be told.

The crime in Beloved Elodie takes place in an isolated spot, so the number of suspects is limited. Still, a few more characters are present than I can use, so these extras’ time on the story stage will be short.

As readers, we anticipate future events, even in a non-mystery. The writer gives us clues that the story characters can’t pick up on. Watch out! we want to scream to the main. This friend is treacherous!

Mystery readers tend to be extra vigilant about clues. I don’t read mysteries with a pencil and paper, taking notes, trying to figure everything out logically, but I do keep an eye out for the likely villain. This habit as a reader is worrying me as a writer. If, for example,  I make Ms. Clove an unpleasant character, the reader may think, It will be too obvious if Ms. Clove does it. She can’t be the thief. Then if I make Mr. Turmeric nice, the reader may think, He’s too sweet to endanger all these people; he can’t be the one. But maybe the author will think I won’t suspect Mr. Turmeric, and he really did do it.

If it turns out that Mr. Turmeric is the villain, the reader will think that’s predictable and be disappointed. If Ms. Clove did it, the ending may feel too easy. The solution has to be layered, surprising characters. I’m working on that, but the predictability factor is on my mind.

Here are three prompts:

•    In the mystery of Madame Peppercorn’s murder, write interviews between Detective Tarragon and the suspects. Have the detective discover the meaning behind some of the statements and misunderstand others. (You can pick a different villain if you like.)

•    In 1967 silk magnate Jim Thompson disappeared while visiting a friend in Malaysia and was never seen again. Here’s a link to Jim Thompson on Wikipedia: The entry goes into the disappearance in some detail, and you need to read that part in order to do the prompt. Your challenge is to solve the disappearance. If you like, you can turn the circumstances into fantasy.

•    Now for a children’s mystery. You may know the nursery game, “Who Stole the Cookie from the Cookie Jar?” It’s just an accusation and denial. Turn it into a story and solve the mystery. The trouble, of course, is that the most important evidence gets eaten.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Mystery Puzzle

Before I start, I want to point out a new link on the page, right below the two websites, which will take you to an interview with me.  I hope you’ll check it out – and then come back.
This week I’m combining two questions.  On December 11, 2009 Amanda posted this comment:  I’m thinking about writing a mystery novel but I’ve never written a mystery before. Do you have any tips on how to write one?
And on December 23, 2009 Curious Mind wrote:  I like a bit of mystery in my writing, but cannot seem to hold back information very well, and there is no suspense.  Any suggestions?
Taking the second question first, a lot can be fixed in revision, so putting everything in is fine in the first draft.  Sometimes I include information simply because I need to know it, and I’m discovering it on the page.  When the story is written, or when I’m far enough along to tell what’s necessary and what’s not, I prune.
Heaps of background can bog a story down, without a doubt, but suspense and withholding information aren’t necessarily the same.  Sometimes the more the reader knows about a problem the more worried he will be.  Giant spiders in the house are scary, but giant spiders who can find their way through a maze faster than a rat are scarier.  Throw in a main character who is deathly allergic to spider bites, and the reader should be wringing her hands in fright.  I don’t want to keep this information to myself, and I particularly don’t want to whip it out at the last minute.  The reader should have time to stew in fear.
Lawrence Block writes a mystery series about a crime-solving thief, Bernie Rhodenbarr.  I don’t like Block’s technique of skipping over details that help Bernie solve the crime and then letting the reader in on them later when the truth comes out.  Unfair! I yell at my book – and continue reading, because the story is too much fun to put down.
Amanda, I have written only one mystery, so I’m no expert.  Right now, I’m writing notes and exploring what may be my second.  I’m feeling at sea, the way I usually feel at this stage of any book.  I don’t even know what the mystery will be yet.  I have an idea who some of my main characters will be, but I don’t know which are good and which are evil.  At least two will have secret identities, but I don’t know which character will attach to which secret identity.
Some mystery writers have it all plotted out before they start.  I’m sure they’re initially confused – or I hope they are – but they wait for certainty and an outline before they begin the narrative.  Others just plunge in.  I’m in the middle but closer to the plungers.  Still, I need more of a direction than I have so far.
Ambiguity about who’s bad and who’s good can work in your favor and mine in a mystery.  A character can act with kindness and then turn around and do something terrible, leaving the reader mixed up.  You can maintain the uncertainty and push the character to finally reveal himself – and then you can cover up the revelation so your reader doesn’t even notice it.  For example, suppose something very valuable goes missing and your villain is a thief.  Suppose also that the owner of the object has just moved and the movers put boxes everywhere, kitchen boxes in the den, bedroom boxes in the kitchen.  Throw in that the owner is super forgetful and could have put the precious thing in any box or have left it behind in the old house in a dark corner of a closet.  To make matters worse, the owner has a new puppy who’s prone to eat almost anything.  By now there’s enough dust in the reader’s eye to conceal a league of thieves.
At the heart of a mystery is a who question, of course.  Who committed the crime?  The crime can be anything from murder to a stolen cupcake to a betrayed friendship.  In the mystery I just finished, A Mansioner’s Tale (tentative title), the crime that starts the mystery off, the theft of a dog, isn’t the main crime.  The first is a precursor to the second, but Lodie, my main character, doesn’t realize that.
Underlying the who question is the why question.  Why was the crime committed?  What was the motive?  It’s probably possible to find out who without ever learning why.  I bet this happens often in actual crimes, and I suspect it’s frustrating for a jury.  Still, I think a successful whodunit might be written without ever answering the why question.
In most cases, however, the why question is answered.  In the mystery I just finished, the victim is hated by many.  There are legions of suspects, and the reader doesn’t know whom to trust.  But you could go the other way.  The deceased could be beloved by everyone.  Who would hit such a saint over the head?
You can pile on puzzles and possible clues.  In A Mansioner’s Tale several characters wear rings and bracelets made of twine.  Lodie wonders if the wearers belong to a secret society that has it in for the victim.  A character who presents herself as poor is seen haggling with a jeweler over an expensive bracelet.  A honey-tongued man speaks harshly.  A gate is left open.  An ox is mauled.
It’s fun to confuse the reader.  Going back to Curious Mind’s question, extra information can add to the confusion.  Your main character can hear gossip about someone that may be entirely false.  Or the gossip can be contradictory.  Or the intelligence can be true, but the source can be a known liar.
You can fool around with all the elements, not just who and why but also how, as well as opportunity, alibi, ability (a small woman overpowering a big man, for example).
Even in stories that aren’t primarily mysteries, there are likely to be puzzles.  Somebody dislikes the main character, and he wonders why.  He gets straight As on all his Chemistry tests, yet the teacher gives him a C on his report card.  His sister keeps coming home late from school.  His mother has begun to sew although she used to hate domesticity in any form.
For a little more on this subject, you may want to revisit my post of May 27, 2009 called Mystery Mystery when I wrote about another aspect of mysteries. 
Here’s a prompt:  Think of someone you know but not very well.  Invent a secret for this person, one that goes with your idea of her.  It can be a dark secret or not.  Turn her into a character.  If she were going to commit a crime, what would it be?
Now do the same for four more people.  If you are inspired, write a mystery story involving one or more of them.  Have fun, and save what you write!