Tuesday, September 20, 2011

YES, YOU CAN WRITE A MYSTERY! Guest blog by former Sisters in Crime President Judy Clemens

I love mysteries and thrillers, especially spiced with romance. To help me find fab mystery/thriller writers I am sharing with you advice from one of the best, my client Judy Clemens. This is a repost from the summer of 2009, but so worth repeating. Check out Judy's bio at the end of the post to see who you are getting advice from. Enjoy!
Yes, You Can Write a Mystery!
August 16, 2009

As the president of Sisters in Crime (http://www.sistersincrime.org) I am privileged to be part of a small team of people who travel annually to visit publishers, agents, distributors, booksellers, and many others in the publishing industry. We sit down with them and ask questions about what they see in our crazy writing business. One of the things I’ve learned is that there are not enough good mysteries out there for young people. If mystery authors want kids to love mysteries, we have to give them something to read!

Perhaps you haven’t written a mystery before but would like to take a stab at it. Don’t let the idea intimidate you! Whether you are a young person writing your first story or an adult trying a new genre, the main ideas of writing a mystery are the same, and if you break them down, they’re not as overwhelming as you might think. We all have our own slant on how we want our characters to act, look, and solve a mystery, but we share the basics of the genre, no matter who or what we are writing about. If you have these things you can be writing about teen-agers, wizards, or dogs, (or a teen-aged wizard’s dog!) and you will have a mystery.

One of the main things to remember when writing a mystery is that readers are smart – often smarter than writers give them credit for. They’re going to notice things, even small things, so you don’t have to hit them over the head with descriptions, clues, or solutions. Make things clear, of course, but be careful not to over-explain or you’ll find yourself giving away the ending in chapter one! As in many things in life, this is one more example of “Less is More!”

So, take a look at these mystery standards, and if you have them, you’ll know that what you’ve written is, in fact, a mystery.

Mystery Check-List
1. Characters. In order to write a good mystery, you need to provide the reader with characters who are both believable and interesting. Think about what your character has that will catch a reader’s interest. Is she really smart? Is he a good skateboarder? Is she happiest when in the company of her collie? Think of something that will set your character apart, and make the reader care about him.

2. Setting. This is where your story takes place. Is it in a school? On a farm? In the city or a small town? In a moving truck? Or a treehouse? Once you know where your story happens, think about the details that will make your setting come alive. What does it smell like? Are there sounds? Is it hot or cold? What colors are around? You want your reader to feel like she’s right there, with your characters.

3. Conflict/Problem. There has to be something gone wrong to make a mystery. Has your character’s homework been stolen? Did your character’s best friend lie about something important? Are your character’s parents or teachers acting strangely? Did your character get in trouble for something he didn’t do – but he knows who did? A mystery needs a central problem your character needs to figure out.

4. Plot. The plot is how your character solves the problem. How will she discover the solution and what will get in the way so the answer isn’t too easy? What obstacles can you put in your character’s way? Let your character find some answers, then throw another problem in his path. Your story needs to be a puzzle, with twists and turns, not just a straight shot to the answer.

5. Clues. Any good mystery has to have clues. In fact, clues are one of the main things that set a mystery apart from other kinds of fiction. Your reader will want to be able to go back through the story when you’ve revealed the solution and see that the clues were all there – this is called “playing fair with the reader.” If you introduce someone in the second to last chapter, and he ends up being the killer, the reader is going to feel cheated, and you will have a hard time getting her to pick up another one of your books. The trick -- and it’s one you have to experiment with – is in giving clues without giving away the ending. How can you slip in information without being too obvious? This goes back to what I mentioned in the introduction: Readers are smart. You don’t have to mention more than once that the killer has had a gym membership at the same facility for ten years. When something happens at that gym later on in your story, the reader will make the connection. And even if she doesn’t at that very moment, she can go back and find it in the text. In fact, she will expect to find it in the text. If it’s not there, you’ll hear about it. The planting of non-obvious clues takes practice, but with some time and work you’ll get the hang of it.

6. Suspense. This is another huge part of mysteries – you need to keep your reader turning the page. It’s all about unanswered questions – and they don’t have to be big ones: Will your character be home in time for dinner so his parents don’t ask questions? Will your character’s big sister find out that your character used her computer? Why did your character’s best friend act so strangely in science class? Without suspense your mystery has no meaning – there must be obstacles and questions which arrive in the course of investigation that keep your character working toward a solution, and must also keep the reader wanting to read “just one more chapter.” If there is no suspense, you might as well tell your reader the solution in Chapter Two. Suspense is the fun part of the mystery’s journey!

7. Solution. Of course you must solve the mystery for your readers. No one wants to be left hanging at the end of a book. Give your reader something that is believable and interesting, and is the result of the clues you planted earlier, and they’ll come back to read your next story!

Judy Clemens is the author of the Anthony and Agatha-nominated STELLA CROWN MYSTERY series, and the GRIM REAPER mysteries, including FLOWERS FOR HER GRAVE, which came out in August, 2011.  http://www.judyclemens.com

Judy Clemens’ Books and Reviews 

FLOWERS FOR HER GRAVE (Poisoned Pen Press, 2011)

"You have to hand it to Judy Clemens for providing her amateur sleuth with a genuinely offbeat gimmick: she travels with Death."
--New York Times Book Review

"...readers will find themselves thoroughly entertained by this oddly appealing mix of the jaunty and the macabre."

THE GRIM REAPER’S DANCE (Poisoned Pen Press, 2010)
“A must for those who like their mystery spiced with danger, dark humor, and a fascinating heroine whose toughness is tempered by compassion."
—Charles Todd, author of The Inspector Ian Rutledge Mysteries and the Bess Crawford Mysteries

EMBRACE THE GRIM REAPER (Poisoned Pen Press, 2009)
“The intriguing first in a new series from Clemens…Clemens is adept at creating an appealing cast of characters while keeping the plot moving at a fast clip.”
--Publishers Weekly

“Clemens features a new leading lady with the promise of depth.”

DIFFERENT PATHS (Poisoned Pen Press, 2008)
“This unique series deserves a much larger audience and more recognition.”

“A sprightly tale and a surprising ending, along with Clemens’s trademark quirky characters.”

THE DAY WILL COME (Poisoned Pen Press, 2007)
“…a solid addition to a series that improves book by book.”
--Publishers Weekly

“Clemens certainly keeps you guessing.”

TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE (Poisoned Pen Press, 2006)
“Featuring fast-paced prose and well-drawn characters…The third entry in Clemens’s Stella Crown series won’t disappoint fans of the first two books.  Strongly recommended.”
--Library Journal (starred review)

“The art of skin decoration plays a large part in…Judy Clemens’s third entry in her superlative series about Crown, which gets stronger from book to book and is unlike anything else being done in the genre.”
--Chicago Tribune

THREE CAN KEEP A SECRET (Poisoned Pen Press, 2005)
“In this second Stella Crown mystery, Clemens has a winner.”
--Publishers Weekly

“Readers who fell hard for Harley-riding heroine Stella Crown…will be delighted to see her again.”

“Milk cows, motorcycles, and Mennonites seem like an odd combination for a mystery, but Judy Clemens makes it work.”
--Boston Globe

“If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting one of the most original figures in recent crime fiction…Judy Clemens’ perfectly realized second book about [Stella Crown] is a good place to start.”
--Chicago Tribune

TILL THE COWS COME HOME (Poisoned Pen Press, 2004)
Anthony and Agatha Award nominee

“This is a terrific first book with wonderful characterization.  Stella and her cows are not to be missed.”
--Romantic Times

“She’s smart.  She’s tough.  She’s sexy.  She’s a dairy farmer?  Clemens makes her not only believable but admirable…Stella makes an endearing heroine in a promising first novel.”

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