Annette's blog

The mystery of writing a good mystery

For the past few months, I’ve been toiling away on my first cozy mystery, Death Goes to the Ogallala County Fair.

mysterywritingI read the most popular cozy mysteries. I spent way more time than I should perusing websites, like http://www.cozy-mystery.com/. I took an online course in how to write a mystery novel with Steve Alcorn. I’ve been busy, sometimes so much that more often than not, I failed to make my daily quota of 1,000 words. And here it is, one week from the deadline when I’m supposed to send the completed manuscript to my editor, Les Dunseith, and the book is maybe 50 percent finished. This is not good.

So, what’s the problem? Well, I thought it was because I don’t enjoy killing off people, specifically my characters. But to be honest with you, all three men (and yes, they are all men) who die in my book aren’t nice people. The world is perhaps better off now that they are gone.

I thought maybe it’s because my main character, Joni Harte, isn’t as talkative as other characters I’ve written about. If you’ve read my novella, A Beautiful Day in Alaska, then you know Charlie Land. Well, Charlie is a chatterbox. He talked to me (and still does) a lot. Or if you read Bone Girl, then you know Josey Miller. I’m closer to Josey than my own children. That’s how often she and I converse.

The main character in my mystery, Joni, has a lot of insecurities (she’d hate me for telling you that) and a secret or two. Painful ones. At least to her. So, she’s been more reluctant to talk with me. But, we’re making progress. I know her deep, dark secret and discovered some important details about her, like that she drives a 1976 AMC Gremlin and has an older over-achiever sister named Monica who is super annoying.

I know what I don’t like in a mystery novel. I don’t like it when the author doesn’t give any clues, and then somehow, when the book is 85% done, oh, here’s the villain. It was him all along. Really? Wow. Okay. Who knew?

Or, also my least favorite, I don’t like it when at the end, the antagonist turns out to be crazy. He or she did all of these evil deeds because they were mentally ill. No other reason possible. I don’t like that. I feel like it’s a cheap way out. Like, the author says, “Oh, I’ve got to make my deadline, so the murderer is Professor Plum, in the library, with the candlestick, because he’s a paranoid schizophrenic.” Fail.

So that’s what I don’t like in a mystery. What do I like? I like it when the main character (and there should only be one) has fun, quirky friends. I like mysteries that take place in a small town. Maybe I should start there, working with the things I do like:

  • I want my book to take place in a small town where the reader would want to live.
  • I want my main character to have warm, funny, forgiving friends who I would want in my life.
  • The villain – and I know the identity of that person – is not crazy. She (oops!) has a specific purpose, and for her, the end always justifies the means.
  • I want to grab my reader. I want to hold onto them so tightly that putting my book down is an impossibility. I want to own my reader. (That kind of sounds weird, doesn’t it?)

Okay. Those are my goals. But there’s one other thing very different about writing a mystery than the other four books I’ve written: I have to keep secrets. And I stink at that. No, I do. I cannot keep a secret to save my life. I’m as obvious as the nose on your face. But if I give away my secrets, then I’ll lose my reader, right? Ugh! No wonder I’m not done yet.

Okay. Enough excuse making. I must write 1,000 words today. Now. And send an email to my editor, asking to push that deadline back two weeks.

Hands and arms inside the cart: Next: Baskethound Books proudly presents the first chapter of Death Goes to the Ogallala County Fair.

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