Tuesday, December 6, 2011


Welcome to the 12th day of our MYSTERY WE WRITE HOLIDAY BLOG TOUR featuring 15 dynamite mystery writers, including yours truly. If you leave a comment on each of our blogsites, you may win one of the 50 plus books that will be given away either during the tour or immediately following December 8th.

Mike Orenduff
Today I’m featuring award-winning author Mike Orenduff, and he’s going to tell us what makes a good mystery story. Mike is the author of The Pot Thief series, which are set in New Mexico. THE POT THIEF WHO STUDED ESCOFFIER is his latest in the series.

 What Makes a Good Mystery Story?
by Mike Orenduff
 I don’t understand why the most common question I get at signings and talks is, “Where do you get your ideas?” My usual answer is, “I steal them from other writers.” That gets a laugh and – unless the questioner is persistent – also gets me off the hook.

The fact is, ideas are the easiest part of writing a mystery. Ideas are like the atmosphere; they surround us. We breathe them in by the thousands every day. Try this experiment the next time you’re out shopping. Look at the people and things around you and think how they might fit into a mystery story. When you see the young man collecting the carts in the grocery store parking lot, put that in a mystery. Maybe you see a villain making his escape by collecting carts while the police rush into the store because who notices the kid collecting the carts? Maybe you imagine someone seeing a cart with two large boxes of rat poison and remembering that scene when she reads about a mysterious poisoning. Then she wonders if there might be fingerprints on the cart handle despite all the people who may have touched it in the intervening days. Don’t like these? Then make up some better ones. I’ll wager you can come up with them easily.

It’s also easy to create characters and settings. The components of a mystery story are not the challenge. When one mystery is better than another, it ‘s not because it has better pieces, it ‘s because it has better writing. Suppose you want to have your protagonist describe a woman as attractive and then change his mind as he gets closer. You could have him say, “She was a quite a looker, but as I approached her bar stool, I changed my mind.”  It isn’t a terrible sentence, just pedestrian. This one is better: “From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away." That sentence is from The High Window by Raymond Chandler.

Writing mysteries differs from writing romance, science fiction, or adventure because each genre has its own traditions. Mysteries have a murder, suspects, clues and a solution. There are also guidelines about the order of things. It’s generally a good idea to have the solution closer to the end of the story than to the beginning. But there are no hard and fast rules. You can’t write a good mystery by just lining up the components any more than you can write a good song by just lining up notes.

Obviously, not all good writing is the same. Chandler had Marlowe speak with irony and hyperbole. Lawrence Saunders had McNally speak with whimsy. Two different styles, both successful.  If I could teach people to be good writers, I could make a lot more money doing that than writing books. The best advice I can give is find the right voice for your protagonist and stay consistent.

Thanks Mike, for visiting us today and for this most interesting post.

Remember Readers; leave a comment on each of our blogs. This group is giving away over 50 books total, either during the tour or immediately afterwards. I’m giving a signed copy of my cozy mystery THE INCONVENIENT CORPSE and a signed copy of THE FOXY HENS AND MURDER MOST FOWL. Names will be drawn by random from those who take time to leave a comment.

Hugs to all,



Jackie King said...

Mike, Thanks for being my visiting-blogger today. And I agree with you, coming up with ideas is the easiest part of writing. In fact, most of us develop our "idea-detector" to the point where we have to pick and choose. Really good post.

Mare F said...

Very sage advice. I am glad that you are writing rather than teaching writing. I'm too far away to enjoy that.

M.M. Gornell said...

Great line, Mike, "Ideas are like the atmosphere; they surround us." Gonna have to steal it! (smile)


Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Yep, ideas abound--I wish time was as plentiful.

Glad I found you today. Always like to read your posts.


Jean Henry Mead said...

I agree. Ideas are everywhere and there's not enough time to develop them all. Very good post, Mike, as always.

Beth Anderson said...

Great way of putting it, Mike. The ideas aren't the hard part. Putting the ideas into logical and fascinating order is, and then finishing the book is too.

Mike Orenduff said...

Thanks for hosting me, Jackie. There is no writing group where I live, so going to conferences and being on blogs are about my only chances to talk about and hear about writing. The latter is a lot cheaper. I've learned a lot from the blogs and also from the comments.

john M. Daniel said...

Mike, as usual, you know what's what and you say it just so. Ideas are all around us, because people are all around us. And it's people who are at the heart of plot. The trick (and you do it well) is to put the pieces together with a lot of imagination.

Alice Duncan said...

Hey, Mike, do you mind if I steal the line: "I steal them from other writers" the next time anyone asks me where I get my ideas? LOL!

WS Gager said...

Mike: The educator in you shines in every post and I'm glad to reap the benefits of your wisdom. Thanks, Wendy
W.S. Gager on Writing

Anne K. Albert said...

Great post, Mike. One well known romance author says she gets her ideas from "the girls in the basement." She keeps them there, under lock and key, so she never has to come up with a story idea herself. She claims it saves time! ;-)

Jackie King said...

A special thanks to my Tour Partners. It was wonderful of all of you to drop by and leave a comment. Life was a bit complicated today, so my time has been limited. But it was really nice to come home and read your thoughts about Mike's post.

And Mike, it was such an honor to have you on my blog today. Thanks again.

Jackie King said...

Mare, Thanks for your own sage remark. Your name goes into my drawing for a chance at a free book at the end of this tour.

South Australia Holidays said...

Coming up with ideas maybe the easiest part of writing but getting such innovative ideas isn't easy. Some of the ideas usually don't sound well at start but one should stay persistent. Ideas are like the atmosphere but everyone can't feel it. There are only a few people who can get them.

Jackie King said...

Hi, S. Australia Holidays,
You're right. An idea that seems brilliant when you think of it, may seem dull the next day. I think that's one reason why a person needs to immediately write down the idea. It doesn't solve that problem, but it does help. I also agree that ideas have to be developed, nurtured and constantly mused over.

Glad you stopped by.