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,
Hugs to all,