There’s no mystery about writing mysteries.
September 25, 2015
RECENTLY I ATTENDED a workshop conducted by two detectives and an attorney. The main focus of the workshop was how to best produce the captivating mystery that has been spinning around in the brain for who knows how long.
What is there to writing a mystery, be it “cozy” or graphic? Pure fiction or true crime? After all, the entertainment world is filled with mysteries running the gamut of the old Perry Mason whodunits to present-day stories, such as Criminal Minds, CSI, and everything in-between. That is a very simplistic viewpoint because mysteries have been around for as long as the human race has existed.
The essence of this workshop was to reveal to the struggling authors present as many of the “ins and outs” that the police, detectives, and attorneys meet every day as they cope with understanding the criminal mind—why someone did what they did to eliminate a life, to violate someone’s private property or person—and how to prevent that someone, or someones, from continuing a crime spree.
Depending on the crime being investigated, hours of interviews with people who might have some insight to the criminal action, collecting evidence–even what might seem insignificant, but could make the road to an arrest more viable–spending hours writing reports, waiting for lab results on evidence submitted, are only a few of the expectations anyone working in law enforcement might meet on any given day. To this end, we were told don’t rely on the television crime shows. They have to solve their crimes in an hour, or they wouldn’t have an audience—anathema to the media industry.
Develop your characters and let them be the focal point, not trying to impress the reader with all the gimmicks and newfound knowledge gained in research was the real message we were given. As with any research, less is more when it comes to keeping the reader’s attention.
After hearing about how DNA results are not obtained overnight, except in a paternity case, because there is so much that can be gleaned from processing it, that a crime scene is just that, and must be preserved from the curiosity-seekers from contaminating it. We learned how carefully measurements are taken of the crime scene, even including a measuring device against evidence. So precise must the measurements taken by the officer be that the scene can be reconstructed to the exact inch if necessary. Of course, photographs are also vitally important for studying the placement of evidence.
John Foxjohn, detective-turned-author, considered himself to be the right person in the right place at the right time—something not often given to an author. When it was discovered that suspicious deaths were occurring at the Davida Dialysis Clinic in Lufkin, Texas, an investigation led to a nurse who had injected bleach into the IVs of certain patients during their dialysis procedures. John, a resident of Lufkin, found himself at the core of the story, because, as he said, he is a writer, he lived in Lufkin, and the clinic was there, and not another writer closer to the scene than Houston. He did not miss the golden opportunity and the result is a best-selling true crime story he called Killer Nurse.
I came away from that workshop understanding that writing a mystery depends on knowing when and where to put your clues, let the characters tell the story, don’t try to tell the reader everything my research has taught me, and keep the reader guessing until the end who really done it. Not an easy task, but worth the satisfaction of producing a great story.
Patricia La Vigne is the author of Wind-Free.