1 Large Pot
2 cups Arsenic
3 Red Herrings
Tae 1 Large Pot—Setting
Before setting is decided, what type of mystery will you write? Hard-boiled? Cozy? Police procedure? A hard-boiled take place in a certain setting—a contained time and place. Cozies are found in sweet, unassuming little towns (“What a lovely shop, Myrtle, oh, gee, where did this dead body come from?”). Police procedures use crime-fighting agencies. Plots and characters all grow out of setting. A gumshoe in a hardboiled? Then, of course, we need Needles No-Nose, the muscle with the local bad guys. Characters are already growing just from the setting we chose. But remember, when cooking up a mystery, don’t get lost in a too exotic locale.
Add 2 Cups Arsenic—Crime
If arsenic isn’t readily available, any means of sufficient lethality will do. The operative word being “lethal.” Just like flipping an upside-down cake, when cooking up a murder, I always start with the ending, answering two questions: Who is to be murdered? And how will the dirty deed be accomplished?
And even answering the two questions, I begin with the last one; the “how.” The “how” of the murder flavors the story—salts it, if you will. If an innocent bystander yells, “She’s been POISONED!” I’ve given my readers an image of a sweet, dainty, little maid who stands to inherit a mint from the rich, but very ill miser. The “how”—poisoning has taken my mystery in one direction. Poisons are a good murder weapon but remember they are considered girly.
What if the story jumps in the middle with an exclamation of “He’s been SHOT!” My, oh, my, it must have been a mob hit (Needles No-Nose?). Or the drug cartel. Or someone sufficiently bad. My readers will be taken in another direction entirely from the poisoning. But what type of shooting has occurred? Remember, someone who kills with a 9 mm pistol is very different from the perp who uses the Saturday night special. And a 12-gauge shotgun wielder bears little resemblance to the cowboy action aficionado using a lever action rifle. The “how” tells the reader what type of ride they’re in for.
And there’s always the possibility of mixing genres. For instance, a “She’s had her head BASHED in!” with the story then going into gory detail of what exactly the gruesome deed entailed, we’ve just added a new element. The flavor of the book is now borderline horror.
But what about the “who?” The victim, the guilty, and the method are all intimately intertwined. The choices made flavor the story but they also lead to its credibility. Even though it’s fiction, the reader needs to get lost in the story. Would anyone believe a tale about a ninety pound grandma executing her victims with a .50 caliber sniper rifle? While it would definitely be an interesting read; “Granny’s blue-hair waved in the wind and the dark blue tattoo—Grandson—stood out boldly on her sagging triceps. She steadied her rifle and controlled her breathing as she took aim.” It would not pass the smell test of believable fiction.
3 Red Herrings—Clues
How much misdirection is enough? With no red herrings, the story becomes a plodding mess. Car chases, explosions, and ninjas are always fun but the reader needs to work. She needs to be invested in the story and trying to solve it. On the other hand, if the reader feels he must use graphing paper and an abacus to keep track of all the suspects, blind allies, and dead ends, the story has become too complex. Too many red herrings will sour the stew. The amount is akin to Goldilocks and the three bears brand of seasoning: just right.
Let it Simmer
Suspense. Foreshadowing. Clues. Place hints along the way. If it’s the gun-toting grandma or a shovel-carrying socialite, hints about the murderer must be placed at the beginning to give credibility when reaching the end. Granny needs to be buying ammo in chapter one if she’s to be a-killing in chapter thirty. The shovel-carrying socialite who bashes her neighbor’s head (attempting a hostile take-over of the local elementary school’s PTO, of course) before the book even started, needs to be bragging about how pilates has helped her stay strong for shoving in her garden. That traveling shovel of death didn’t jump out and murder on its own, unless it’s an urban fantasy but we’ll tackle that at a later date.
Check for Doneness
Plotting a mystery takes time with the proper ingredients. And when we think it’s done, we need to check. Do we have a crime that fits with the murderer? Is there misdirection to engage the reader? Does the setting further the story? Foreshadowing? Suspense? Like a well-prepared meal, a mystery takes delicate care that are the pieces are in place in the proper proportion.