Where to Start -- or Should it be 'How to Write: a Mystery?'

Where to Start -- or Should it be 'How to Write: a Mystery?'
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In “How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America” (New York: Scribner’s, 2021), noted members of the group have published essays about the craft and things that you might not realize are included in it.

The table of contents provides categories for those who want to look for a particular facet: The Rules and Genres, Other Mysteries, The Writing, and After the Writing.

It’s a little like reading editorials or other opinion pieces; The Writing section includes Jeffrey Deaver’s Always Outline! and Lee Child’s Never Outline! (italics in originals).

For those thinking of just starting out, Deborah Crombie’s essay on plot is on p. 166, as if to say “Not so fast.”

In the first essay in the book, Neal Nyren writes about “The Rules — and When to Break Them.”

(If you don’t recognize a writer, please ask in the comments — I’ll answer from the About the Contributors pages.)

Nyren’s second paragraph quotes W. Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for the writing of a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” But as Nyren notes, that hasn’t stopped people from making rules.

Nyren notes S.S. Van Dine’s “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories,” in 1928, and Ronald Knox’s “Ten Commandments for Detective Fiction,” from 1929. (Knox was a Roman Catholic theologian as well as a writer, so he can be forgiven the term.) But it wasn’t all that long ago, 1973, that Brian Garfield added “Ten Rules for Suspense Fiction.” Elmore Leonard published ten rules of writing in 2001 in the New York Times, but Nyren doesn’t provide a title for that list.

Nyren writes, “The lists are useful for writers of crime and suspense fiction, and well worth absorbing, although some of the earlier ones are, let’s say, problematic. (Knox’s rule number 5 reads ‘No Chinaman must figure in the story.’) They’re useful because if you’re just starting out, you need to have some sense of what you’re doing — what the conventions are, what the subgenres are, what generations of crime writers have found that works or doesn’t work.”

So you need to know the conventions before, as Nyren puts it, “you take those conventions and smash them.”

So what is it you are writing? That’s valuable for anyone to know. (Even I have to remind myself sometimes that an e-mail isn’t a blog post. I can go longer here.) As Nyren explains:

“Mysteries are about a puzzle. A crime is committed, usually murder… . It’s a more cerebral endeavor, and the key question is ‘Who did it?’

“Thrillers are about adrenaline. Something bad happens, with the certain promise that more — and probably even worse — bad things will happen unless the protagonist can prevent them. … Whatever the case, it’s the suspense that drives the book, the chase, the scramble, and the key question is ‘What happens next?'”

If that feels too clear-cut, it is. As Nyren writes, “Many books are pure mystery, many books are pure thriller — but as you know from your own reading, it’s much more common for a book to have elements of both. Traditional mysteries can be filled with suspense, headlong thrillers can be tied to enigmatic puzzles — there’s your first lesson on how the genres explode.”

Names like crime novel and police procedural often get used for sub-genres, and they are indicators of what gets emphasized.

So as Sean Connery’s Jimmy Malone (yes, Jimmy!) put it in the movie version of “The Untouchables,” “Here endeth the lesson.”

Filed under: Writing

Tags: How to Write a Mystery


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  • The real world takes some of the mystery out of this. First, how many of Chicago's 797 murders in 2021 remain unsolved? 500 some? Although the media won't say, we know most have to do with gangs and drugs, so not much of a mystery there. Then there are all the true crime shows, including the 5:30 p.m. newscasters appearing on the network ones, and the CSI type shows.

    The kind of mysteries I'm more into is trying to define what kind of dementia makes people say "I'm fully vaccinated, but not that vaccine," or consumes ChicagoNow's copyist in south Florida.

    It;s also a mystery whether your writers' 10 rules are similar to Brad Bigg's 10 observations on the Bears game, which usually has 10a, 10b, 10c, and 10d.

  • I've read a few of the rules lists over the years, and very few go even as far as 10a.

    As for the real world vs. mystery novels, the period between the world wars is known as "The Golden Age of Mystery." Not because of the world situation -- or maybe it was, because with all of the world's problems going on, mystery novels were the one thing that had a neat solution at the end of the book.

    Present-day problems may be what the theologians call mysteries, the kind of thing with no answer in this world that we can know. The novels commonly called mysteries are actually puzzles, because of those solutions at the ends of books.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    I would argue that most present problems can be solved in the factual sense (i.e. someone can figure out if the Wuhan lab weaponizd the virus; the pandemic can be abated with vaccines and the new pills; whether the former occupant plotted the insurrection), but there isn't the will to overcoming the obstacles to doing so.

  • In reply to jack:

    Well argued, thank you, Jack. This could make a thriller, the "what happens next" kind of story: Will the former occupant and his cronies come to justice? Will the obstacles stop too many people, or will the people stop the obstacles?

    Ian Fleming could have done wonders with this!

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    First whodunnit: WaPo book on "Rudy; From 9-11 Cool Head to License Suspended." Foreword by Perry Mason.

  • Great post--And comments!

    I am intrigued by the rule about the Chinaman. Was this a stock character, a villain, like Fu Manchu? Wasn't there a Chinese detective, Charlie Chan?

  • In reply to Weather Girl:

    Thank you. Yes, Charlie Chan was a famous book and movie detective. Well done. By the time he appeared, that rule must have been wearing out, if not smashed as the essay mentioned.

    I think the idea was that exotic meant villain, and the villain should not be so obvious as to be the most exotic person that time could imagine, a Chinaman. The villain should be more ordinary in order to be hidden better.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    Thank you! That's a great explanation.

  • In reply to Weather Girl:

    You're welcome!

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