How to Write a Mystery (or Anything) with Style

How to Write a Mystery (or Anything) with Style

When you’re new to writing, you may think of “writing style” as something you see on the fashion pages or web sites. But style, when it comes to writing, is a way of using words. As a writer, you develop your own voice — and whether you’re writing about fictional characters or non-fictional ones, you want them to “sound real,” to have their own voices on the page or screen.

Style is the subject of a long essay in the Mystery Writers of America’s book “How to Write a Mystery,” which I’ve featured in previous posts. In the essay “On Style: The writer’s voice, or, cooking with cadence, rhythm, and audacity,” Lyndsay Faye compares writing mysteries to cooking donuts; describes “Authorial Voice versus Character Voice”; and covers pastiche and “the sincerest form of flattery.” In the last section, she mentions her own credentials as a writer, beginning with a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and shows difference in style with two different quotations from the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (Of course, I recognized both.)

But Faye also covers writing style in “On Music, Rhythm and Humor” and, at the end, “How to Read.” Partly to avoid the temptation to spend more time with Sir Arthur (again), I’ll be contrary and tell you about “How to Read,” and do it by quoting some of the early part of the essay, then look ahead.

In the first section, “Why Style?,” Faye asks, “Aren’t the simple mechanics of clues and deductions paramount? Why dither around with style when a mystery novel depends on plot twists? Isn’t that like asking whether any one airport donut tastes significantly different from another airport donut?”

Then she compares taking a “hapless airport noob” and putting him in first a kitchen, then an office, and trying to get him to make first a donut, then a mystery novel. “He’ll have about the same amount of luck,” she says. “We know that there are myriad doughnut flavors — and as many styles in the mystery genre as there are mystery authors writing them.”

You may feel free, ChicagoNow reader, to extend that to as many styles on ChicagoNow as there are those of us who write them.

In “How to Read,” Faye assumes that we love to do it. “I’m going to further assume that what you read influences what you write, if only subconsciously,” she adds. In counseling us (myself included) to pay attention to style, she writes, “Style isn’t some ineffable quality possessed only by the brilliant. It’s a learned skill that will eventually mold itself to fit the shape of you.”

In my own style, I’ll add that I pay attention to the styles I love in Sustaining Books, but I also pay attention to new authors I find through a reading group on Facebook or through books passed along by friends. If I don’t like the style — if characters are so shakily written or so incomplete that I catch myself thinking of them as bad influences — I’ve finished the book right there.

There’s more to the essay, even including quotations from authors other than Sir Arthur, but giving you eyestrain isn’t my style. Making you wait for another post sometimes needs to be my style… and here it is.

Have a donut while you wait.

Filed under: Writing

Tags: How to Write a Mystery


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  • Beautifully written! So much to think about style here. I like the quote you shared, too---"It’s a learned skill that will eventually mold itself to fit the shape of you.” May we all use and delight in our own unique style. Thank you, thank you.

  • In reply to Weather Girl:

    You're welcome, you're welcome. I think being aware of style will help with all sorts of writing.

  • Or as Bing, Frank, and Dean said, you either got or you haven't got style. And if you got it, you stand out a mile.

    I think you styled the point very well.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Thank you very much. From you, that's very high praise.

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