How to Write a Mystery: finding your voice

How to Write a Mystery: finding your voice
The china figure of Peter Rabbit in my own collection, along with some the many neighbors he's gained over the years. Photograph by Margaret H. Laing

One of my favorite memories of growing up was finding a manuscript — specifically, seeing the manuscript of “Peter Rabbit” by Beatrix Potter. Now, of course that’s not a detective story, but it did involve finding the voice, the way to tell the story.

Beatrix Potter didn’t know what to write to a young friend, she admitted in a letter, so she started to tell him a story about four rabbits: Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-Tail, and Peter.

The rest is history.

I keep a figure of Peter (as shown in the accompanying photo) in sight near my desk to remind me of that letter-turned-manuscript. Sometimes, my writing is a diary entry about something I didn’t get written — until there I am at bedtime, writing it. Sometimes, instead of writing my mystery (or trying to sell the one I’ve finished), I wind up writing blog posts about good advice I’ve read.

Or sometimes I write in my diary that something’s going to be a great blog post some day — and the month goes by with only one published post. (Sorry.)

I’ve written before (here) about the essay in the Mystery Writers of America book “How to Write a Mystery” about the essay on “finding your voice” as a writer. Lyndsay Faye points out that “Authorial Voice” is how you sound, while Character Voice “is the way your imaginary friends sound.”

I have a new instance this week. Something happened that brought back bad memories, and I thought, “It’s a rerun!” (Well, other thoughts, too, but the word “rerun” stuck out.)

I made the bad rerun easier to handle when I thought of giving it to Daisy. She’s one of my imaginary friends, er, characters — and I’m writing her second mystery. (I finished the first in July 2020 and started the second in September of that year.) Daisy MacDonald is a college student in 1983 — and the second book is happening in summer school.

I’ve been researching how the murder will happen and trying to figure out just why Name Withheld, the villain, will do it. But while that’s stalled, I wanted to write something more and figure out what Daisy would do when news of the murder gets out.

When I thought of the word “rerun,” I knew it was the way for me to go on with Daisy. In those days of broadcast TV, not cable, and videotape only in TV production courses, reruns were the way to catch up on what we’d missed of favorite shows.

This single word fits what Faye calls Specificity — knowing Daisy’s use of the word gives her “a voice without a backstory,” Faye puts it. I won’t have to explain Daisy’s favorite programs or her impatience once she’s seen less-favored things already. Also, it’s a word that a less-involved new friend can use to tell her that she’s been through an investigation before (in the previous book), and can handle it again.

I’ll be looking at my own writing — my 1983 diary — to check for campus events, names, and favorite words from that summer. But I won’t worry about having to make everything read like 1983 does. Daisy is telling the story in the present, remembering ’83, so her voice in the new century can vary from her student voice.

Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose writing influenced Lyndsay Faye at least as much as it does mine, didn’t sound all that “old-fashioned” in every sentence of his Victorian and Edwardian stories. As Faye points out, here’s a sentence from “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton,” with Sherlock Holmes speaking:

” ‘I’ll be back some time, Watson,’ said he, and vanished into the night.”

I’ll be back sooner next time myself.

Filed under: Writing

Tags: How to Write a Mystery

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  • Great post! How can we not write what we know---conversations, images, dreams, memories, experiences, connections. I am glad you have your voice. Dare I say, Write On, my friend.

  • How can we not write? Well, when I don't, I know life is too messy in other places. Writing straightens me out again. I'm glad you liked the result, and I shall write on.

  • I'm having a bit of difficulty wrapping my head around this and the prior concept, mainly because my writing experience was based on organization, but the style and voice were neutral, other than that using the passive voice (which at one time was the norm) caused grammatical problems. However, you can say whether these examples from ChicagoNow help to illustrate the point. By writing "The Chicago Board of Tirade," Bob Abrams makes clear what his voice is. On the other hand, it could be argued that a blogger who mostly copies doesn't have a voice, except that what he chooses to copy is indicative of his voice.

    Maybe a somewhat literary one is that while When Harry Met Sally was set at the University of Chicago, nobody there (in the preceding decade) talked like that or about that.

  • In reply to jack:

    Thanks for reading these and giving the ideas a try, Jack. Even when your writing is neutral, based on organization, that is its voice. It won't read like your comments do here. Trying "How to Write a Mystery" -- or any book of essays -- and finding a familiar writer's name can be a bit surprising, since writing an essay (especially how-tos) can sound very different from a writer's usual work.
    Your observation about "When Harry Met Sally" is a great one.
    Try thinking of watching an actor in one role for a long time, then seeing that person in another role. For instance, if you've seen Patricia Routledge as Hyacinth Bucket ("It's BOUQUET") on "Keeping Up Appearances" on PBS, try her as Hetty Wainthrop in "Hetty Wainthrop Investigates," another PBS series. Soft-spoken, logical Hetty is very different from conceited Hyacinth -- but it's fun to notice the mannerisms and accent that give away that the actress is there.
    There's Hyacinth's voice, there's Hetty's voice -- but there's also Patricia's voice. I can see the same thing when I read an essay about writing by a writer whose other work I admire. Even if you don't feel like studying writing with anyone but me, you may want to try essays or short stories by a novelist you like.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    On the "same actor," Billy Crystal is essentially the same character in both When Harry... and in Analyze This, except when he puts Primo in his place, but Robert De Niro certainly changes mid-movie.

    Maybe I do it more orally than in writing. For instance, a couple of days ago, an 80ish woman said "I'm a little late," and I replied "we know what to expect in 9 months." She then asked "how to you come up with stuff like that? [giggling]" About a day later, I figured out that it was from Betty to Rodney in Payton Place.

  • In reply to jack:

    Thanks, Jack. Yes, you've got it about the "same actor" pictures. When I saw the movie version of "The Untouchables," I didn't recognize Sean Connery at all in his first scene. (Of course, it helped that he replied to Kevin Costner's "What's your name?" by tapping his Chicago Police badge and saying "It's right here," especially because the character's name was Jimmy (!!) Malone.)
    When I realized that Connery was playing a character named Jimmy and I didn't expect a raised eyebrow and "James," I knew he'd win the Oscar. So sometimes, voice has to be hidden, too.

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