Mystery Author Tips and AdviceWe contacted several mystery writers and asked them how they get the ideas for their plots and characters, and if they had any hints for us about writing mysteries.
Below you will find some of their reponses. We emphasized the most important portions by underlining them.
Plots Characters Writing Tips The Authors
"I get my ideas mostly from my own life or that of my son and daughter and friends. Sometimes I get an idea from the newspaper. Remember, you don't need an idea that will fill a whole book, you just need a little bit of an idea and then you think about it until you get more ideas. My daughter was in San Francisco when they had their earthquake...Out of what she told me I got a whole mystery series...other things came into it..." (SF)
"We read as much as we can on a wide range of subjects, For us, this includes history, the arts and travel, but we also follow our hobbies and other interests, including a couple of favourite TV shows. The more you read, and the wider you read, the more ideas you will have sparked by what you are reading."(MC)
I spend a lot of time observing my own twin girls--listening to how they speak, and taking mental notes about things that interest the...One of the things I observed was the way my kids reacted to the unexpected. So I asked them this question. "What would you do if you brought a strange object home which turned out to be a dragon egg, and it hatched a baby dragon?" They first looked at me like I was crazy, then their imaginations began to work. I took their ideas and, with variations, applied it to my plot.(EP)
"...I am also personally inspired by the real-life situations that I find all around me in North Carolina. (MM)
"When I plot my books I usually try to think of the twist first: the cool ending where the reader realises that what seemed obvious actually wasn't at all. Once I've got a good twist in mind, I think up the villain's character. I wonder what drove them to murder. What is their motivation, and what do they hope to acheive? I usually construct the victim at around this time as well, and any other suspects.... Once I've got the basic bits in place: the murderer, the victim, the suspects and the twist, I set about creating red herrings and internal plot twists. It's no good if the investigator finds out what happened right away, so you have to make it a bit more difficult for them. It's useful to look at the investigation like a journey. Rather than going straight from A to B, you have to make the investigator take a few wrong turnings and end up in a few dead ends. It's also cool to have the investigator THINK they've taken a wrong turn, when really they've just stumbled on the key to the whole thing. Sometimes the journey is like a treasure hunt, and the investigator needs to gather several pieces of information, which only make sense together. Once I've plotted the 'journey' I think about other themes in the book, and the investigator's private life." (ST)
"...An idea can be triggered by a newspaper article, by a conversation with someone, or just out of my head. I usually start with an idea for a plot, and the characters spring from that." (SP)
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"The characters came from some of the people I know in town. For example, my detective was a woman who came from Boston, and she was based on two close friends of mine..." (SF)
"...Our thought is that characters are better being completely fictional although some writers do base theirs on a little bit of A plus something of B and a dash of C, making the completely new person D. It is often said that writers put much of themselves in their characters, an interesting thought if true."(M&E)
"Many of my characters arise out of the plot I have worked out for each book. For example, if the book is going to concern itself with developing ocean-front property or farm land, I will clearly need to create a real estate broker, land developer, or ecologist; not an astronaut, Hollywood actor, or rap artist. These invented characters have to be willing to play the role I've assigned them, be it hero or villain. (Sometimes, I start liking a character I've invented so much that I have trouble making him the bad guy. Then I have to go back and write in some character flaws for him.)"(MM)
"I create the characters entirely out of my imagination. Not one of them is a real person." (SM)
"As far as creating the characters go, I just make them up! I never base main characters on people I know, I just use my imagination." (ST)
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"Be prepared to rewrite. The best writing is a product of revision...Aim for specifics. Vague, general writing is never entertaining..."(SF)
"...the most important thing of all is to WRITE. Writing is never easy--it is darned hard work, frustrating at times. But the more you write, the more comfortable the job becomes. When I teach writing in schools, I always recommend keeping a journal--not a diary, mind you, but a JOURNAL. Write down your thoughts about things (politics, parents, teachers, etc) every day in a notebook. I do this and when I am stuck for an idea, I go back through my journal. It works."(EP)
"Write what you know is always good advice, but write what you like to read is even better. Do you like to read mysteries? Then you already know what elements a mystery should contain. If you DON'T like to read mysteries, all the books in the world won't help you write a good one." (MM)
"My hint for writing mysteries is to think about things that might normally happen in your own life, and put a mysterious twist on them. For example, what if your math book was always missing from your desk in the morning, but was back in place every afternoon? And imagine this happening when the room was locked, so there was no way anyone could sneak in? Who took your book--and how did they do it?" (SM)
"1. Make sure you have a great story to tell.
2. Plan the way you want to tell your story.
3. Make sure you know the whole story in your head before you begin writing.
4. Read other books and think about how the author wrote them
5. Get people to read your work and ask them what they think.
6. Avoid clichés and stereotypes." (ST)
"Probably the most common mistake writers make is to over-write, in other words instead of just telling the story and letting it speak for itself, some writers try to use a lot of adjectives to describe a scene, or try to use clever dialogue. For example, a common error with dialogue is trying to find clever ways of saying "said". Writers will try to use a different verb every time there is dialogue to avoid repetition, but that in itself can become annoying. If it fits the story to use, for example, he shouted, or she sighed, that's fine, but don't look for fancy words just for the sake of it...Other common problems include poor grammar, sentences that are too long, wrong punctuation..."
"...the most important tip is to start to write - give it a go! Writing is like any other skill, it takes practice to do it well. Every author has to start somewhere, and we all make mistakes. Write for pleasure, then learn from any errors that you find in the early drafts. Don't be too sensitive if someone does give you a critical review; if you agree with what is said then you can improve your work, if you don't, then let it pass. (SP)
We would like to thank Susan Froetschel, Margaret Chittenden, Mary and Eric Reed, Ed Price, Margaret Maron, Sujata Massey, Scarlet Thomas, Robert Skinner, and Sandra Pertot for their help.
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