How do you go about writing a mystery novel if you’ve never written one before?
A writer, far more logical than I, might begin by reading every type of mystery she can get her hands on, from Laura Lippman to Walter Mosley to Agatha Christie. Surely, studying masters such as these would teach me aspects of the craft.
But, well, I’m not logical. Not that way.
So as I began planning my mystery-thriller, The Potrero Complex, I gave myself room to plug in some holes as I went along. And boy, were there holes! I got about half-way through the novel before I had to admit I had not figured out how to assemble all the puzzle pieces so that the story would be believable, logical, and still keep the reader from guessing what happened.
So I beefed up my notes. I had a section labeled CHANGES/ADDS. I posed questions to myself, such as: What bargain does Piers make with Rags re Terry, Piper? I wrote short summaries for Act I, Act II, Act III, etc., hoping that breaking the book up into acts would help me organize parts of the story.
I also prepared summaries on the main characters’ points of view, to help me keep track of the characters’ comings and goings—and their motivations.
If much of this process sounds a lot like the work any author does, regardless of genre, I suppose it is. But in a mystery, there’s the added layer of dropping clues, planting seeds of probabilities, and making sure the protagonist knows what she needs to know, at just the right moment—and that the reader never knows more than she does.
A mystery novel is a story within a story. There’s the world of the book—in my case, a post-pandemic near-future very like our own, but not quite—and everything the characters do in that world apart from acknowledging or investigating a mystery. And then there’s the story of the mystery itself: Who or what is missing? Who will take the lead in figuring that out? Who is affected by the mystery, and how? Is the villain central to the story, or is the mystery perpetrated by outside forces?
All of these questions, and more, needed to be considered as I stitched this novel together. In the end, I want to believe that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Meaning, this is a mystery novel (technically, perhaps, a mystery-thriller), but it is also intended to be more than that, as a small town grapples with the aftermath of a deadly pandemic.
What did I learn, ultimately, about writing mystery fiction? It isn’t easy, but of course, we already knew that. Two big takeaways: First, a satisfying mystery ruins lives along the way—mystery wreaks havoc, in other words. And second: finding answers (whodunnit?) is satisfying but not necessarily the end of the story, for evil does not give up so easily.
Publication Date: August 2, 2022
Journalist Rags Goldner is battle-scarred and heartbroken after covering a devastating pandemic that rages in Baltimore for five years. She leaves the city with her partner in search of a simpler life in small-town Maryland—only to discover nothing in Canary is simple. A teenager is missing, and it falls to Rags to fight the forces of apathy, paranoia, and creeping fascism to learn the shocking truth about Effie Rutter’s fate—and the fate of thousands like her.
This is a giveaway hosted by Partners in Crime Tours for Amy L. Bernstein. See the widget for entry terms and conditions. Void where prohibited.
Amy L. Bernstein writes stories that let readers feel while making them think. Her novels include The Potrero Complex, The Nighthawkers, Dreams of Song Times, and Fran, The Second Time Around. Amy is an award-winning journalist, speechwriter, playwright, and certified nonfiction book coach. When not glued to a screen, she loves listening to jazz and classical music, drinking wine with friends, and exploring Baltimore’s glorious neighborhoods, which inspire her fiction.
08/01 Showcase @ BOOK REVIEWS by LINDA MOORE
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08/09 Review @ Book Reviews From an Avid Reader
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