If you’re a curious person like me, you live for a good whodunit. You’re someone who actually times themself while watching an episode of Monk/Bones/Elementary for how long it takes for you to solve the case (personal record: 8 minutes in). You might even be the type who when reading a mystery novel skips ahead to the back to confirm your deductions, too impatient to actually read through all the way to the conclusion.
Ok, maybe that’s just me.
But, if you are in that minority of humans who enter into otherwise normal conversations with an unnatural suspicion about hidden motivations then it might be time to channel all that into a really good detective story.
Besides the usual advice for writing genre fiction – for example to voraciously read/watch as much as you can from the genre you’re trying to write – I have some suggestions for how to construct a case.
I always start with the crime. Being who I am (read paragraph one if you’ve forgotten) I think about crime a lot, but picking through all the options for a new story is a special time in my process. It’s like being given exclusive access to the Apple Store on Boxing Day – the options are endless. It’s a powerful feeling.
I’ve written about jewel theft, kidnapping, arson, bank robbery and lots of murders – from poisonings to stabbings to shootings and I’m not done yet. So pick your crime.
Now get to know your crime, read as much as you can about crimes like it, make notes, watch news coverage of them, make more notes. In the case of my arson story I did a whole bunch of research on accelerants and then took that notebook to a chemist friend and talked it through with him to make sure my findings were in fact accurate. I then spoke to a history professor about the availability of the chemicals in the time period I set for the story. I took more notes, crossed out entire pages of research, and started again when I discovered one of the chemicals wouldn’t be readily available at the time my detective is detecting.
While I’m getting to know my crime, I start picking out clues specific to it – this will be a list I later divide into:
- What my reader needs to know (so as to feed their curiosity and keeps them reading)
- What the characters in the book need to know
- What the perpetrator(s) know(s)
- What my detective knows/notices/must figure out
From this sub-divided list I find it easy to lay out the players. Who is the victim? Who are the by-standers who may also become suspects? Who are the ‘others’ in the room who influence the case? You may think that this is the point where the perpetrator becomes obvious, but that’s not true! You’re jumping ahead to the last chapter! Stop that!
Bruce Wayne said it best in the DC series Identity Crisis when he (slumped deep in thought in the bowels of the Bat cave trying to solve a murder) mused on the question. “Who benefits?”
That’s the question I find myself circling with that list of clues and players in front of me while wearing my Batman cape and cowl. Ok, maybe not the cowl because it doesn’t fit well over my glasses.
Think about who would benefit from the crime. What would their motivation be? Is it believable? Would someone really kill someone over a game of chess? Really? Yes they would it turns out – look up murder chess-related on Wikipedia. No seriously.
Back to the case: is that a motivation I can hint towards through scenes in the book and investigation by my detective? What kind of clues can I lay down to lead to the discovery of this motivation?
I now extend this process to my by-standers-who-will-become suspects. It’s from this web of suspects and their motivations for committing the crime that I pick my perpetrator.
With the perpetrator in hand and the rest of the suspects spread out around them, I build my timeline of events. When did the crime occur? When did my detective get brought in on it? When did each of the suspects interact with the victim enough to become suspects?
Using this timeline approach I’m able to identify the scenes I need for my detective to solve the crime.
Now I’m not saying that this approach is for everyone or even that it works for me every time for every crime (look, I’m a poet too!). Think of this as a chalk outline at a murder scene my friends, it’s just the outline. You still have to fill in all the details in a convincing way that keeps pulling the reader along clue by clue and scene by scene.
What are your tricks for writing detective fiction? Leave a comment to let everyone know!
Check out this cool video that gives even more insight into writing detective fiction. It can be found on the Youtube channel One Fictitious Moment.
Angela Misri is a Toronto journalist, writer and mom who has spent most of her working life making CBC Radio extraterrestrial through podcasts, live streams and websites. Her first book Jewel of the Thames, was published by Fierce Ink Press in March 2014 and is the first in a series called A Portia Adams Adventure.