Is A Good Mystery Hard To Find?

As a child, I grew up admiring and reading such super-sleuths as Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown. My tastes changed as I grew older and I found myself drawn to true crime novels where the only mystery was what made a person crack and commit such heinous acts as serial killing and cannibalism.

Somehow, and I’m not sure how, but one of the most prolific mystery writers escaped my notice. Until recently I had never picked up an Agatha Christie novel. So at the suggestion of the book club to which I belong, I went in search of a good mystery by Christie. The library shelves literarily brimmed with her books. I chose the novel Crooked House and rushed home to start enjoying a good mystery.

The truth? I hated it. I really wanted to love it because I figured that if I could find a liking for her books it would be a long while before I stood in the aisles of the library scanning titles in desperate search of a new author with whom to connect. Why didn’t I like this book?  Was my love of true crime novels tainting the experience?

It dawned on me then why I didn’ t connect with the book: Too many underdeveloped characters. I understand you need an array of characters in a mystery or else you end up with something like: “Well, the butler did it because the only other character in the book is dead.” But if you include several characters who qualify as potential suspects, you darn well better develop them so that I, as the reader, can form a connection.

Crooked House takes place in an old mansion where several members of an extended family reside. When the patriarch ends up dead, everyone is a suspect, but not everyone is developed into an interesting character. Out of all the characters, and there was upwards of 14 in all, only two were developed. One was the protagonist and narrator and the other was the killer. Not much of a mystery then and I wonder if I read more of her books if I could pick out the killer simply by picking out the developed characters.

A good mystery is hard to write I am sure, and sometimes it is also hard to find. Ultimately, I think I learned that in order to compose a decent mystery you have to rely very much on the development of your characters. And next post I will discuss an author I feel does this well.

I don’t think I am ready to give up on Agatha Christie just yet. Such a legend deserves another chance I think. So if you could suggest a few of her novels to look into I would appreciate it.

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Know Thyself

Recently, a person in my writing group lent me Dorothea Brande’s classic guidebook, Becoming a Writer. First published in 1934, this book is packed with solid advice for anyone wishing to become a novelist. One insightful gem is the idea that, if you want to write great stories dealing with life’s “big ideas”, you must first understand your own philosophical convictions.

For example, in her chapter entitled “The Source of Originality,” Brande writes: “If you can discover what you are like, if you can discover what you truly believe about most of the major matters of life, you will be able to write a story which is honest and original and unique. But those are large ‘ifs,’ and it takes hard digging to get at the roots of one’s own convictions.”

She elaborates on this idea further by suggesting that writers ask themselves a series of questions. Brande contends that an “author’s conviction underlies all imaginative representation…Since this is so, it behooves you to know what you do believe of most of the major problems which you are going to use in your writing….Here are a few questions for self-examination which may suggest others to you. It is by no means an exhaustive questionnaire, but by following down the other inquiries which occur to you as you consider these, you can come by a very fair idea of your working philosophy.

Do you believe in a God? Under what aspect? (Hardy’s ‘President of the Immortals’ or Wells’ ‘emerging God?’)

Do you believe in free will or are you a determinist? (Although the artist-determinist is such a walking paradox that imagination staggers at the notion.)

Do you like men? Women? Children?

What do you think of marriage?

Do you consider romantic love a delusion and a snare?

Do you think the comment “It will all be the same in a hundred years” is profound, shallow, true or false?

What is the greatest happiness you can imagine? The greatest disaster?”

Brande then goes on to note, “If you find you are balking at definite answers to the great questions, then you are not ready to write fiction which involves major issues. You must find subjects on which you are capable of making up your mind, to serve as the groundwork of your writing. The best books emerge from the strongest convictions—and for confirmation see any bookshelf.”

In school, we are taught to “write about what we know,” and this same principle applies not only to the surface details of a story, but also to the philosophical convictions which drive our characters and plots. For it is the honest portrayal of these convictions that often makes a story both meaningful and memorable.

Know When to Say When

When I was a kid if I started a book, I finished a book.  I’m not sure why but it felt like quitting if you didn’t finish the whole thing, a failure.  The problem of course is that you’ll spend a lot of time reading stuff you don’t like or stuff that’s simply crap. 

It took me a long time to be able to give up on a book and I still have some problems.  Like when is it too soon to give up?  Or when is it too late to give up?  Recently I started reading a book called Serpent in the Thorns by Jeri Westerson.  The cover claims it was a medieval noir (both things I like) but I didn’t find it to really be either.  The main character, in his second novel here, is a dispossessed knight who now works as The Tracker.  I guess he’s called The Tracker because there were no PI’s in the 1300’s. 

I kept giving it one more chapter for things to heat up until I was halfway through the book.  I’m not going to finish it.  If you like J.A. Jance and Patricia Cornwell type books this one might be right up your alley. But that’s not my bag, baby!  I stopped reading it and I’m okay with that. 

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Tempus Fugit

Time flies, baby!  It’s hard to believe but it’s almost time for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) again.  This is your call to arms…or pens…or probably PC’s…whatever, you get the idea.  Now is the time to do it.  Now is the time to put aside procrastination, self-doubt, and realistic expectations.  Don’t think about it, just sign up and do it.  It’s only fifty thousand words in one month.  If that sounds scary it shouldn’t.  It doesn’t have to be good or even coherent really.  This is the no-more-excuses event so I don’t really want to hear any excuses.  And even though I’m not exactly a veteran (I’ve done one ScriptFrenzy and one NaNo) I’m going to presume to give some advice.

1.  Do it.  This falls under the ‘I don’t want to hear your excuses’ category.  I’m a worse procrastinator than most and I’m doin’ it.

2.  Don’t over think it. If you have an outline or a plot figured out that’s fine.  If you don’t that’s fine too.  Personally, I look at this as more of an opportunity for pure storytelling.  Speed and word count are the aims, not polish and finesse.  Now’s the time to play fast and loose.  Let the story go wherever you, or it, wants instead of trying to stay on track with outlines.

3.  Don’t get behind. You’re gonna get behind anyway but I thought I’d give the advice.  Try your damnedest to make the daily word count.  If it’s going well try to get ahead.  If you do get ahead resist the temptation to coast, or worse, skip a day.  Word count is the boss of you.

4.  Don’t worry about finishing. Number 3 being said, don’t rend your garments or anything if it looks like you’re not going to make it.  Fifty thousand is the goal but for a finished novel it’s probably a little light anyway.  This is almost like a supercharged free writing exercise.  You’re getting words on paper, you’re getting an honest draft, you’re getting that story idea out.  What you’re probably not getting, even if you finish is a complete novel.  The idea is to reach the goal and keep going but if you only hit twenty thousand…hey, it’s twenty thousand you wouldn’t have had if you skipped NaNo.

5.  Have fun. Remember the fast and loose of number 2?  This is the rush of storytelling.  That crazy first draft when you can’t believe you’re actually writing a novel.  Many of you know the rush I’m talking about.  If you have never written anything for fun trust me, you’re missing out.  The whole NaNoWriMo site is geared toward making writing accesible to anyone who wants to do it for the sheer fun of it.  The last time I did it was some of the most enjoyable writing I’ve ever done.

Are you in?

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Running Scared For a Running Start.

Crap!  It’s almost November.  That means National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo for us hipster doofuses.  I am not done with my current project (also a novel) but I’m going in anyway.  Screw it!  This event is about getting the damn words on paper.  Well, on the computer screen but whatever.  I’m not waiting until next year and neither should you.  I won’t be prepared but that won’t stop me and it shouldn’t stop you, either.  What did prepared ever get anybody anyway?  Nothing that’s what.  Just write a novel.  In a month.  Don’t worry about your story arc or an outline either.  You won’t really have time for that.  You will need a basic idea but it doesn’t have to be much.  “Two friends are plumbers by day, paranormal investigators by night”.  Okay, that’s GhostHunters on SciFi so it’s taken but maybe there’s a twist–“Two friends are paranormal investigators by day, and plumbers by night“.  Scary.  Anyway if you don’t have an idea a situation will do.  No whining.  No excuses.  Now’s your chance.  Have some fun with it while you’re at it.  I’m pulling for you.  Check out and get crackin.