Thursday, February 21, 2013

Mystery- writing tip

One by one neighborhood dogs disappear. One by one the ransom notes arrive. When Toby Martin and her best pal, Freddy, discover Toby’s dog is the next intended victim, they become first-rate detectives. Who is the pooch pilferer? Will Toby and Freddy rescue the dogs and capture the criminal?

While Toby is investigating, she is also writing a series of mystery stories in the Sherlock Holmes’ tradition. These stories are critiqued by the delightfully nasty Mrs. Trattles, a hard-nosed, straight-arrow English teacher who forces Toby to improve her writing.

Writing Mysteries Question

Question from Arline's e-Mail:  A member of my writer's group said she doesn't like my mystery, not because of the writing, but because she is not fond of "closed" mysteries and also thought my characters were "too cardboard."  I didn't take offense. I know she's trying to help me. But what is she trying to say???  Your old student, Lilianne.

Answer: Good to hear from you, Lillianne. As you know, I'm a mystery reader and sometime writer. In an “open” mystery, the reader is given the clues right along with the fictional sleuth and tries to solve the mystery as the story unfolds – think Jessica Fletcher. In a “closed” mystery, the reader already knows who did the crime, but whether or not the sleuth will be able to prove it is in doubt – think Columbo. Personally, I love a puzzle and like to get the clues along with the sleuth, if the writer plays fair.

As a reader, I always prefer characters who grow and change as a story progresses. Characters who do not change are sometimes referred to as "cardboard." But that doesn't mean they are badly written. Superman is always Superman and only becomes interesting to me when Kryptonite enters the scene. That's when he changes. I find a character who is in danger more interesting than one who we know is not vulnerable to any danger and is only there to save the day.

I've never read a really bad open mystery. Take Dick Francis's  ODDS AGAINST for instance. It had a horrible hole in the plot) but the writing was terrific and Francis gave his readers all the clues.  The solution was revealed in a dinner-table scene where the character's embarassment by his ex-wife masked the clue nicely.

Usually, plot drives most of the closed or  puzzle-based mysteries  and the characters are chess pieces, moved about to accomplish an end.  Think about it. What do we know of Hercule Poirot except that he is Belgian and fond of his "little gray cells?" Miss Marple is elderly, a bit cynical on the subject of human nature, and knits. Their presence as characters is only to facilitate the answer to the puzzle. We rarely know what they're thinking, which way they'd vote in an election, or what issues are important to them.

And Sherlock Holmes? Well he certainly became more interesting  to me when Irene Adler entered the picture.

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