Friday, October 12, 2007

So You Want to Write a Mystery...

There is nothing like curling up in a nice comfy chair in front of the fireplace with a good book. Especially a mystery. Not only is there the pleasure of being drawn into another world and leaving your troubles behind for a short time, but also the excitement of trying to figure out “whodunnit” and how before the end of the book. Plus there are so many types of mysteries to choose from...cozy, hardboiled, noir, police procedural, and true crime just to name a few. One book I have lists twenty sub-genres for mysteries, a bit confusing for a novice like myself. So, I did some study and came up with some basics.

First, there are three types of sleuth, Amateur Detective, Semi-Pro and the Professional. Amateur Detectives are those who don’t get paid to solve crimes. Generally they are an ordinary person caught up in the circumstances. Whether in the wrong place at the right time or connected with the crime in some way they need to solve the crime. Usually this “need” to solve the crime has to do with clearing themselves or a friend of the crime. The Amateur Detective is quick thinking and usually less violent. Another plus is these amateurs can have careers such as landscaper, newspaper carrier, or veterinarian which make interesting backgrounds and characters.

Semi-Pro sleuths are those who have a connection to the crime solving business. They may be courtroom reporters, bailiffs or news reporters. Journalists and insurance investigators also make great semi-pro sleuths. Just make sure you get those job details correct. While these sleuths still need a reason to be involved in solving the crime, they have the advantage of not being held to the same rules as the police and private investigators, such as not having to reveal their sources.

Professional sleuths are the police, private investigators, detectives and those involved in law enforcement. Their reason for being involved in the crime is their job and they are bound to the rules and regulations of their profession. This career field also has some great possibilities for settings. From border patrol agents on the Mexican or Canadian borders, the small town marshal or FBI agents on the hunt for terrorists to James Bond spy thrillers; these are just a few to choose from. Again, you must get the details right with this type of sleuth. Many city police or sheriff’s departments give civilian ride alongs so check into that and take advantage if available. And remember, you can’t put a silencer on a revolver and those “six” shooters have to be reloaded for the seventh shot.

Next is the “tone” of mystery which really has to do with the character and degree of violence in the story. The most familiar type is the Cozy. Cozy mysteries tend to have an amateur sleuth and the violence is generally off stage. Often set in small communities, the crime leaves a gaping hole in the community and is generally committed by the neighbor that “would never do anything like that”.

Soft-boiled, hardboiled and noir deal mostly with the private investigators and again with degree of violence. These tend to be the “loner type” sleuth dealing with the gritty reality of a corrupt world. What the heck is “noir” you ask? Noir means black, as in the black spaces on a roulette wheel...think of the old black and white PI movies with Bogart and you can’t go wrong.

Once you know which type of sleuth and tone you can decide on type of mystery. You have plenty to choose from. Police Procedurals, Courtroom Procedurals, True Crime tend to deal with facts and procedures. Espionage mysteries take us to the world of the spy and possibly distant lands and exciting adventures. Historicals take us back in time either to a crime or a setting we may not be familiar with and require plenty of research to get those details right. Mysteries can also be romantic, fantasy or science fiction. The murder of the head of supply on outpost twelve in the delta quadrant of the Orion star system might lead all over the galaxy.

The most important thing to remember, I to write what makes you happy. If you want to write a “cozy” with a private eye for the main character, go ahead. If you love fantasy, set your mystery in the days of knights, dragons and damsels in distress. Intrigued by a crime you see on the news...research it and see what comes of it. Don’t worry so much about the labels, besides they keep changing. Now, go write that mystery.

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