How does a mystery writer go about planting clues and red herrings, fill the book with the usual suspects and the right amount of foreshadowing, enough conflict and suspense to keep the reader guessing whodunit, with a twist at the end? Follow along on the series of blogs, coming up in the next several weeks, to see what worked for me.
This week's blog is titled "Outline or Not, but Have a Plan."
Whether you're a plotter or a "pantser," when writing a mystery you can't leave everything to chance. Let me be honest. I don't always know the end of the story when I start writing. I don't always write in any particular order. In fact, I write sketchy outlines after my first draft and even then, I'm bound to change them later. Still, I know I need at least somewhat of a plan.
For my first novel, Terror in Double Time, the historical subplot was the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident, so my mystery had to fall within a certain timeline. That gave me an outline I could follow. Certain events in the mystery had to happen on certain days of the disaster.
In the second book in the series, Death in 3/4 Time, I based the plot on an unsolved true crime, and took the ending in my own what if? direction. So I knew the ending (whodunit), even though I didn't know all the details of how I'd get to the end. So, no outline, no real plot, but a beginning and an end, so I did have a plan.
When I started writing Killing in Quarter Time, book three, all I had was an idea. I didn't plot; I just started writing and hoped the characters would show me the way. After all, I had lived with the main characters through two other books, I knew them as well as I knew myself! The characters showed me the way, all right--they took me in a totally different direction than where I was going in the first half. I had to go back and re-write. finding and changing all the clues I had already planted.
That novel made me re-think my way of writing. I still like the quote from E.L. Doctorow: "Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see so far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." That works for my short stories, but maybe it's not such a good idea for a traditional whodunit.
Look for my next installment: "The Usual Suspects--What's Their Motive?"