Make mine mysterious

I’ve been a fan of mystery stories since I was a kid. I remember sitting in the kitchen with my grandmother, watching Murder, She Wrote and Columbo after coming home from kindergarten. In books, Nancy Drew led to Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, and even as I indulged in epic realms of fantasy, I was always most attracted to detective stories. When I reach for one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, three times out of four it will be one about Sam Vimes and the City Watch. There’s something about mysteries that works on both a visceral and intellectual level, challenging you to figure things out even as they goad you along with concern for whether the hero will get to the bottom of it in the end.

The novel I’m working on is urban fantasy, but it’s also a mystery: who is murdering homeless children, and to what end? This means that I have to consider all the tropes and conventions of a mystery novel while also juggling the expectations of an urban fantasy reader. I have to set up the crime even as I show the world and what makes it different from ours. I have to introduce the suspects as quickly as possible, which is a challenge when your main character isn’t a detective. I have to work magic into the methodologies of both the protagonist and the police, and I have to make it reasonable that the latter are failing where the former will succeed. I need to plant clues and red herrings and bring it all together at the end. And since the main character is a college student, I have to make sure she goes to class occasionally, even if her mind is elsewhere.

So far, my biggest problem has been pacing: how to fit the work of mystery-solving into the context of a college environment, and a magic college at that. How to deal with the trials and tribulations of a dyslexic freshman who also happens to be a murder suspect. Most intimidating is how to ratchet things up sufficiently in epicness so that the Final Battle is awesome instead of hokey; don’t want to turn the volume from three to eleven over the course of a chapter.

Anyone else have experience with meshing the worlds of mystery and something else? Mystery and science fiction? Mystery and fantasy? Mystery and romance? What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them, or are you still struggling? Or, as a reader, what have been your experiences with straight-up mystery novels or mixed genre goodies?


6 Responses to “Make mine mysterious”

  1. Joanie says:

    One of my favorite novel series as a teenager was Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody mysteries. If you were to disect them into a genre it would be something complicated like: Mystery / Romance / Historical / Egyptology / Adventure (a la Indiana Jones). Using that as an example, I think it’s awesome to cross multiple genres to create an interesting story universe. I’m sort of shocked we don’t see more genres like Sci-Fi/Mystery, Fantasy/Mystery or even Horror/Mystery! Although I do think there is such a thing as having too many genres – at least for a young writer. You can stretch yourself too thin that way.

  2. @lil_monmon says:

    I’m a huge fan of Poirot, Miss Marple, Columbo, and Sam Vimes, and I love a story with a mystery in it. Sadly I’m still finding my sea-legs as it were. The only thing I can think that helps is to PLAN EVERYTHING OUT. Making a list of bullet points are my favorite.

    I’m in the process of writing a murder mystery/comedy ,”Murder At the Con”

    And a “mysterious clues” weekly steampunk/fantasy serial:

    The only things I’ve learned about timing and pacing is you can’t ad-lib. If you’re writing on the fly and you’ve accidentally given a suspect an airtight alibi there’s no going back and fixing it. You’re stuck with a shoddy twin-brother excuse.

    Write down every little thing. Make a time-table. Draw a floor plan. And, most importantly, get someone else in on the project. You need another person who doesn’t know the end to listen to the synopsis and try to make sense of it.

    After you’ve nailed down all the important stuff and have a skeleton outline, you’re then free to do the “Capt. Hastings and Poirot banter” where you find out about the people involved in all the gaps of action/exposition.

  3. Valerie says:

    Joanie: It’s almost certainly a good idea for starting writers to keep it simple until they get a handle on writing a novel, let alone writing one that goes all out like you’ve described. As a starting writer, I am intimidating myself with all this back and forth, even though I feel like the genres mesh well enough (see The Dresden Files for details). And then I wonder if it’s more challenging to find an audience for a book that doesn’t fit so easily into a single category.

    Monica: For mine, I started with the ending in mind and I’m working my way backward in the outline, trying to figure out when and where to incorporate the clues that will lead to the ultimate revelation. I don’t know that mystery authors work that way, but I can’t fathom the idea of not knowing where I’m going and how to get there. It’s a question of picking the most picturesque route that isn’t going to leave the reader demanding to be taken back to the bookstore for a different read. 😛

  4. Gracie says:

    For some reason I like watching mysteries better than reading them, though I was a big fan of the Nancy Drew series when I was a kid. 🙂 And I *watched* the Dresden Files when it was on tv, and thoroughly enjoyed that, too.

    I just read Neil Gaiman’s “Murder Mysteries,” which is a short story with a mix of mythology and… good old cop-like investigation. But it’s nothing like you would expect. Check that one out.

    Mixing genres has an appeal, and I know that you’ll make it work for your novel. Don’t be intimidated. Have fun & enjoy the process, or you’ll drive yourself crazy. You can always go back in rewrites & editing to fix and tweak the mechanical details, or the genre specs.

    I look forward to seeing this novel of yours. It sounds quite interesting. Go, girl. 🙂

  5. It sounds like you have a pretty good grasp of the challenges. I love mystery for this reason: it IS mixable. And I’m sure the finished result will be better for the consideration.

    I haven’t tried to mix it with another definite genre, but I do try to write mysteries and suspense novels that push towards character-driven, and so walk the “literary” line. I hate that, because I’m already biased *against* literary novels. But I want to tell my story, and this is how it goes.

    Good luck! Happy writing.

  6. Valerie says:

    Gracie: I’ve read Gaiman’s stuff and love it as well. I have a signed copy of American Gods in a special bookshelf behind glass. *swoon* I definitely prefer the Dresden Files books to the TV show, so I cannot recommend those heartily enough. They’re kind of pulpy and light fare, good for fast reading and not very deep. Thanks for the encouragement, I certainly hope I can pull this off. Ideas are one thing, execution is another entirely.

    Jen: I totally agree! In a way, most novels have some kind of mystery, even if it’s just the mystery of how the book will end. Unanswered questions can propel the plot and motivate the characters, even if the format of the story isn’t a traditional mystery structure. I don’t know that I’d call something “literary” just because it’s character-driven… I think I’d just call it “good writing” to be honest. It’s a balancing act to get strong characters AND a strong plot AND a strong world, but tipping the scales one way is pretty natural, and characters are a good way to tip. You want the reader to care about them personally, not just on an intellectual “what’s going to happen” level, I think.

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