Wednesday, April 12, 2017

How I Start a Mystery Novel

For more information about Susan Calder's books, or to purchase, please visit her Books We Love Author Page

People often ask, how do you write a mystery novel? The problem is that when I’ve finished a book, I’ve usually forgotten how it all began. Right now I’m at the stage of forming my concept for my next mystery, which makes it a good time to reflect on how this beginning process works in my case.    

Of course, every writer is different. Especially different from me will be those writers who start with an outline. I tried this with my first mystery novel attempt, believing that for a murder mystery you had to know exactly how the plot will evolve to whodunit at the end before your first keyboard tap.  My problem was, that as soon as I’d write anything, the story would want to go in another direction. I felt hemmed in by the outline and dropped the whole idea of writing murder mystery.
Over the next years, writing other types of stories taught me that intricate plots could grow naturally from characters, a premise, setting and problems, and resolve in a satisfying way. I thought, why couldn’t this work for murder mystery? I also discovered that many published mystery authors write by the seats of their pants. One told me she didn’t know who was her killer until after her novel was accepted by a publisher. She learned whodunit by sitting down in a coffee shop with her fictional sleuth and discussing the case. 

I wouldn’t go that far and I doubt publishers today would be as welcoming of unfinished books, but as I set out now to write this next mystery I don’t know who my killer will be. Among the cast of suspects I have in mind, there’s one I would like to be the killer, although I’m missing a motive and am also keeping my options open for one of the others to have done the deed.     
This novel will be the third of my mystery series set in Calgary and featuring insurance adjuster sleuth Paula Savard. This means I have some character, setting and other details in place before starting and I know that Paula needs to stumble upon this mystery through her insurance adjusting job. In book two, she investigated a building fire. For her next outing, I decided on a hit and run collision, mainly because my ten-year insurance career specialized in automobile claims. I’m also making things easier for myself by having the collision occur in my own neighbourhood, unlike the murders in my previous books, which took place in parts of Calgary I had to go out and research. One character might even live in my house.  
Books one and two were set, respectively, in fall and summer. I had decided the next two in the series would be winter and spring, although the order didn’t matter. But hit and run struck me as suited to winter’s icy roads and dark evenings. I also wanted this next book to be the darkest of the series. So winter became the season for novel number three. Since the first books, Deadly Fall and Ten Days in Summer, contain the season name in the title, I’d like the word ‘winter’ in the title of book three, which is limiting. I came up with a title Dead of Winter, which I thought was great until my Amazon search turned up seventeen books with this rather obvious mystery title. For now, I’ll go with a working title.
Another key aspect of a murder mystery premise is the victim. This time, it will be a woman killed by the hit and run driver. Paula’s investigations fuel a suspicion the driver acted deliberately. But why? It will take Paula the first quarter of the book to figure this out, as she interviews suspects, a witness, the insured who insists his car was stolen and the victim’s husband who was seriously injured in the crash.
Meanwhile, things are happening in Paula’s personal life. Her mother is getting married, her brother visits from Montreal, her daughter launches a restaurant business, her office has hired new staff and Paula’s boyfriend stuns her with news that threatens to destroy their relationship.
The novel’s second quarter will deal with the fallout from these developments and, hopefully, lead to surprises and twists that will keep things hopping through the last half of the story and propel it to a thrilling climax and conclusion. That’s the goal.
Now I’m ready to go. All that’s left is the hard part—writing.