Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Plot Your Mystery--Part II

Before we begin, I need to announce that my contest-winning traditional mystery NICE WORK is now out for the Kindle, at last!

NICE WORK by Denise Weeks--Oak Tree Press Kindle edition, $3.99

Do you have a Kindle or Kindle reader? Isn't it HUNGRY?

Frankly, I NEED people to download this Kindle version, or at least try the sample (WHICH IS FREE) to show that this series has an audience (and I believe it does). At only $3, the book costs less than many fast-food burgers.

Now everyone who said they were waiting for the Kindle edition can get it for post-Turkey Feast reading!! While the others are watching the football festival, you can be glancing down at a FUN humorous mystery with touches of BDSM (but played for fun, not for lust).

ANYWAY! Let's chat a bit more about plotting a mystery versus plotting a romance or other non-mystery.

The mystery must play a game with the reader. The game's afoot!

Okay, all fiction plays a game, especially fantasy. Fantasy invites the reader in to play a game of willing, suspended disbelief and have a sense of wonder invoked. In fantasy, the reader has to go along, or she can't enjoy reading the work.

But in a mystery, there's a crime to be solved, and it has to be solved by your amateur sleuth by circumventing the usual ways and outwitting the baddies and probably the police . . . *and* the whole time you need to let the reader have a fair chance of guessing, while making it fun to guess. And you have to play the game such that at the end, the reader says, "Oh! I would've never guessed. But now that you've told me, I see it. How could I have missed that?" You have to deliberately put in clues and red herrings that lead to plausible alternative theories.

This means that, whereas the scenes for Dulcinea and my other books just came to me "because that's what happened next" or "that's what was needed and what had to happen because of the characters," I had to actually think of places my sleuth could go and reasons she could give for being there, places she could get information about this crime. And since she didn't do the deed, she had to guess who to go to and what questions to ask.

It was very much a case of having the book planned out, and then saying, "Well, I have to have a scene of finding out this clue without making that the obvious purpose of the scene . . . we must distract them by dangling this false bait in front of them, with just enough finesse that they *think* they're being clever because they believe THAT is what I'm hiding, when it really isn't!"

I was also constrained by being in the real world rather than in my alternate-universe fantasy, and thus I had to let the police react the way they really plausibly would (meaning research--I talked to two Richardson detectives and one lady who investigates for the DA's office in Collin County and one social worker who knew about what happens to children who go into protective custody.) I had to figure out how much of this to put into the book without making the reader bored (but some had to go in to explain why she had to do things a certain way.)

In fact, in the final revision for MARFA LIGHTS I realized I had never had Ariadne (my sleuth) meet the victim's husband's parents, although they could be a great vehicle for giving some information that I hadn't figured out how to work in yet. I knew this revelation had to come before a certain event and after she'd been to the police to turn in what she'd found (and gotten into trouble, because they thought it incriminated her). Whew!

I also had to be careful how much detail I gave about locations. When Ari arrives at various places, there are clues to be seen in the environment, and I had to give those clues a place in the text . . . without making them the ONLY detail given. And without overdescribing. Whew, twice!

It was so much easier just to know what was happening to Dulcie, or to my other heroine Starla the waitress/singer, or to my other-other heroine Paige the jingle writer. Because what happened to them was organic, coming out of their actions in the face of circumstances, and because of what others did (according to their natures) and what they prompted as dilemmas or responses for Starla or Dulcie.

For example, when Dulcinea's father throws the jealous hissyfit over Raz stealing his customers (in his own shop--this is a quirk of Da, because he oughtn't to have been jealous of the younger man he had hired, but oh well, that's Da for you), she has to mediate without alienating Raz and while still making Da happy (she has to live with the man, after all, and obey, as long as she's under his roof, in that culture) and not hurting his ego too much. And she has to smooth it over with the customer, who gets upset over their scenemaking. This led to the scene of Dulcie alone with Raz in which he confides in her his doubts about their safety and why he is doing what he does . . . and this leads to her getting caught talking to Raz about "secrets," which makes her father feel they're plotting against him and trying to run the shop THEIR way . . . anyhow, then he accuses Raz of stealing something from him and Raz finds it by magic, and then he says, "But you were the one who took it, so of course you found it, that proves nothing," and then Raz quits his job and leaves, and Dulcie is heartbroken (being in love with Raz), and then the next morning when Da misses his mage's sack, they assume Raz took it, and that leads to Dulcinea sneaking away to try to catch Raz on the road before he gets far away so she can quietly give it back . . . and then she gets into trouble by meeting that false monk on the road, and she's too young/immature to curb her mouth and then he casts that spell to make her tell her intended mission, and. . . .

Um, ahem. *At any rate*, that story was organic and grew out of its seeds and its characters and their secrets and aims. My protagonist was MAKING it all happen, in a way, so it revolved around her naturally. With the mystery, this stuff happened to someone my protagonist sort of knew, and she got herself involved as a suspect, so she had to investigate in a systematic way as self-defense, but she wasn't really INTEGRAL to it, other than being the one who comes up with the solution and has to (on her own) confront the criminal and rescue herself. (Whew, yet again.) That seemed far tougher to me, because she had to insert herself into other's lives and ask questions, and I had to make up three ways this could have happened and "believe" them myself in order to make that mystery reader see them, and then I had to let my heroine rule out the other two and get in trouble proving the third. It was way, way tougher, and I always felt that most scenes could be replaced with similar ones --- as if there were many ways through that puzzle maze. Whereas with Dulcinea, what happened had to happen that way. It couldn't have happened otherwise to tell that story. I mean . . . what do I mean?

Does this make any sense?

My stories are typically organic and come out of the character. The character has a situation, and one day something changes that really zaps her, and events start rolling out of control, and she has to answer the call to adventure by coping with it and doing what she can. The mystery was a puzzle. Things did start happening when my sleuth poked and probed, but she was never the integral center of events. The victim and criminal were, and had been in a pre-story drama of their own leading up to the crime. So the story of solving the murder was much more a story *about* a story that happened in the past, one she had to uncover bit by bit. While Dulcie and Star and Paige were telling their OWN stories about and by themselves, pretty much as they were happening.

This doesn't negate what I said about readers needing to like and be invested in the success of your sleuth/detective. It's just that in most mysteries, the sleuth is not the center of the puzzle, but the catalyst that finally blows the ruse apart and lets us click the last puzzle piece into place instead of forcing it in where it doesn't belong (the way SOME PEOPLE used to do with all my jigsaw puzzles as a kid, *grrr*.)

My perception of the process may have to do with my method of "beginning at the beginning, or very close to it" (thank goodness for that), but then getting the ending, and then having to get there from here. With me, and thank goodness I have *this * much structure to my chaos, when a novel comes to me, I usually "get" the first scene, the opening scene, and the premise right away, and as I scribble or type this out, the ultimate ending scene comes to me and the "theme" of the novel with it. Weird, but I kid you not. (It sure beats writing five chapters and then realizing the story starts *there*.)

Then I get about ten pages or so into that opening and I say, "What the heck? How do we get there from here?" (I may find that the only part I keep of this original opening is that first sentence which sparked it all, or I may delete that and begin with the third paragraph, or I may just rearrange it all in the proper order--but I always do use this opening in some way, even if I delete the next ten pages and connect it with chapter three.)

And then I start to freewrite some ideas I have about the middle of the book. I may get an inkling about a scene here or there that will be a major turning point (usually plot point 1, plot point 2, a vague idea about the crisis and black moment and resolution, some of the other scenes that are more colorful.) Then I have to go back and fill it all in. Usually, there's a character driving all this. Either my main character is having an adventurous conflict with some colorful type, or she's about to get head-to-head in anger with another one . . . you know. And that colorful character begins to act or talk, and we suddenly get the next event that's tied into the story or subplot. Then we have to make this all a novel that flows. Work, work, work, that's all we ever do around this slave camp!

But you can't really do that as much with a mystery. Well, you CAN, but you also have to stop and PLAN the CRIME and how it happened, and then you need to justify why and how your sleuth stumbles across it, and you have to make her have a stake in solving it (why would she, unless she's the accused, or the victim was her best friend, or her friend is accused and she's convinced he's innocent, or whatever?). You have to think up a few clues and a few false clues. And you have to insert her somehow into the world of the crime so that she can get info. It's so different from having events that just grow out of previous events and mushroom into a huge worldchange and character change for your hero or heroine.

OR you could just start typing something that interests you and keep going until you hit THE END. It works for some people.

Or so I am told.

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