Writing a Mystery

Writing a MysteryI have always loved mysteries. Maybe it’s because my favorite book when I was ten or so was Harriet the Spy. Actually, Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels, which a friend of my mother’s introduced me to when I was in my teens, were what really hooked me. I clearly recall walking to my local bookstore every Saturday throughout junior high and perusing the small stand of paperback romantic suspense novels. I would buy one book, usually 99 cents, plus 6 cents tax. (I also picked up quite a few gothic novels and historical fiction. I still have my copy of Victoria Holt’s classic Mistress of Mellyn.) Of course, I read other sorts of books, but mysteries were and have remained my comfort books.

I finally wrote a mystery novel of my own in 2000. Well, I finished it in 2000. I don’t remember exactly when I started it, but I’m sure it took me two or three years to write it. It was actually more a thriller than a mystery, about a woman who had to disappear because she had run afoul of the Russian mob. My agent came this close to selling it—two publishers and a film company were interested in it—but in the end, no one bought it. (I was so crushed, I didn’t write for a year.) I wrote a shorter, more commonplace mystery after that, almost a cozy, but no one was interested in that either. So I set aside mysteries and turned to women’s fiction, which also appealed to me. Lost Mothers and Every New Beginning were the results of that, as well as my current novel, As the Crow Flies, which is still seeking a publishing home.

More than a year ago, I started a new book that I tentatively called Driving Rules. I had a solid idea, I thought, of how the publication of a memoir could roil a family. But I found myself spending an awful lot of time figuring out who the people in this family were, because the family kept getting bigger, and the main characters kept having more and more problems, and I kept getting further and further away from my original idea. The book started resembling an out-of-control batch of Amish bread, growing endlessly and largely shapeless. And I was liking it less and less.

A few months ago, I contacted my agent on behalf of one of my editorial clients. My client had just completed a mystery and I asked my agent, Paige, if she could recommend some agents for my client to contact. “Have her send it to me,” Paige responded. “I love mysteries.”

I probably had known that about Paige, but I had forgotten. Her brief comment acted like a spark. Why not take my shapeless novel with too many characters and subplots, get rid of half of it, and turn what remained into a mystery? I mean, I still love mysteries. My agent loves mysteries. And mysteries, as a genre, are among the best-selling novels published today. Really, I should be writing a mystery.

It took me three months, lots of thinking, and a few phone calls and many more e-mails with my mother, who was a helpful sounding board and idea developer, before I finally had a plot that not only interested me and worked with four of my main characters, but also incorporated an actual murder that my father had told me about years ago, one that was never solved and that had an odd connection to my great-grandfather’s family. That murder was referred to as the Whistle Murder, and for the moment, that is the title of the book.

It will take a great deal of research, since the book reaches back to the ‘40s and ‘50s and deals with the OSS and the spies of the Cold War. I know I will enjoy the research, but even better, I am loading my to-read list with mysteries and thrillers. After all, I need to know the market, and now I am writing a mystery.



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3 thoughts on “Writing a Mystery”

    1. I am collecting positive experiences so my old age is not completely defined by the negatives the unimaginative and oh-woe-is-me folks yammer on about. I certainly added one when Daughter Bett invited me to help plot a novel I will never have to write….

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In which I blog about the days I write and the days I don’t write; about teaching about writing; about reading (which is never enough); and occasionally about music, because sometimes a three-minute song can tell as good a story as a novel.

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