By: Ann Littlewood, author of the Iris Oakley zoo-dunnit Night Kill.
I write mysteries because they are easy. They have rules. You just follow them and there you are—hey presto!--a mystery novel.
Kill someone as soon as possible and be sure the normal order of life is destroyed by the death. Make sure the protagonist is complex and flawed, but likeable. Put the perpetrator in the first chapter along with other suspects. Keep the protagonist sleuthing. Raise the stakes for him or her. Put in the call to action. The refusal of the call to action. The acceptance of the call to action. (Whew!) Don’t ever hurt a cat. Put in enough clues that readers who like to solve the puzzle feel that the game is fair. Put in enough unusual setting and specialized information that readers who are there for the background enjoy the ride through the plot. Use the three-act structure. Or four acts. Clues and red herrings but don’t let the reader think that the real villain couldn’t possibly have done it—play fair. Be sure to have quirky side characters with intriguing back stories. A penguin or serval or Burmese python. No, wait. Not that last part. Not unless it’s a zoo mystery. A dark night of the soul. Rising tension. Fully-realized villains who had (what they think) were good reasons for murder. The OFTTD (obligatory fight to the death). Justice triumphs and order is restored.
Nothing to it, really.
I write mysteries because they are hard. How do you actually apply all those rules? Plotting is like a crossword puzzle with a deadline and half of it is in French or about Asian rivers and jai alai stars and other stuff you just do not know. What happens next? What is the villain up to while the heroine is snooping around? Is this side plot working? Is it totally obvious that the heiress’s dog trainer Did It? How should I know? Where’s the amazing plot twist? The connection no one would ever expect? OMG, it’s totally too simple. A crashing bore. If I set up a mandrill monkey to escape from her enclosure, eat the eggs from an endangered Bali myna, and return undetected to her enclosure, will the zoo experts nail my hide to the gunnite wall? Will anybody even care that the head gardener, that dirty bastard, is dead? Clues, I need clues. But I’ve created the perfect crime. There aren’t any clues. How is Hero/Heroine ever going to figure this thing out? I need to raise the stakes! Increase the conflict! More dark secrets! But how? And I can’t have a pregnant protagonist with a broken arm and a neck brace engaging in an OFTTD. Arrgghhh! This is impossible.
But it’s the hard that makes the fun. Easy is no fun. Easy is typing. Hard is thinking. Fun is slapping my forehead in the shower, taking the wrong exit off the freeway, forgetting to pick up eggs because I just thought of this great turn of phrase or emotional connection or misdirection. I gotta write that down right now before I forget it. Why didn’t I think of that before? It’s so perfect. And—you saw this coming—I can ignore all those rules if I want to. If I’m clever and convincing enough, I can do anything I want.
But I do need clues. There’s got to be one here somewhere…