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How Do You Start Writing A Mystery?

The number one question that I get when I tell someone that I write mystery novels is “Where do you get your ideas from?” Now, we both know that I have a carefully hidden offshore idea factory, that can only be communicated with via encrypted emails, but I can’t tell them that, because then I’d have to kill them to keep the factory a secret.

The second question is “Where do you start?” This simple question has both a nuts and bolts answer that we’re going to talk about next post, but for right now, we’re going to go deep and we’re going to go personal.

Your Mystery Begins With You

A mystery novel, like any work of art, is reflective of its creator. A Picasso reveals the man behind it. As does a painting by Dali or Hopper or Wyeth. As does a Hemingway short story or a Steinbeck novel.

I once had an acquaintance address and email to me like this:

“Hey Bill, or should I say Denton?”

If you’ve read Resurrection Angel, or Everlasting Life, you may have put two and two together and figured out that my psychic character, Denton Ward, may have something in common with the author, me.

Fear of relationships (at the time), love of old monster movies and comic books. A lonely childhood. A fondness for alcohol (at the time). A yearning to reach out to others and connect, but afraid to do so, because of his power. Feeling rejected by the world at large due to being unusual.

But did you know that I also have something in common with Monty, my female private investigator?

With Monty, it was a sense of right and wrong. A penchant for anger and cursing. She’s a vegetarian (I was at the time). Love of 80’s New Wave music. Doc Martens. Leather jacket.

This is the flip side of the coin, and it leads us toward the answer to the question “Where do I start?” Each character in the book should have a little piece of you growing in their heart.

Your mystery novel is going to be a reflection of, and reveal a great deal about you, so your novel should begin with some self-reflection and some thinking about who you are.

The question should be “Who am I?”

You Are The Sum Of Everything That You Have Experienced

Think about it. As of right now, you, sitting there, reading this blog post, are the sum of every action, every decision, every conversation, every argument, every prayer, everything and anything that you have done, and everything that has been done to you, for the past years.

There is no one like you, and there is no one who can write a mystery like you.

This may sound trite and simplistic, but it is true. No one has lived your life and learned the things that you have. No one has met the people you have, no one has seen the things that you have seen. You are unique in this world, therefore your mystery will be unique.

Stephen King describes himself as an archaeologist; someone who goes out and digs up interesting things, interesting people and interesting situations.  Because of who King is, we now realize that he puts a lot of himself into his books, especially into his young protagonists.  With him, because he’s been doing it so long, this osmosis from truth to fiction is probably an unconscious act, but to begin our mystery, I think we need to be a bit more obvious about it and take the time to be our own archaeologists, and dig up some of our own history.

Plumb Your Depths, Reveal Your History

As we begin your journey toward a finished mystery novel, I think it would be healthy and interesting to take stock, and remind yourself of just who you are and where you have come from. There are little bits and pieces that you may have forgotten that could be paramount to creating amazing story.

I want to share this poem with you. It’s called “Where I’m From” and it’s by George Ella Lyon.

Where I’m From

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.
I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.
I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.
Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

Think About Where You Are From

Lyon uses some amazing images in the above poem. Clothespins, Chlorox, dirt from under a porch. Trees in the yard. Fudge and eye glasses. Fried corn, strong coffee. Parents named Artemus and Billie.

Think a moment about the person who wrote this poem.

Are they from a rural town or a large city?
Were they rich or were they poor?
Did they have a religious upbringing?
Did they behave or did they rebel?
What type of detective would this person be?
How would they go about solving a crime?
Would the victim be more important than the killer?
Or vice versa?
How would they feel about revenge?
The death penalty?

As I mentioned above, your main character, your murderer, your supporting characters, they are all going to be carrying a piece of you, a trait, a feeling, an attitude, a belief from you out into the world through your writing.

We’ve all heard about the phrase “physician heal thyself”, for our purposes, it should be “writer know thyself”.

Your Homework

Your homework for this blog entry is to read the poem again, and jot down some lines that you might write if you were going to create a poem called “Where I’m From”.

Think about the house you grew up in.
Think about the parents that raised you.
Think about the schools you attended, or didn’t attend.
Think about your first job, your first real taste of responsibility.
Think about the many things that went into creating you, and think about the type of detective that you would have been.

Think about the type of sleuth that you are going to create.
Think about your detective’s history.
Think about the things that happened to them that would create the person that they have become today.
Think about their past living situation that caused them to have their current living situation.
Think about their first job.  Think about their current job.  Then connect the two.

Don’t be afraid to use part of your own history, but don’t make it too on the nose.
Don’t be afraid to use part of a friend or acquaintances history, but again, make it your own with a new coat of paint.

Put your pen on the paper and keep scribbling and brainstorming.
Rome was not built in a day, and your amazing detective won’t be created in a day, either.

You are taking the first step on a journey that will lead to a finished mystery novel.
You are beginning where you need to begin.

With yourself.

This makes it your work of art.

Thank you for being here, and thank you for being in my life.
Please share this with someone that you think would really love it.


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