Saturday, February 28, 2009


There's an excellent new post on Mysterious Matters regarding motives for murder.  It's important not only for your perpetrator to have a strong motive, but for each of your suspects to have a reason to be on the list of potential killers. 

Thinking Like a Detective

blog11 Most fans of mystery novels know a lot about detectives---likely more than they know about suspects and murderers.  After all, the reader is usually following the case and evaluating the clues through the detective's eyes. The detective's mission to solve the case provides the spinal column of the mystery plot.

The path that journey takes, and the difficulties facing each sleuth is a large part of what distinguishes one mystery from another. 

Many detectives feel a great deal of pressure:  It's their haste to solve the case and prevent more deaths that drives the detective.  They're trying to piece together clues and stop the murderer before he kills again.  This component adds a sense of urgency and suspense to your book.

Some detectives experience the fear associated with a close brush with death.  Perhaps they're getting too close to the truth and face possible elimination by a killer desperate to remain anonymous. This fear can either drive them or cloud their judgment.

Some detectives' personal foibles create drama.  Police procedurals may showcase detectives dealing with grief, divorce, and substance abuse (usually alcohol) problems.  Their focus may be diverted by their personal issues, or may lead to a slower resolution of the case. Some killers exploit the detectives' faults, insecurities, or inadequacies for their gains (remember The Silence of the Lambs.)

Some sleuths have something to prove---the policeman looking for promotion or one who bears a chip on his shoulder for being passed over for one.  The amateur sleuth may be trying to clear his own name in connection with the crime.  The desire to prove something and the internal conflict of the detective can add fuel to your plot--maybe during the "sagging middle" of the book where it seems that the crime may never be solved, or when there may be an additional crime committed, despite the detective's best efforts. 

Many detectives have a well-developed need for justice.  They share a sense of outrage at these crimes against innocent victims and a desire to return the area to its previous civility. In some books, the detectives may even occasionally extend mercy to the killer--if they believe their crime was justified and, in some respects, just (the crimes were committed to exact revenge over long-ago transgressions.)

The detective is your reader's host through your novel. By understanding what makes him tick, you're providing the reader with a more interesting and insightful journey through your book.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Thinking Like a Suspect

blog10 As I mentioned in my last post, it's a challenge to write mysteries; you have to get in the heads of so many different people.  Today we're going to think like a suspect.  What motivates them?  How are their emotions hampering or helping the investigation? How can their perceptions (right or wrong) influence your sleuth's case....and your book? 

Some people are suspects merely because of their closeness to the victim.  Remember that husbands are always the first to be suspected when their wives are the victims of foul play.  And when children disappear, frequently the parents are among the list of suspects.  In these scenarios, the suspects are likely to be grieving, hostile, and defensive.  They may be shocked at the death of their loved one and furious that the police would even consider them as a suspect.  These characters may mislead the police out of maliciousness or a desire to implicate someone else and draw attention away from themselves.  Or they may plead with the police to help find "the real killer."  They're more likely to have many conflicting emotions

Some people are suspects because of motive, means, and opportunity.  Maybe they were at the wrong place at the wrong time.  Or maybe they had a grievance with the victim that the police become aware of.  They may have secrets that they don't want anyone to find out about--they lie about their whereabouts to conceal an affair.  Or they lie to the investigators to make their involvement with the victim seem less significant or incriminating.  They can function to send police and sleuths in wrong directions after red herrings. Their motivation is clearly to protect themselves at all costs.

For some, becoming a suspect in a murder investigation is terrifying.  Living through their worst nightmare might make some of them exhibit characteristics of guilt---rapid swallowing, shallow breathing, nervous sweating.  The investigator could assume guilt where none exists...another possible red herring, this one with non-verbal cues.

Some suspects may even be desperate enough to try to solve the crime themselves---this is the way some amateur sleuths realistically become involved in the case.

Agatha Christie enjoyed using the concept of "the unreliable witness" in many of her books.  She created characters that acted odd, lied outright, seemed vacuous, vapid, and ignorant.  Then she'd have one of them drop a clue.  It would be overlooked or ignored.  It might be just an observation that the oddball character made about another character, or something inconsistent that happened that they remarked on. But it would be the truth and help lead the sleuth to their solution. 

Or, conversely, you may have a suspect that seems extremely reliable.  You've got a doctor, academic, a leader in the community.  They make an intelligent observation about another suspect.  The investigator goes off on the tangent. But they've sent them off on a red herring.  It's up to the investigator to determine if they were sent on the red herring to divert attention from the "reliable" suspect.  Or whether it was just poor intuition on the part of that character. 

Different characters may have different reactions to being placed under suspicion.  By putting yourself in their place, you can enrich your story and provide more realistic characters.  They may lie, sweat, fume, but they'll provide color for your manuscript. 

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Thinking Like a...

blog8 One of the reasons writing mysteries (mysteries that are any good, anyway) is challenging is that you have to "get inside" so many heads. You have to think like a killer, suspect, and detective to realize what makes them tick and portray them successfully. You even have to think about what qualities make someone a target (the victim.)

For the next few blogs, I'm going to analyze these different groups of people that make up our mysteries . What motivates them? What do they worry about? What causes them to screw up?

Today, I'm focusing on the perpetrator: what prompts him to murder, how might he feel after committing the crime, how does he cover his tracks or make mistakes that lead to his capture?

What Makes the Murderer Kill?

Something in the killer's past leads him to kill: Many mysteries (especially thrillers and police procedurals) feature killers with disturbing backgrounds. Some were abused as children, some have had substance abuse problems and rocky relationships as adults. Psychological thrillers might delve into a killer's past to explain what led him to this point. In these cases, the murderer chooses--overtly or subconsciously--to perpetuate a cycle of violence that began in their past.

Desperation causes the killer to murder: Perhaps the perpetrator is desperate to keep a secret hidden (a local politician? A school teacher? Someone who needs to espouse an aura of trust for the town?) Many mysteries have killed off a blackmailer--either the murderer believed the blackmailer was about to expose him, or else the murderer was unwilling to continue paying out to shut the blackmailer up. Greed, a desperation for money, motivates many killers. Maybe the murderer is written into the victim's will and receive property or cash upon the victim's demise. In a desperate situations the perpetrator is trying to improve their lives by ridding themselves of a problem or by improving their lifestyle.

Thwarted love is another big motive. The murderer may kill for revenge on the person who stole their love from them. Or to eliminate the competition. Or to right what they see as an injustice (perhaps their nemesis treats their loved one poorly and doesn't appreciate what they have.) Here the murderer might be acting out of blind passion and the crime might not be as well thought-out if it occurred in the heat of the moment.

All right, so we've got the motivation for the first murder. But frequently there's at least a second in a mystery novel. Is the motive for the second murder the same as the first?

It can be. In the case of thrillers, you may have a deranged killer who is acting out as a result of their troubled past. Or perhaps there's a new blackmailer that has taken the place of the first one (a friend or confidant of the first victim.)

Sometimes there may be a different motive for the second murder. Frequently the second victim realized the identity of the murderer. Or else had some vital information or clue that would likely lead investigators to the killer. These victims are "hushed up." It's another example of a crime of desperation.

Now that we've thought a little about what motivates a murderer to kill, let's focus on:

How the Killer Might Feel About the Crime

Desperate: In many Agatha Christie books, the perpetrator makes more mistakes as his increasing distress that he might be discovered pushes him to continue the crime spree. In his rush to eliminate people who know he's guilty, he may leave more clues to his identity.

Cocky: In some cases, the murderer may feel as if they've gotten away with murder. As time goes on, he may feel invincible as no one yet discovers his identity. He has control over life and death--he chooses who lives, who dies. This power trip may encourage him to kill again. And his cockiness may cause him to make mistakes. Maybe he drops clues in conversation---he's just barely holding back on his need to brag about his accomplishments. He may reveal information that only the killer would know. Perhaps he drops physical clues that lead to his discovery.

Guilty: Maybe he's appalled at his actions. He may flush when questioned, be unable to look anyone in the eye, withdraw from the community. Or, as a red herring for the reader, the author could wonder whether his behavior indicates that he's covering up for someone else--someone close to him. Or the author might broach the fact that perhaps he has some information that could be vital to the case.

Covering Up the Crime:

We've already discussed one way the killer might try to cover his tracks---by killing again. Other means may be pressuring someone to provide a fictitious alibi (which can eventually be revealed), manipulating evidence (perhaps even attempting to return to the scene of the crime to remove an item that might point their way), and leave evidence or tell investigators information that leads them to another suspect. Sometimes in covering up the crime, the perpetrator may inadvertently bring attention to themselves: because the murderer is never smarter than the detective.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Note Cards--the Perfect Writing Tool

blog7 Writing is one of the least-expensive activities on earth; you don't need a lot of sophisticated equipment to do it. Don't, however, underestimate your need for some tools to successfully capture your ideas on paper.

Remember Samuel Coleridge's masterpiece "Kubla Khan"? Actually, the entire title is "Kubla Khan; or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment". Coleridge stated that he'd written the poem while waking from an opium-enriched dream. A visitor came unexpectedly to his door, shattering his dream and the images he was hurrying to commit to paper.

The moral of the story? Jot down your ideas immediately. Don't trust your memory. After all, most of us have many different things going on in our lives as distractions---work, children, friends, ringing cell phones, crowded email in-boxes. If you hear of or think up a great character name, write it down. Come up with a fantastic scrap of dialogue? You won't remember it later, try as you might to summon it up--jot it down. Keep paper on your bedside table, in your car, in your pocket or purse, and around your house. Note cards are the perfect size for a hastily-scribbled idea, bit of dialogue, plot point, interesting adjective or metaphor.

Conveniently, you can even paperclip or staple the note cards onto your manuscript at the points you want to write them in.

"Kubla Khan" would have been even more of a gift to the English language if Coleridge had sketched out his poem's outline immediately. Or neglected to answer his door.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Mystery Writing Community

blog6 Writing can be an isolating experience, but it doesn't have to be. There are ways to get plugged in to the writing community: join a group, read a forum, sign up for a listserv, etc.

Organizations (national): The Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime (which is not just for women.)

Absolute Write has a great forum for mystery writers.

The Writers Write website offers links to mystery research tools: "finding crime resources;" "crime and police procedure;" "forensics;" "government sites;" "types of crime;" "equipment, weapons, and poisons;" etc.

Mystery Readers International has links to mystery-related publications and bookstores, and has a journal you can access online with articles on topics like "academic mysteries," "ethnic mysteries," etc.

The Bloodstained Bookshelf publishes lists of recent and upcoming mystery releases.

There are several Yahoo Groups you can join for more contact with other writers, as well as research information and other support: 4 Mystery Addicts, Murder Must Advertise, Crime Scene Writer, Wicked Company, Weapons Info .

The most popular listserv focused on the mystery genre is Dorothy L. (as in Dorothy L. Sayers.) To subscribe, send an e-mail to with the message "subscribe Dorothyl (first name) (second name)" (with your name and without the parentheses).

You can check out a couple of newsgroups related to mysteries, too. and . Once you get used to the layout of Usenet groups, you can find interesting articles, topics, and information.

Facebook also has groups devoted to mysteries. Search for ""Sherlock who?" The Ellery Queen Appreciation Society!", "The Golden Age of Detective Fiction," "MWA (Mystery Writers of America)," " Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine," and (for all writers) "Poets & Writers."

The Mystery Writer's forum ( has useful links on everything from forensics (including crime-scene cleanup, drugs and poisons, and crime scene investigation) to forgery and hacking.

Writers Net and Writing World offer forums and articles to help connect writers with each other and with resources and information.

Here are two sites that will help you protect yourself from unscrupulous people who prey on writers (yes, they're out there): Writer Beware blog, and Preditors and Editors.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Lure of the Amateur Sleuth

blog5 What's your favorite type of mystery to read?  Your reading preferences usually help determine whether you're writing a police procedural, noir, private eye, or cozy mystery. 

My favorite genres of mystery are the police procedural (think Elizabeth George) and cozies.  But I've found that I'm particularly partial to the amateur sleuth cozies. 

There are many aspects that draw me in.  For one thing, solving the case is similar to working out a puzzle.  The sleuth is getting the clues at the same time the reader is.  How, or if, we put them together is up to us. 

For another, I like the way that the sleuth is working on a different level than the police.  Instead of the forensic evidence in a police procedural, books featuring amateur detectives frequently employ different information-gathering techniques.  These may include listening to local gossip, forging relationships with police and other people in the know, and being, in general, a busybody.  The amateur uses their natural talents and "little gray cells" (in the case of Hercule Poirot) to solve the case instead of relying on DNA droppings.

The settings for the sleuth novels are another draw.  The reader is frequently treated to a visit to a small town or village.  We are introduced to a limited number of suspects, whom we get to know well.

Amateurs make mistakes that lead us on red herrings.  Or they believe witnesses and gossips that take us on wild goose chases.  Sometimes, realizing we've hit a wall heightens the urgency.  We can sympathize with the sleuth, since we're in the same boat--we haven't solved the mystery, either.

Amateurs aren't loaded down with weapons in their battle with the villain---usually their only self-defense is a sharp tongue and a quick mind. 

Sleuths are smart, connected, motivated, and human.  It's fun to follow along as they work out the puzzle and bring a sense of normalcy to their quiet corner of the world.