Wednesday, July 11, 2018

My Murder Mystery Notes by Juliana Aragon Fatula

Dear Readers, 

I've taken some notes in my study of how to write a mystery and today I share some of them with you. These may be from one writer or several. I've read books by the following writers on writing mysteries:  

Linda Rodriguez' Plotting the Character Driven Novel recommends these books on writing: Carolyn See's Making a Literary Life, Dorothea Brande's Becoming a Writer, Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, Julia Cameron's The Artists Way, Stephen King's On Writing: A memoir of the Craft, Madeleine L"Engle's A circle of Quiet, Leonard Bishop's Dare to Be a Great Writer, Elizabeth George's Write Away, One Writer's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life, Brenda Ueland's, If You Want to Write a Book About Art, independence, and Spirit, John Gardener's On Becoming A Novelist, Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, Ursula K. LeGuin's Steering the Craft: Exercise and Discussion on Story Writing for the  Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew.

On learning to read like a writer Linda Rodriquez suggests, "Read the first time the way any reader does for enjoyment and delight to find out what happens next. Then, read over and over, very slowly, Read and ponder. Read like a writer reads for techniques. These writers are our teachers...learn everything you can from them. Learn from the best. Then go practice some of those good techniques in your own work...You're a writer. Think on paper." 

Deborah Coonts, "Give your characters one or two eccentricities. Too many weird traits and too many offbeat characters and they start to blend together. Make them memorable."

Roberta Isleib, "The writer must build an urgency to solve the crime into the character's history and psychology, your character should learn new things about herself, and she should change because of what she learns."

Deborah Turrell Atkinson, "The most interesting conflicts usually combine internal and external threats and examine the reactions under pressure. The protagonist learns skills and acquires wisdom throughout the story, so t hat she/he is prepared for the final confrontation. She needs to grow and change. Add the unexpected. Life does that. 

John Westerman, "Imagine a mixed gender of adults you know well, concentrate on their faults, weaknesses and exaggerate them. Do the same for their modest strengths. What divides them? Brings them joy or sorrow? Some will be brave but some will have hands that shake and voices break during confrontation. Now imagine these people as cops and hand them badges and guns and the power to cause great harm on themselves and others. Send them on a noble mission."

Mathew Dicks, "As a write you must be willing to step into the darkness. A villains life is never simple. Villains are not without villains. Remember this."

Hallie Ephron, "Choose details to reveal character. How does she/he stand, sit, walk, run? How does she/he show anxiety, upset, frustrations, elation, or surprise? Include some at outset and layer more as story moves forward. Fill the fictional world your character inhabits with props. If you carefully choreograph details, you choose to put on page, you can reveal protagonists and her/his backstory in layers. Etch her possessions and setting in your mind."

1. Treat your protagonist like you hate her/him. No struggle beans boring story. Obsessions, bad choices, faulty judgements, trust wrong people, blind to people and things that might help to solve murder investigation, believes in betrayers, obstacles to solving homicide, wrong direction, delay/damage, make things bad and then worse, scandal, blind to real motive, danger, disasters, storms, injury, failures, betrayal, thwart the desire, use physical injury, mechanical failures, rejection...

2. A scene many never be written just to kill time or provide atmosphere and must fulfill more than one purpose, advance our understanding of character, must move story forward, escalation, and conflict, tension, two reversals that work against protagonists efforts, the last so serious it feels thee is no way to overcome, raise the stakes, make it harder....

3. Stories begin at the moment of change, force protagonist to correct, gain, prevent, a threat from happening. The story of that struggle coincidences can never be used to help protagonist but will be believable if they favor the antagonist (killer). Fail or win at a terrible cost that it hardly feels like a win, a victory. The ending must be earned by protagonists' efforts, sacrifices, leading to their growth as a person. 

4. Make protagonist run a gauntlet of fear and hates, plan a scene around each of them. Design your story structure to fit the kind of story you're writing, make use of characters' flaws, vulnerabilities, fears, and desires, conflict with obsessions, passions, secrets of other characters...

5. Make sure each scene has a beginning question, conflict, resolution of some kind and a push toward next scene's question. Create rising tension in chapters through the book to the climax. 

6. Construct a situation where your protagonist is faced with a situation she/he cannot ignore. Establish the problem. Think of three lessons she/he must learn in order to vanquish the opponent. Don't make these easy, Give her/him some bruises. Think of three ways she/he gains wisdom. Does she/he listen to someone she scoffed at? Come up with three different twists that no one could be prepared for. They must be related to the issue. 

7. When you are feeling an emotion, take note of how it feels, in your head, in your gut, nerves. How are you breathing? How fatigued or excitable are you? Are you sweating? Tearful? Are you blushing? Repressing emotions is associated with physical sensations and external behaviors as well as expressing them, without vivid emotions there is no character arc. One whose emotions are well communicated can win reader's hearts...


  1. What a great post, Juliana! And I don't just say that because you cite my book. You've gathered so many useful hints here.

  2. Thank you Linda. Your book led me to these great books and they helped me so much.


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