How The Heck To Write A Murder Mystery?
Today, the Hot Tub Crime Machine is graced by the presence of Courtney Cantrell. Courtney was an original contributor to the RESISTANCE FRONT project, and is the author of the Demons of Salt March series and the Legends of the Light-Walkers series.
She's climbing into the hot tub to tell us about what it's like setting a murder mystery in a fantasy setting.
Once upon a time, I decided to pen a murder mystery set in my fantasy universe, Legends of the Light-Walkers.
My first task?
How The Heck To Write A Murder Mystery — specifically geared toward n00bs.
Not Pictured: NoobsNo, seriously. If you’ve never given much thought to the mechanics of writing a whodunit, it feels like a huge undertaking. How many suspects do I need? How many witnesses? How many sleuths? Should I start with the crime scene? The murder itself? The moments before? The YEAR before?
Further-and-themore, what evidence should my sleuths start out with? What’s useful for story purposes? How long do I let them blunder through the proverbial dark? What about my perp(s) — are they on-screen? What makes my sleuths initially suspect someone? What’s the tingle at the back of the sleuthish brain that says *THEY* DID IT? What sharpens a detective’s focus on a particular suspect?
Sweet St. Hepzigarde, how do I CRAFT this tale without letting the reader already guess the culprit in Chapter Two?!
And don’t even get me started on how fatal wounds, skin slippage, and insect larvae are supposed to work. Yikes. (Ohhh, but writing the gross can be so much FUN! However, I digress.)
Naturally, I appealed to our very own Bernard Schaffer, real-life police detective, for technical advice (and, on the DL, assurance that I could actually pull this off, but don’t tell him I said that). He was kind enough to answer my specifics but summed up his advice with this reminder:
“At the end of the day, your job is to entertain. Characterization and plot are all that matters.”
When it comes right down to it, y’all, unraveling and raveling a crime fiction story is just like painstakingly crafting any other genre story:
1. Develop your characters, most especially your main ones (but don’t neglect the supporting ones!). Give them color. Flavor. Nuance — in voice, in gesture, in appearance, dialogue, backstory, motivation. Set each one apart. Don’t leave them hanging. Grow them throughout the story. They cannot end the tale as exactly the same people you see in Chapter One.
2. Figure out your plot points, preferably before you dive into the biz of writing the story. You might not stick with these specific ones (since strong, well-developed characters tend to alter preconstructed plot points whilst hurtling through the story), but they will give you something to aim for as you go along. Which can prevent so-called “writer’s block” (in which I do not believe, but that is another blogpost and shall be told another time). A rudimentary plot structure might include:
A: departure from the norm
B: initiation into tests, allies, and enemies
C: darkest moment
D: resurrection into true self
E: liberation into the future
That is a VERY esoteric list, so if you want to hobnob about it, hit me up!
3. Infuse tension into every chapter...every paragraph...every line. Sometimes, that means a helter-skelter series of action scenes that leave your reader breathless. Sometimes, it means gifting a character with interior monologue that contradicts their dialogue. Sometimes, it’s as simple as a “but” instead of an “and.” Every line of your story must move the reader forward. You don’t want them to take a break. You don’t want them to get out of your world. You want them to want your story. (“I waaaant you to want me….”) *ahem* Almost unbearable tension is how you create that desire. Every word teases the question “what’s next? what’s next?” You don’t give the final answer until “The End.”
Maybe not even then. ;)
Courtney Cantrell has nine published titles to her name, including the Legends of the Light-Walkers series (epic fantasy), The Elevator (sci-fi), and the Demons of Saltmarch trilogy (paranormal fantasy). Expect her first fantasy whodunit, The Priestess Murders, in 2020. Courtney loves unicorns, cats, chocolate, coffee, and dancing. She blogs at Court Can Write and tweets @courtcan.
All right, everybody out of the hot tub. We've all sat in here so long all of our muscles have turned to jelly. Thank you, Courtney Cantrell!
The idea of a murder mystery set in a different type of genre is intriguing. Who Framed Roger Rabbit comes to mind. How about you, Hot Tub fan? What's your favorite murder mystery that takes place in an unfamiliar setting?