Monday, February 11, 2013

Engineering a Mystery

By Beth Groundwater

I've taught a number of workshops at many different writing conference, library programs, and to writing groups, and one of my favorites is "Engineering a Mystery." I apply my engineering background from my first career to help fledgling mystery writers build some scaffolding for their projects, or formulate recipes for their mystery novels.

The first essential ingredient in a mystery is the sleuth, who investigates the murder(s) and tries to deduce who the killer is. In my case, with two mystery series in the works, my sleuths are well-defined: whitewater river ranger and rafting guide Mandy Tanner for the RM Outdoor Adventures series or gift basket designer Claire Hanover. Both of these characters are old friends, but when I switch from one to the other, I usually need to go back and read at least the last few chapters of the last book starring that character, so I remember what emotional and physical state I left her in and move on from there.

The next essential ingredient in the recipe for a murder mystery is the victim. The dead body that falls on the floor in Act One. There may even be more than one victim to keep things interesting if the plot starts to drag in the middle. Without a victim, we wouldn’t have a mystery to solve and we could all go home! Along with defining a victim, I try to give him or her a family and/or friends who will sorely miss them, because we should never forget how truly horrible murder is.

Usually the victim is not well-liked, so there are many people who’d like to see him or her dead. And, I, like most mystery writers, try to use my creativity to find an interesting way for the victim to die—a mysterious poison, a unique weapon, something that might be construed as an accident or suicide and so on.

The third essential ingredient is suspects, those people who may have killed the victim(s). There are usually between 3 and 7 suspects in a murder mystery. Detectives or amateur sleuths look for means, motive, and opportunity for suspects. All three are needed to identify the killer. Means is the ability to commit the murder, such as access to the murder weapon. Motive is the reason why the suspect wanted the victim dead. Opportunity is the potential for the suspect to be at the right place at the right time to kill the victim. And an alibi is a story for why a suspect didn’t have the opportunity. That story can be true or false.

I try to make sure that all of my suspects have at least two if not all three of means, motive, and opportunity. And bringing in suspects often drives the addition of subplots (activities the victim was engaged in that may have led to his murder) and the addition of research topics I need to study.

The fourth essential ingredient in a murder mystery is clues, pieces of evidence that help the sleuth solve the crime. A good principle that detectives use is that the killer usually leaves something at the crime scene and takes something away. What the killer leaves may be fingerprints, shoe prints, a lipstick stain on a glass, or the murder weapon, say if the knife is stuck in the body. What the killer takes away may be hairs, carpet fibers or bloodstains, money or jewelry, or a special memento of the crime. I try to sprinkle the discovery of clues throughout the manuscript, as well as conversations with the suspects, to keep the reader stimulated with more information that she or he can use to try to solve the puzzle.

The last ingredient that spices up the recipe is red herrings. These are false clues that point to the wrong suspect, such as the gun in my first mystery, A Real Basket Case, that incriminated Claire’s husband. The term comes from a fish that’s been cured in brine and smoked, which turns it red and makes it very smelly. The smelly herring then is dragged across a trail to try to distract hunting dogs from their prey. A good hunting dog—or sleuth—is trained to not be distracted by the strong false scent but to stay on the trail of its prey. What makes things interesting in a murder mystery is when a piece of evidence points to more than one suspect, so it’s both a red herring for the innocent suspect and a clue for the killer.

I like to have at least half a dozen clues and red herrings, if not more. Once all the essential elements are defined, I work on putting scenes in order in an outline, figuring out what happens when and what gets discovered when. During this process, I shuffle scenes around until I come up with a flow of events that I think will most interest the reader. And, of course, there have got to be some surprises!

It's a complex process, and one that I always find daunting in the beginning, wondering how I'll ever come up with the final product--a scene by scene outline, a set of detailed character profiles, and thorough research notes from which I can start writing. But, I have to trust in the process and my abilities. I keep telling myself that I've done it many times before, so I should be able to do it again.


Kathleen Ernst said...

I like the word "scaffolding." Without a strong structure nothing else works! Nice post, Beth.

Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks, Kathleen!

Sarah Kennedy said...

This is so succinct and clear. Great metaphor. Thanks!

mike said...

Sounds like a good fundamental structure. It would be neat to see Kathleen's Chloe team up with Mandy somewhere like Durango - Silverton RR. Both "sleuths" (and their writers) are awesome.

Yrsa Sigurdardottir said...

Hello Beth,
I found this post through an e-mail from Dorothy L and the word engineering caught my attention. I was very happy to have followed the link here since it is not often that I come across a colleague from two fronts, i.e. engineering and mystery writing. Anyway, my name is Yrsa Sigurdardottir, I write from Iceland and am also an engineer. This is not a combo one often comes across - who knows maybe our paths will cross one of these days, at Bouchercon, a signing or even a construction site.

all the best,

Angie A. said...

Coming from the DL loop, too.

Thanks for the practical instruction on how to build a mystery. I really liked the idea of clues being left behind AND taken away.

Great ideas!

mike said...

Scaffolding is a very good analogy! One thing I was wondering about: Do you think Mandy Tanner and Claire Hanover might someday cross paths and solve a mystery together? Stuart Woods is one author whose characters appear in the other character's novels quite a bit either as a cameo or a major role (i.e Stone Barrington and Holly Barker). Just curious. :) Looking forward to the next RM.

Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks, Sarah, Mike, Yrsa, Angie, and Mike, for your comments!

Sarah, I'm glad you found the post so succint and clear--that was my goal.

Mike, Kathleen and I will have to put our heads together about a possible team-up. Thanks for the idea!

Yrsa, yes, I'd love to meet you at a mystery con someday, but I have to admit that I don't hang out at construction sites very often. ;-)

Angie, I'm glad you found the post useful!

Mike, I've been asked that question about my two protagonists meeting someday. I kind of doubt they will, since they, and their series, are so different. You'd never find Claire on a whitewater river--by choice. And Mandy doesn't like big cities like Colorado Springs. A cameo might be a possibility, though, as one character "passes through" one of the other's books.

Leslie Karst said...

Found this via your post on my SinC digest. I'm currently struggling with the plot of my second in a series and found this post helpful, as well as an inspiration to get back to it! Thanks!

Chester Campbell said...

You covered the subject very well, Beth. We only differ in our approach to writing, since I'm a pantser, not a plotter. Somehow by the time I finish the story, the clues have appeared and the other essentials have showed up.

jack welling said...

Late to comment here - but this was a lovely post. Thanks for the validation of a process. I too have to know all the answeres when I start. I can "pants" the dialogue or maybe the order in which some facts are revealed ...but I have to know what happened an alternative version of what happened before I can do anything for the reader.

Lovely again. Thanks.