The Victim is The Center of Your Mystery
The victim in your mystery is more than just a dead body. The victim is the fulcrum for your entire mystery.
Without your victim, your sleuth has no mystery to solve, no clues, no suspects to interview, and no killer. Everything in your novel pivots around the victim.
When you create your Character Bible add the victim to your characters. If your story evolves to more than one victim, make sure the other victims are in your character list.
What to Know About Your Victim
Like any other character, you want to know both basic details and background information.
The victim’s social and emotional ties impact all your suspects.
How to Use Victim Details
In a traditional mystery, the puzzle pieces the sleuth uncovers are based on the relationship between the victim and the villain. As you construct your story, you reveal the layers of the victim’s life as your sleuth learns more and more about the victim’s world.
The first time your sleuth and your reader encounter the victim is often at the crime scene. The sleuth notices not just the physical details, but the place and anything around the victim. Basic details like clothing, height, weight, sex, and even hair color are details that bring the victim into the reader’s world for the first time.
What the reader learns through the sleuth’s eyes is their introduction to the victim and the puzzle that must be solved.
You need background to fill out each suspect’s impressions of the victim. As your sleuth interviews the suspects he tries to put each piece of information from the various suspects into place to form a picture of the victim. How they related to other people on and off the job, how they occupied their time, usual hang out places set against a one-time visit. All of this information is ample background to filling in a picture of the victim through other people’s eyes.
Sometimes a suspect’s description corroborates what others say, and sometimes a variance in description—a quirk, an angry outburst and the reason, a specific time. Somewhere in all of these pieces of information clues point toward the villain.
The villain, as one of the suspects, presents their own set of information. The more you know about the victim, the easier it is to wrap lies with truth as the villain tries to hide guilt.
Knowing your victim’s background enables you to write about the victim’s world, especially if it is a world unfamiliar to the sleuth. It doesn’t matter what the world is—bicycle racing, military boot camp, seedy underworld. In every case, what you know about how the victim lived in that world supplies you with clues and the secrets and lies suspects use
to defend their personal life.
Aim for Rich Victim Background
The character background work you do on the victim will help you flesh out your novel as you move through the scenes. Suspect alliances will feel realistic. Clues relating to the victim and the villain will be hidden
among details. You’ll end up with deep relationships that ultimately point to the villain.
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Set the Stage with Setting
Setting is a novel element that grounds your reader. Without it, your characters are floating in space. It acts like another character in your mystery, providing physical clues. But it also creates atmosphere, reveals character personal traits, and gives your reader a sense of place.
Filmmakers know how important setting is. They scout for the right location for each scene in the film. You can do the same thing for your story.
Every scene in your story takes place somewhere—a busy street in the afternoon, a dark and empty street at night, the protagonist’s kitchen, a suspect’s office.
When you plan out the action of a scene, don’t forget to plan the location.
Author P.D. James believed setting was the spark for a novel.
Something always sparks off a novel, of course. With me, it’s always the setting. I think I have a strong response to what I think of as the ‘spirit of a place.’
You may not start with setting, but you need it every scene.
How to Scout Your Locations
Filmmakers hire people to find the perfect location for story scenes. You can do your own footwork.
If your setting is local, get out with your camera and start collecting images for settings in your story. If friends have the perfect bedroom or kitchen for a scene, be brave with your writing life, ask if you can take photos.
Ask friends, both in real life and online like social media, for location ideas. Independent filmmakers do this with regularity. It works for authors, too.
You may not have physical access to a location, but you can search online for images.
The Story and the Scenes
Once you have a good idea of the overall setting for your story and know the location of each scene, use details to make your settings part of the story.
Rather than long descriptive passages focus on details.
Details bring the scene alive for your readers. They will empathize with the physical and emotional responses your characters experience. Your focus on the details enriches your reader’s sense of place. The details bring them into the story.
Long descriptive passages take readers out of the story. Practice breaking up a long paragraph and, instead, scatter those details throughout the scene. Your reader has a sense of being there, in the scene. Your setting will have a stronger impact than a long description.
Setting Research Pays Off In Your Story
The research you do for settings adds verisimilitude to your story. The details emphasize the unique place—not just any kitchen, but this character’s kitchen.
Setting pulls your reader into the story. The details make each scene come alive. Take the time to locate your settings and add specific details. Your readers will appreciate your work
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When Characters Try to Take Over The Story
Every writer has the experience of characters acting and speaking in unexpected ways. With the most detailed story outline, once you begin writing a scene, characters do something that you hadn’t planned in your outline.
When the protagonist or the antagonist speaks pithy words or acts in a surprising way, you are on the way to enriching your story and deepening your character. But sometimes a supporting character will grab the baton and try to run with the story.
Like a stage actor stepping in front of the lead to gain the upstage position, while you are writing, a character takes the center stage away from your sleuth.
Then your story gets derailed.
How to Put A Character Back on Track
You question your story, your character choice, and wonder how to get control of your character.
You don’t have to go back and rewrite the first part of your novel.
You don’t need to switch character roles to give the character a more prominent place.
You do need to notice the character’s scene grab and consider your next action.
Balance Intuition and Rationale
Take action before you write more. Your intuition created your character’s action. If what the character does overpowers the scene, trim the action to keep balance in your scene. Add another action for your main character to give your protagonist the main thrust in the scene. Then continue on with your story.
Your story is the guideline to making every scene work. And it is the reason all your characters are there. They are the agents that move your story. Let them do and say what comes into your head as you write. Just make sure they are acting within the story construct.
Whether you are a pantser or make detailed outlines, expect your characters to do the unexpected. Then fashion those actions to fit within your story.
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Join The 3% That Finish Their Mystery
It’s a long journey from a story idea to writing The End of a novel. One story idea needs to grow with setting, characters, and plot to reach a satisfactory conclusion.
Because a mystery novel is a large writing process, most writers who start a novel in any genre do not finish. Just three per cent
of writers finish the novel they thought started with a great story idea.
A mystery needs certain components to satisfy mystery reader expectations.
A sound process will help you turn your story idea into a full-fledged novel. Let’s look at how the process works.
A naked dead body in an Amsterdam hotel. A quirky creator of handmade soap. A newly promoted police detective on her first case. You could start with a name, a place, or a situation but then you need to create a story that intrigues readers.
You’ll need to build on that idea to create a basic story situation which you can write in one sentence.
This story sentence has three parts:
This is the acorn from which you build the great oak of your story. All the conflicts, characters, and scenes you create relate to this story core.
Populate Your Mystery
Characters create the interaction, tension, and puzzle in your mystery. Your story needs characters to tell the story through action and dialogue.
Create a background for each character. The sleuth, the victim. the villain, suspects. And you may have subplots that require a sidekick, a mentor, a love interest. The more you know about your major characters, the better you can create realistic scenes.
Your mystery happens in a place and time. The setting is like another character in your mystery that adds both realism and drama to your story. Use setting to ground your reader and create conflict in your story. From a wiped brow on a hot day to a cliff for the final confrontation, you’ll need to use setting details in your mystery to create realism.
The Story Structure
A structure builds your story scene-by-scene. Basic structure keeps your story from wandering and builds tension to a climax when your sleuth reveals the killer. Along the way, your sleuth becomes committed to solving the murder, discovers clues, interviews suspects, and finally pierces through the killer’s screen to reveal their misdeed.
Structure helps you write 60, 80 or even 100 thousand words or more to create a complete mystery novel.
Writing Your Mystery
Once you know your story, populate it with characters, base it in a specific setting, and have a basic idea of the structure, you’ll spend hours writing your story one scene at a time.
The story doesn’t write itself, you need dedication and discipline to create the flow that sends you through writing scene after scene.
The Big Mystery Picture
A mystery is a puzzle that your sleuth solves. Your readers follow along with the sleuth checking evidence, questioning suspects, to organize the puzzle pieces into a complete picture. You want to keep the puzzle challenging for your readers so they don’t guess before your sleuth.
First-time writers can struggle with all the pieces that compose writing a mystery. Now you have a solution. Write A Killer Mystery is a course designed to walk you through the steps. to lead you from your story idea to writing The End and beyond.
I based the course on years of helping writers struggle with completing a story and fixing stuck places. If you are ready to write your first mystery or have one that got stalled, This course will help you get to The End.
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Zara Altair, Author
The puzzle of politics, the mystery of murder in ancient Italy. After Rome, before the Middle Ages, Italy belonged to the Ostrogoths.