Basic Mystery Tropes and How to Start Writing a Mystery
I had fun with the first Mystery Monday. With an Ask Me Anything base, I answered a few questions as well as covering the topic for the day - Basic Mystery Tropes.
Links to Today's Episode
Ten ways to hide clues in your mystery.
The One Important First Step to Write a Killer Mystery
Have a question? Post it here in Comments.
Mystery Monday: Ask Me Anything
Join me on Facebook Live on Mondays for Ask Me Anything chats about writing and reading mysteries.
Great place for mystery lovers to get together.
The Word and Syntax Writer Wake Up
Nothing is perfect, especially when it comes to writing. You can always tweak for better wording. The time to tweak most is before publishing. Yes, it seems self-evident but searching for the mot juste that isn’t quite yet or refining the language of a sentence are part of the writing process.
Effective writing takes thought and time, and an ear for the vocabulary and syntax muse.
When you wake up with a new version of a sentence you wrote in your last chapter—yes, one sentence out of the entire chapter—you don’t write a note to yourself in the notebook near your bed. You get up out of bed, bring up the manuscript on the computer, and change the sentence. You do this because you know you won’t get back to sleep until you make the change.
The One Word
In the days before the internet and quick but boring results in an online Thesaurus, writers made telephone calls in the middle of the night. Who else would be up then? But, even if someone was already in bed, they woke up to talk about writing with sometimes devastating results.
What’s another word for phoenix?
And the conversation continued. If you need a translation for my fellow writer’s answer: It’s been done with excellence.
Here’s the modern day online Thesaurus answer.
Yep, pretty boring. As writers, we still need to hash out word ideas.
Now we have social media, where because it’s there 24/7, doesn’t require an immediate answer. You can post a question and although the response may not be immediate because your fellow writer lives in Bulgaria, you get an answer.
Because writing is a process, you don’t get immediate gratification, but sometimes just asking the question to another writer, gets the internal wheels turning for an alternative word choice.
Your passion shows when you care about that one right word or strengthening a sentence.
Connect with Writers
Connecting with other writers enhances your passion for writing. Writing groups can help you spot the sentence or paragraph that lags, or a better way to sequence events in a story, and even suggest the right mot juste.
One of the rewards of connecting with other writers is shared passion.
Zara Altair writes traditional mysteries set in the time of Ostrogoth Rule in Italy in The Argolicus Mysteries. Argolicus uses his observation and reason, with help from his tutor Nikolaos, to provide justice in a province far from the King’s court. Join the reader's list.
When Friends Become Enemies and Enemies Become Friends
Challenging your protagonist with obstacles adds intrigue and engagement for readers. Reversals, where what appears to be one thing turns into something else are great obstacles to throw at your protagonist. Just when the reader thinks they know, a reversal pivots the story. The protagonist experiences an unexpected challenge.
Action stories often have physical reversals such as a helicopter crash just as the hero is off to catch the bad guy. Character reversals imbue an emotional punch to any story genre.
Setting up character reversals takes a deep knowledge of your characters. You need a deep understanding of weaknesses and masks. For example,
Now think how your story would expand if both supporting characters were in your story. Will your protagonist see the manipulation of the employee? Will she triumph over the devastated woman by winning the man of her dreams?
Creating character reversal requires a deep understanding of your character. You’ll go far beyond physical description and dig into their inner makeup. Reveal the patterns, foibles, weaknesses, and strengths that belong to your character over time. You want to go from how they first appear in body language and speech to the change that emerges to challenge your protagonist.
To know about your character, dig into the under layers and past experiences.
The more you add to your character’s list of inner turbulence, the more tools you have to reveal the reversal. In your story you will start with the appearance and gradually reveal the nature that changes the character’s action.
At some point in your story, an action or piece of dialogue will trigger revealing the character’s underpinnings, change their action, and cause your protagonist to rethink their next action.
Once you have given the reader a solid idea of your character, you can hint at the change to come. To make the reversal integral to the story, drop small hints early in Act 2. Use small clues that the reader and your protagonist may overlook—a gesture, a glance, a comment that doesn’t quite fit.
Build on the character’s underlying change so that by the time you are past the midpoint, their base character creates an obstacle for your protagonist.
Take Your Reader on the Ride
As you complicate the characters around the protagonist, you create problems. Obstacles are the meat of challenging your protagonist. Using character reversals challenges your hero to strive for the goal. A novel-length story provides ample space for you to challenge your protagonist with several character reversals.
Give your hero a bumpy ride. Your readers will love the ride.
Zara combines mystery with a bit of adventure in the Argolicus Mysteries in southern Italy at the time of Ostrogoth rule.
Photo by Ariana Prestes on Unsplash
Fallacies in Logic and Rhetoric
Errors in logic and rhetoric are a great basis for characters misrepresenting themselves, obfuscating the truth, and creating dialogue based on false information.
Especially in mysteries where the protagonist uncovers the truth using fallacies by placing them in the mouths of your characters will set your protagonist down false paths.
Think of your character's personality, what they want to hide, and what type of fallacious thinking they can use to state their case.
Two Fallacy Tools for Writers
Online, information is beautiful creates a reference that breaks down various fallacies in logic and rhetoric into categories.
The website Your Logical Fallacy Is created a downloadable poster of logical fallacies that you can print out for quick reference.
Either way, you'll have tools to help you give your characters the wrong ideas.
Politics and People: Story Conflict Root
Character and conflict are at the heart of story. These story elements are as important in historical fiction as they are in any other genre.
Characters are modeled on human beings. Because human nature is a given, as an author you have a wide spectrum of character traits to play with no matter what your genre. Put your character’s traits in opposition to a situation or a person and you create conflict.
Political Power Creates Conflict
In the Argolicus Mysteries the main character, Argolicus, may be solving a murder but the politics of the time creates complications, reversals, and roadblocks. The Ostrogoths rule Italy and Roman law prevails for Italians. Basically two rules of law one for the Ostrogoths and one for Italians.
The introduction to each story tells a story of relative international peace.
With few exceptions, the western world was at peace in the year 512 after Christ’s birth. Warlords were plotting in the Balkans either for the East or the West, but mainly for their own power. Rumblings in Persian borderlands perhaps threatened the Roman Empire as seated in Constantinople. The most recent disturbances—betrayals, if you will—of the Frankish kingdoms had been settled some five years. Bishops and clergy squabbled over textual interpretations of the Gospel, patristic writings, or Patriarchal proclamations, as usual, some in a huff, others with conciliatory leanings. Vandals had controlled northern Africa for almost 100 years. The Visigoths ruled Spain and traded with avarice. In Italy affairs of concern were mainly internal—the parallel Roman law and Ostrogoth legal systems ran under the regal Edicts guided by a sense of civility, providing structure for dispute resolution.
But the stories take place in the far south of Italy, far from the capitol at Ravenna. There is social unrest, the Church and nobles vie for power, and many poor people are displaced. While many people think of politics in a national way, local politics can impact individual characters.
Think of your local town where a do-gooder serves as treasurer of several local non-profits and finds a way to skim off a little for himself from each treasury, or the local manufacturer who spends time eyeing young girls in the schoolyard. These are people with local power who also have a darker side.
Whether your story is set in the present or the distant past, the characters are human. Human nature does not change. As a writer, you don’t have to look far to find people involved in politics who hide secrets.
The challenge in historical novels is to know the politics of the time well enough to weave it into the story. The human nature of your characters takes care of their actions. The politics is part of the background that sets some people in power and others who work against that power.
Politics adds dimension. The characters provide the conflict working within the political structure. Politics is part of the story world that adds conflict by displaying human weakness.
Zara Altair writes traditional mysteries set in the time of Ostrogoth Rule in Italy in The Argolicus Mysteries
New Year Roman Games: No Lanes. No Rules
STEPPING BACK IN HISTORY TO ANCIENT ROME WITH AUTHOR ZARA ALTAIR
Zara Altair writes traditional mysteries set in the time of Ostrogoth Rule in Italy in The Argolicus Mysteries. Learn more about her and her books at her website.
The New Year: A Time for Games In Ancient Rome
The latest Argolicus mystery, The Roman Heir, is set in Ostia just outside Rome in January 512 CE. The young heir thinks his greatest problem is getting his father to let him go to the new year Games hosted by the new Consul. His father is viciously murdered and the young man changes from teenager to adult.
The games were extravagant events that went on for days. They were entirely free to the public but cost politicians so much they often went deeply into debt. Chariot races were the main event held at the Circus Maximus, which could hold 250,000 spectators. Aside from the cost of horses, chariots, charioteers, and all of their attendant grooms, the games also provided entertainment with musicians, wild animal hunts, acrobats, and other acts all paid for by the politician.
Even though the Games were held in January, inclement weather like rain or snow did not stop the Games. Whatever the weather, people flocked to the Games for the annual holiday.
Charioteers were like famous sports personalities today, gaining popular support with the people. They belonged to Factions represented by colors. By the time of the story, there were two main Factions - the Greens and the Blues. Loyalty to Factions was strong, often passed down through generations. Enthusiasm and support for Factions was high-strung resulting in fistfights in pubs and street fights much like soccer team support today. The closest modern day example of the fervor is the Palio horserace in Siena, Italy, where faction loyalty consumes the city.
The charioteers wore Faction colored jackets over their tunics so they were easily identified by the spectators. Around their waist was an arrangement of leather straps that protected them from the reins of the four horses. The reins wrapped around the charioteer’s waist. He guided the horses around the dangerous turns at each end of the Circus Maximus by leaning his body.
The Passion of the Games
The passion of the games were a mammoth spectacle that began with a parade of the game’s sponsor with musicians, acrobats, mounted guards, etc. Faction members held traditional positions to spur the crowd to cheers with chants and loud noisemakers.
Crowds loved the chariot races as there were no lanes and no rules. With 24 races every day, the Games were filled with excitement, drawing people from outside the city to celebrate the holidays. Chariot races were filled with danger. Wheels fell off, and charioteers lost their balance on the lightweight wood and leather chariots and were dragged behind the running horses by the reins wrapped around their body.
A Teenager’s Freedom
Teenagers enjoyed the Games as a time of no-holds-barred excitement much like young people in Europe today flock to the running of the bulls at the Feast of San Fermín in Pamplona, Spain. They went not just for the event but for the freedom from usual social constraints. The Games offered an environment for young men and women to meet without the usual Roman parental guidance.
Philo, the Roman heir, gives up his dream of going to the Games as Argolicus searches for clues. The Games are background to the mystery. I hope you are tempted to add this story to your New Year’s reading.
Happy New Year!
Guest Post for Author Anastasia Pollack
When Writing Stops
You’re at some point in your story and all of a sudden you don’t know where to go next. If you stop writing, it’s not writer’s block. You just don’t know where to go next with your story. You may feel as though you have written yourself into a corner with no way out. Or, you get bogged down with detail and loose narrative drive and focus.
Whatever the reason, your writing stops.
Here are some ways to kick your story back in gear.
5 Ways to Get Back In and Move the Story Forward
And a McGuffin
I was working on a story and seemed to have nothing to say. I don’t believe in writer’s block, so I knew something was wrong with the story. I remembered Alfred Hitchcock’s advice that every story needs a McGuffin (an object or device in a movie or a book that serves merely as a trigger for the plot). Once I found the McGuffin, the dialogue I was writing came to life, and the story moved. I saw how the McGuffin would trail through the story.
If you find yourself staring at a blank page not knowing what to write next, take a look at your story. Look for missing pieces and overall structure.
Zara Altair writes traditional mysteries set in the time of Ostrogoth Rule in Italy in The Argolicus Mysteries.
so you want to be a writer? Charles Bukowski
so you want to be a writer?
Charles Bukowski, 1920 - 1994
if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.
if you’re trying to write like somebody
forget about it.
if you have to wait for it to roar out of
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.
if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you’re not ready.
don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.
when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.
there is no other way.
and there never was.
Image source: Wikimedia
How Does Your Protagonist Stack Up?
You know your protagonist. Presenting your favorite character to the reading public and differentiating him or her to readers is challenging. You want your readers to like your protagonist as much as you do.
I decided to do a little experiment. I chose some relevant or similar protagonists and compared Argolicus
The first step was choosing other protagonists similar in some way.
The notes were my first impressions.
Inspector Jules Maigret - Argolicus used to have as much authority, but now he must rely on his acumen alone.
Commissario Salvo Montalbano - Not as volatile but certainly as doggedly persistent. And, yes, his helper, Nikolaos, sometimes gets the bits he misses.
Cadfael - As compassionate without the religious fervor.
Father Brown - A certain naȉvete which allows people to share intimacies. Bernie Gunther
Gregor Reinhardt - None of the angst, but keen observation skills and an ability to navigate political infights.
Gordianus - In the thick of politics, but centuries later.
Falco - At the other end of the social strata, but equally keen to solve a problem.
Commissario Guido Brunetti - Unencumbered by family matters, Argolicus must still navigate a political maze.
Brother William of Baskerville - Argolicus is well read and bookish, but a novice in theology.
World and Ethos
Looking at the comparisons I was struck how each of these engaging detectives is surrounded by a world readily recognizable to readers. And, that each protagonist has an ethos that carries him through the obstacles in the world.
I decided that the world of early 6th Century Italy is the milieu for my protagonist but not necessarily the selling point. The protagonist, especially as sleuth, is the central selling point.
When I first published the Argolicus Mysteries, I thought of them as historical stories. Reflecting on the reviews I notice that the character and the setting are what draws readers.
After doing the protagonist comparison, I came up with a new description.
Meet Argolicus, a learned man, who turns detective at the bidding of neighbors who know him as trustworthy, wise, and fair. His tools are the logic of Aristotle, the self restraint of Epictetus, the theology of Arius, and the empirical insights of Marcus Aurelius all sharpened to an edge by wry humor and ferocious curiosity. He collects evidence, deciphers politics, and digs into the deepest secrets of the human heart.
I found this experiment revealing. Comparing my protagonist to others in the genre helped me form a clear description to engage future readers.
Zara Altair, Author
The puzzle of politics, the mystery of murder in ancient Italy. After Rome, before the Middoe Ages, Italy belonged to the Ostrogoths.