Research Before You Write The Story
The first round of research is background material for your story. You may look for settings, hidden alleys, a great beach. Murder weapons or poison. The psychology of being a mistress. How to clean a Glock. Pharmaceutical drug research lab procedures.
Base your research requirements on your story premise.
Gather Broad-base Details
The aim of the first research is to discover background that will enrich the story for your readers. You are in discovery mode. When you find details, store them away. For beginning writers, know that 80% of your research will not show up in your story. The reverse of this that when you want a detail, you will have material to enliven your characters and enrich scenes.
Feet On the Ground
While an online search, will give you generic information, there's nothing like going to the place of your story.
What You Need
It doesn’t take much to explore your story’s location. You’ll need:
Google is a great place to start. But sometimes you need more detail or scholarly background.
Google Scholar gives you access to articles, book excerpts, and abstracts that won’t display in regular search results.
If you can’t get your feet on the ground, Google Earth displays very detailed images of cities and towns. Plug in a zip code or city, to search a certain area.
Need a mansion for a rich villain or a humble condo for your sleuth? Try Redfin. Images of exterior and interiors are yours for the asking. Be sure to save your images to your Research folder. These properties sell.
Books and Print Materials
Build a personal reference collection of books you can grab to enhance your overall knowledge and gather specific details.
As you search for just the right answers you may collect details from many sources: travel brochures, firearm manuals, used bookstores, government websites, maps, documentaries, medical journals, guidebooks, news broadcasts, trade magazines, public trials, almanacs, memoirs, regional histories, and other discoveries you find.
Guidelines for Research
Research can lead you down rabbit holes. You could spend years doing research. Your main goal is to write the story.
Beginning writers can feel that they don’t know enough. You can get trapped in an endless search for more information. Gather basic information and then start writing.
Because you won’t use 80% of the research you’ve done, the best approach is to begin your story.
Let the Story Guide the Research
No matter how much research you do, as you are writing you’ll discover details you want to know. Rather than trying to know everything before you start, do your general background research, then let the story guide the details you need.
As you write, you’ll discover needs you had not imagined. So, instead of attempting to get everything you need, collect general background. The story will tell you the specific details you need.
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Mystery is all about puzzle. Deeper characters provide more puzzling challenges to your sleuth. Your sleuth is challenged
by the obstacles the other characters throw his way. One of the best ways to create a puzzle for your sleuth is to give each character a secret and a lie. Or more than one.
Secrets and the lies characters use to preserve the secret add a human dimension to characters. Whether it’s the villain or a suspect each character has things they don’t want others to know.
Your sleuth is challenged by diving through the lies to get to the truth that lies underneath. Ultimately, he must separate the various truths to get to the one that reveals the killer.
How to Create the Secret
As you create background details for each character in your character bible, add two sections. One for the secret and one for the lies the character tells to hide the secret.
Along with the character’s context in the story, his ability to lie to hide a personal secret is a device you can use to confound your sleuth.
The lie doesn’t have to be about the murder. It can be anything that particular character wants to hide from public knowledge. An affair, a gambling habit, a fear of public speaking are all fair game.
You’ll need to know about your character’s personality and their role in the story to come up with a suitable lie that fits the character. Creating a strong character background is essential to create a believable lie that fits the character.
I like to think of it as casting the best characters possible to make the story work.
The Two Lies Each Character Tells
Once you identify the character’s secret, you need to devise the lies he tells to cover up the secret. The lies are at two different levels.
You can add another layer or two of lies, especially if the character is a main suspect. Your sleuth will keep pushing, and you want those defenses ready.
Humanize Your Characters
Everyone has secrets they want to keep hidden. Adding secrets and lies to your characters gives them depth as characters in your mystery as well as
obstacles for your sleuth.
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Derek Pacifico conducting Homicide School for Writers
Real Cop Details in Your Fictional World
Unless you have worked in law enforcement, writing realistic cops for your mystery involves getting to know law, law enforcement procedures, and a realistic picture of how cops think, act, and work.
Reading and online research will give you a general background on how cops operate on a daily basis
Knowing a law enforcement officer who is willing to share details about procedures, daily life, worst case scenarios and the like
is gold. Connect with your local law enforcement agency to find a resource. It may take some doing because cops are busy. Perhaps someone on the team can refer you to a recently retired detective who has more available time.
You’ll be on your way to verisimilitude that engages readers and doesn’t get your book tossed because of inaccurate details.
You may love noir loners who go against all odds and the bad guys, but real cops work as a team and call in professional teams for various aspects of an investigation. You’ll need to know who does what where your fictional cop is located
Procedures vary from big city locations with many personnel
to small town cops who may call in the local sheriff’s department for crime scene details.
Teams that may interact with your fictional cop:
Wherever your detective is located, make sure he is surrounded
by the right colleagues.
Writer Resources from Real Cops
Some cops are willing to share their experience with writers. The following three cops have years of experience and the willingness toshare their knowledge with writers.
B. Adam Richardson a police detective does a lot to actively support
writers in getting their facts right from cop lingo to procedures and jurisdiction. Find him at Writer’s Detective Bureau a podcast with the same name, an email newsletter Writer's Detective APB, and a very active FaceBook group Writer's Detective Q&A community where you can join with other writers to answer questions.
Lee Lofland conducts the Writers’ Police Academy as well as
his website The Graveyard Shift. And, a group to ask specific questions Crimescenewriter2@groups.io.
Police chief and retired homicide detective Derek Pacifico taught interview and interrogation techniques to law enforcement personnel world wide. He offers a course for writers on how to do the same. Writing Fictional Police Interrogations. His book Writers’ Guide to Homicide gives background and provides insights into what cops do when faced with legal parameters.
The forums and Facebook groups are places for you to get specific answers to details you want to include in your story. Responses come from other law enforcement folks, forensic scientists, and other professionals related to solving crime.
Resources like Derek Pacifico will read chapters and passages from your story to ensure you are representing a true-to-life scenario.
First Hand Research
Real cops are the backbone of getting your details right when it comes to writing about cops. You’ll avoid mistakes like having a cop share investigative details with your cozy mystery heroine.
Every novel takes background research. Mysteries often involve cops as well as civilians. Do the background research to make your story realistic and believable. Your readers will appreciate the work you do.
Body Details to Improve Your Story
Most writers don’t think of anatomy and physiology when they are creating a story, but you can enhance reader engagement with body part details. If you find your characters all nodding in agreement or sighing in resignation, try expanding your view of the character.
Every emotion sets off physical responses in the body. You can use the details of these responses to enrich your story.
The next time a character has a response, think of their whole body from head to toe. What are their hands doing? How are they breathing? What is their body position? Use one of those responses in your story.
Many writers act out a scene to get a better feel for how characters feel. You may feel self-conscious the first time you try, but putting yourself in your characters’ roles and physically acting out a scene gives you details you wouldn’t think of typing on your computer.
Your Head-to-Toe Checklist
Think about every part of your character’s body to create detailed reactions. You be on your way to creating vibrant and complex characters. You’ll make your characters knowable to the reader and the details create empathy. They’ll know when your sleuth has a worthy opponent and when a suspect is lying. And, they’ll know your sleuth’s reactions to those characters.
Each time you need to create action between characters give each character a body review. Here’s a list to help you go from top to bottom.
The reactions you use for each character depends on the point of view (POV) in the scene. Your sleuth can’t know what’s going on internally - brain, stomach - but she can use her powers of observation to note other physical reactions.
Breathe Life Into Your Characters
Readers identify with physical reactions. They understand because they experience these reactions themselves. Tie the physical reactions to emotions bring characters alive.
Seasoned writers use this technique as they write. Beginning writers may focus on these bodily reactions during editing. In the speed of just getting it written you may write He nodded. During editing you have time to expand the physical reactions.
Two handbooks can help you work with these details:
Both books are available in both digital and print format. They are both great reference guides when writing character reactions. Add them to your library.
Realistic detail brings your characters alive for your readers. Use one or two examples for each reaction (don’t overload your reader) to keep them engaged, sympathetic, and turning pages.
Give Your Reader a Sense of Place
Setting is more than a backdrop for a story. A backdrop is a painted cloth hung at the back of the stage to create the appearance of a larger scene on stage. In a novel, you have room to bring your setting to life by placing your characters in the scene and interacting with the world around them.
Setting gives readers a sense of place. The more you integrate the setting the deeper connection you build with your reader. Your story makes them feel as if they are there. As you integrate physical details of the setting into the story, your reader empathizes with your characters, especially your sleuth.
Rather than a paragraph explaining (telling) the setting, scatter setting details throughout a scene. Use the five senses - taste, smell, touch, hearing, sight - to get your reader feeling the setting.
Here are four ways to get those details into a scene without a long descriptive passage.
How many television mysteries have you seen with a full moon at night shining through tree branches? Bang! You know it’s a mystery. This image is overused so I don’t recommend the full moon through tree branches. But, you can set the mood of threat, with dark spaces like the woods, a dank basement, or even the proverbial graveyard. A quick sentence can set the mood without slowing down your reader with a long, descriptive passage.
When your sleuth reacts to the setting, you build empathy for your reader. Get your sleuth and characters react to the physical details through sensory imagery. When you use these details, setting becomes like another character in your story influencing character actions. Jane Harper used these details effectively in her debut mystery, The Dry. And James Lee Burke’s characters interact with the Louisiana bayous and New Orleans city streets in his Dave Robicheaux series, beginning with his first mystery, The Neon Rain.
Setting can set off emotions in your characters. Frustration in the cold, lethargy in the heat, discomfort in a sterile room with no personal touches and other emotional responses to the setting can cloud your sleuth’s reasoning missing important clues that appear later as signals to the villain.
Setting is a treasure trove of obstacles for your sleuth to overcome. From tripping in a messy room just when she needs to confront the villain to fainting in the heat, your setting details mess up your sleuth’s life. They are useful in scenes that need an obstacle to raise tension.
Use Setting Details
Specifics make your story come alive. It doesn’t matter where you place your story. Your hometown, a far-away exotic location, an historical country manor, a big city all have the ingredients your need to let setting add impact. Michael Connelly sets Harry Bosch in L.A. Place names, street names, sounds, and tastes all add to making the city of Los Angeles part of each story.
Your challenge as a writer is to illustrate the details that impact your characters. Show emotional depth when your protagonist love the sunset over the mountains/plains/coastline. Place a chase scene on a crowded highway with a soccer mom with an SUV full of kids impeding your sleuth’s high-speed chase. Hide a clue in the detritus on the forest floor. When your sleuth interacts with the environment, you give your reader a sense of place.
You read long before you started writing. You probably started writing because you are a reader.
Jane Friedman, writing and publishing coach/blogger underscores reading as the basis for good writing:
Establish a reading habit that matches roughly what you hope to write and publish. Make it as important as anything else you schedule in your day,
As your writing practice develops, you’ll read with a critical eye. On the first read, you notice various places in the story. Ah, what great dialogue! Here’s where the plot turns. I’m feeling this character’s pain.
What You Learn Reading
Without consciously noticing or reflecting, you learn a lot about story just from reading. If you apply a critical eye, you’ll start to balk at things that don’t work for you as a reader and examine what bothers you.
For me, re-reading helps me focus on craft details. The first read is for the sense of story flow. The second reading is much more critical. I’ll stop to take notes.
How You Benefit from Reading
The deeper you delve into your writing craft, the more details you notice as you read. The compilation of knowledge you gain reading grows over time. You’ll find your writing improves and even during the writing process you’ll have a sense of what works in your story.
Gain the most benefit from reading by diversifying. Reading in your genre will up your game. But the lessons you learn reading
outside your genre are just as beneficial because you will incorporate your sense of storytelling into your own writing.
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Why Casting Your Characters Helps Your Mystery
To make your character function in your story world, you need to create details that set each one apart from the others. While the most important feature of your character in the story is the context, how they serve the story, help your readers identify each character with details.
Thriller writer Dana Haynes recently spoke at my local Sisters in Crime chapter. He advised something I’ve been doing for years, “Cast your characters.” Use film actors and personalities to embody your character as you write. It doesn’t matter if they are living. What you want is the sense of how they move and speak.
I cast footballer Ádám Bogdán as one of Argolicus’ bodyguards, in my present work in progress The Grain Merchant. I wanted the energy and fierceness always in my head when writing.
You can differentiate your characters with distinct character traits. It’s OK to borrow from those famous people. Use your character Bible to keep notes so when you bring a character back after 50 pages, you know the details.
Create a background for each one of your characters. Some writers use a binder, others use built in character notes from software like Scrivener or StoryShop. Whatever tool you choose, enumerate the character traits that differentiate the character to make them memorable for your reader.
You’ll guide your readers through the maze of characters you create with specific details. If a character gets left behind for 50 pages, one outstanding detail will refresh your reader’s memory.
Borrow freely from your actor. As well as physical and personality traits, your actor may inspire the perfect secret and the lies your character constructs to make them a suspicious suspect.
The actor’s voice and speech patterns will help you write dialogue unique to each character.
When you cast each character, you’ll have an immediate fix on their personality as you write. You’ll have a red head with attitude, a debonair ex-husband, or a sultry, pouting mistress. (Lucille Ball, Cary Grant, Gloria Graham.)
Your Casting Call
Once you have your character’s context in the story, start searching for your cast.
If you already have an actor in mind, gather some images and put them in your character Bible. If you need to get a better fix on a character, perform an online search with terms like sex, age, and hair color. A broad search will give you plenty of results. Narrow your choices down to one or possibly two.
This selection process helps you understand your character, because from the wide range of choices, you’ll see that many don’t fit. And, you’ll discover that an actor you hadn’t thought about, is just the right persona.
Both the search and the final choice will help you write a character that readers remember.
No Mystery Without a Puzzle
Mystery readers love a puzzle. More than
one is more enticing. While your developed detective leads the reader on discovery search, the puzzle is the draw of a mystery.
All the work you do in developing your characters, creating suspects, and planting clues has one aim to create a mystery. Giving away too much at the beginning spoils the tension. Readers will tolerate backstory, a love interest subplot, and even descriptive setting passages, but without the puzzle, there’s no mystery.
The Set Up
Your sleuth is the reader’s guide through the story. Creating a detective with quirks and strengths invites your reader into the story. The reader expects the detective to solve the mystery at the end, but not until the end. A solid introduction to how your sleuth works initiates reader trust that their guide has what it takes to collect the puzzle pieces and put them in place.
The murder victim is the key to the mystery. As the detective learns more about the victim and the victim’s world the reader follows along anxious to see how things develop. They are eager for clues and suspects to confound them and your sleuth.
The last part of the setup is when your sleuth takes on solving the mystery to uncover the villainous murderer.
Once your sleuth takes on the case, you set the puzzle pieces in place. What evidence and clues are at the scene? How was the victim killed?
Then, your sleuth enters the victim’s world. He uncovers the victim’s friends, loved ones, and enemies. Each of these characters sheds new light on the victim’s life. The reader learns from each of the suspects a bit more about the victim. The victim’s likes and dislikes, their shortcomings, and their secrets are revealed as suspects contribute to painting a picture for the sleuth and your reader.
The sleuth and your reader begin to form an opinion of the victim and possible reasons the victim brought on their own death.
Toward the middle of your mystery your sleuth and your reader discover that they didn’t have a full picture. A midpoint event illustrates how wrong those first assessments were.
On The Hunt
Everything seemed to go along in the discovery until the big obstacle pointed out the sleuth did not have all the facts, was headed in the wrong direction, and needed to rethink everything.
Once your sleuth reconsiders all the facts, evidence, and statements, she must find a new direction to unveil the killer. Without reversals and twists your reader will feel your story is episodic and is not creating the puzzle they crave.
This is the point where a beginning writer often lose the puzzle thread. They know the villain and the suspects and want to lead the sleuth and the reader to the revelation. But it’s much too soon in the story sequence. And it’s the reason both writers and readers complain about a sagging middle. But mystery writers have no reason to sag.
Whether you call it the last part of Act II or Act III, in a mystery the hunt section is the place where tension builds, your sleuth is overrun
with false starts and obstacles, and the villain confounds your sleuth’s search.
Before you get to the revelation, give the antagonist one challenging twist. Your reader knows they are coming to the end, create more mystery with one last big challenge for your sleuth.
Tie up any loose ends or subplots, then the final reveal. All mystery leads to this moment.
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What’s A Red Herring?
In logic, a read herring is a fallacy of distraction bringing up another point to distract the argument. In the financial world, a red herring is a prospectus of an upcoming business that is not complete but indicates the future stock.
In a mystery, a red herring is a false clue that leads the sleuth away from the villain. The red herring distracts the reader from knowing the true culprit.
The origin of the term is vague and entomology scholars debate the source. Some people believe it originated in a news story by English journalist William Cobbett. He claimed that he used a red herring, cured and salted, not fresh, to mislead hounds following a trail. At the time of publication the term served as a metaphor for false news accounts.
How to Use Red Herrings in a Mystery
Red herrings create mystery in your story by testing your sleuth’s abilities and decision-making skills. Each false trail creates another obstacle for your sleuth keeping them from discovering the true villain.
Use red herrings as a device in the middle section of your story to build tension. When you’ve built a strong protagonist, the reader will believe, as the protagonist does, that a true clue is at the root of the discovery path.
Here are some examples of using red herrings and build suspense for your reader.
The essence of the red herrings you use is diverting attention from the real clues and the right suspect.
Limit Red Herrings in Your Story
Although red herrings are fun to create for a writer, adding too many in your story will frustrate your reader. Aim to keep a balance between real evidence and clues and the false ones. Have no more than three red herrings in your mystery.
Readers love a puzzle but they don’t want to be tricked. Make sure the red herrings you create integrate with the overall theme and mystery, otherwise they will feel “added” to pad the story. The same holds true for too many false starts. Your reader will feel they are being cheated from solving the crime. You need to balance frustrating your sleuth and losing your reader.
Readers Expect Red Herrings
Red herrings are a standard trope in mystery novels. Readers love to follow your hero’s challenges. They enjoy rooting for your sleuth and discovering how he meets each challenge to solve the crime. Keep your readers guessing with well-placed false clues inherent to your storyline.
Scenes are the building blocks of your story. Each scene moves the story forward. As you build your story alternate between action and reaction.
When you go through the first edits of your story make certain that all scene components are in each scene. You’ll take your reader by the hand to lead them through the story.
Two Types of Scenes
Alternating between Proactive and Reactive scenes is a cycle that builds story in increments.
The Proactive Scene challenges your protagonist.
By the end of the scene, the protagonist not only did not reach his goal but has a setback that leaves him worse off than at the beginning.
Checklist for the Proactive Scene
Put your hero or heroine in the worst situations as they seek what seems like an obtainable goal at the beginning of the scene.
The Reactive Scene
Now that you have thwarted your protagonist, it’s time to give him some space. This scene is where your heroine decides what to do next.
Checklist for the Reactive Scene
These are the basic elements to include in the Reactive scene when your protagonist makes a decision
Reactive scenes provide a way for your character to make terrible decisions which will create even greater conflict later on. She may be blind to the motivations of another character. He may find that getting into the boardroom isn’t a slam dunk. Reactive scenes are your opportunity to build conflict and tension because the following action scene may be based on a very wrong decision that seemed right at the time for the character.
Why This Structure Helps
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.