Marilyn Leach is my guest today. Marilyn writes cozy mysteries for Harbourlight Books. I attended her booksigning in May where she was promoting her latest release, Up From The Grave, A Berdie Elliott Advent Mystery. Isn't that a catchy title? Not one to pass up a chance, I jumped on the opportunity to invite Marilyn to Seekerville to explain her method of creating a mystery.
How to Write a Mystery
Welcome to my tutorial that compliments the graphic organizer How to Write a Mystery. I was invited to teach a class on how to create a mystery. This organizer and tutorial is a result of that opportunity. I was pleasantly pleased at the outcome the students produced in response. From Sherlock Holmes to Nancy Drew, these are the simple “bones” on which you can hang a mystery.
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The Basic Plot: This is in the content in the center of the page. I’ve chosen this plot on the graphic organizer because it’s direct and simple, a good start. Also, it’s fabrication but based on an actual case that occurred. You can choose any plot that may have been spinning in your head that contains how the crime occurs, the bottom line solution, and the perpetrator of it. This is the seed bed of imagination. But for the sake of the tutorial, we’ll stick with the one presented here.
Characters: On the left upper corner is the word characters. Create names for the person against whom the crime is committed, the person who committed the crime, and the person who solves the crime. Write them in that space. For the sake of following the story, Lucy Tucker will be the sheep herder whose wool was stolen. Gridley Cain is the perpetrator. Detective Fitz is the sleuth. You’ll add to this list as you move along in your story.
Witnesses: Go to the lower left corner of the organizer. There are essentially three kinds of witnesses: true, false, or mistaken. Let’s say a nearby rancher to Lucy saw a man who fit Gridley Cain’s physical appearance in a vehicle that fit the description of Gridley’s red truck. He tells Lucy and Det. Fitz what he saw (true). But another person from Gridley’s home town says he saw Gridley in town at the time of the crime (false). This person’s story can often be added to the false alibi section which we cover later. Now why would this person tell a lie? Maybe he gets a cut of the stolen profit. Maybe Gridley did her a great favor at one time and she feels indebted to lie on his behalf. You create the motivation. Then there’s the waitress from the Broken Spur 24 Hour Café who says she saw Gridley’s red truck in the café parking lot at the time of the crime (mistaken). Later in the story, usually near the end, it’s discovered that the waitress had thought the crime was committed at 11:00 PM and discovers it was actually 11:00 AM and she’s mistaken about the truck being at the cafe. Or perhaps she realizes the red truck she saw in the lot had a right side mirror and Gridley’s right side mirror had been busted off of his truck in an accident that occurred just the day before. And no garage in this part of Colorado can get a replacement mirror that quickly. This can be fun to play with. Write your witnesses names and situation in this corner and add the names to your character list.
Red Herrings: Find this in the lower right hand corner. This, to my thinking, can create some of the greatest interest in the story and is truly fun. Red herrings are the people who appear to be possible suspects in the crime. Let’s say Lucy has a jealous sister, Lila, who has always resented the fact that Lucy inherited the sheep ranch from their father. Lila inherited a pittance of cash and has said publicly that she will get the inheritance she deserves by hook or crook. To make it even more convincing, Det. Fitz finds some items previously stolen from Lucy’s ranch, which her sister has taken, in Lila’s back shed. Lila has lied and stolen. What else has she taken and lied about? Lucy’s sister makes a great red herring that takes the reader down a “possibility” garden path. Perhaps Lucy has a suitor, Jake, whom she considers undesirable. He’s done everything to try to win her but she constantly snubs him until he becomes vengeful. One day, on main street, Jake confronts her and the whole town hears it. “You think you’re so independent Miss High and Mighty, someday when you’re down and out, you’ll come groveling to me. Just wait and see.” What a set up. You want at least three red herrings if not more in your story. Write their situations in this corner and add their names to the character list.
Alibis: Lastly, in the upper right hand corner is the word alibis. There are true alibis, primarily for red herrings that surface along the way in the story, most near the end. But, a red herring may have a false alibi that makes them look even guiltier. For instance, Lucy’s suitor, Jake, says he was gardening at home at the time of the crime. But on close inspection, Det. Fitz finds his three dried up rose bushes, his only landscaping, testify otherwise. The dirt around them is hard and untouched. So you’ve been lying to us boyfriend. What’s up? In the end, he admits to being at a poker party with unruly sorts where, to his embarrassment, he has lost his entire month’s income. He’d rather tell a false alibi than have Lucy find out about the truth of where he was. So Jake has both a false and true alibi. And then we have the perpetrator. Any alibi the perpetrator has is, of course, a false alibi. And anyone who upholds it is a false witness. Write true and false alibis in this area and by whom they’re told.
There we go. You’ve got some good bones to launch into your mystery story. Perhaps a bit oversimplified for some, but at the same time good ground. Try writing this short mystery as a kind of trial attempt. Or just launch into your own plot and fill in the organizer the way that suits you. No matter what age or personality, writing a mystery story can be inventive, imaginative, intriguing, and best of all, fun. Happy writing.
Audra here again : ) In the past, Marilyn has used the graphic organizer but taught the tutorial verbally. So it was interactive. She would introduce an area -- say Witnesses -- and give maybe 10 minutes for participants split into groups, to create their witnesses for the given scenario. Then she'd move on to the next section and so on. Let's make today interactive, too. Ask Marilyn all the questions you'd like and let's see if we can make mysteries make sense, LOL!
Marilyn is offering to give away a copy of Up From The Grave, or the first book of the series, Candle For A Corpse. Winner's choice!!
Up From The Grave (A Berdie Elliott Mystery)
A Lenten sod turning ceremony for a new water feature in the back garden of St. Aidan of the Wood Parish Church goes utterly pear-shaped when the upturned soil reveals a human skeleton. With Berdie Elliott at the helm, the whole of Aidan Kirkwood digs into the mystery. When the bones held life, just who was this person? Who is the mysterious contessa who arrives on the garden scene? And what does the young and beautiful Robin Derbyshire's wedding have to do with the grave? Unearth the answers in this fun spring romp.
At the age of nine, Marilyn wrote her first play with a childhood neighbor, “The Ghost and Mr. Giltwallet”. It was a mystery. And she’s been writing, whether hobby or livelihood, since. A graduate of Colorado State University, she has worked in domestic missions and taught both English acquisition and art in underserved populations. She’s had the opportunity to co-author several plays that have been performed on both church and secular stages, as well as two screenplays, one of which was a semi-finalist in the John Templeton Screenwriting Competition. Marilyn’s Advent of a Mystery, was released in September of 2010, Candle for a Corpse in 2012 and Up From the Grave in 2013. She has written numerous Biblical meditations and essays printed in various publications including Guideposts, Big Dreams in Small Spaces, and Quiet Hour. Marilyn is a dyed-in-the-wool British enthusiast and it colors her work. She lives lakeside in a cottage on the outskirts of Denver near the foothills. Stop by her website: marilynleachteaandbooks.com.