How To Plan A Murder
Guest post by Lesley Cookman
When I was a child, my parents let me loose on their bookshelves and I devoured all their Golden Age Mystery novels. There wasn’t much differentiation between genres in those days, and they were just novels – and I loved them. So when I grew up – which is debatable - I decided to write them. When I thought about it in a vague way before I morphed into a crime writer, I assumed you would start with the murder and work backwards. Now I know it isn’t as simple as that.
There are no rules for crime writing. If you write in a specific sub-genre: thriller, medical, psychological, police procedural or cosy (like me) there are lines over which you do not cross, but little is hard and fast. What are incontrovertible facts are – if you are writing a “puzzle” story, remember to insert unobtrusive clues from fairly early on. If the police are involved, get the details of an official investigation right. Those are self evident, of course, and everything else is exactly the same as any other novel – do your research, don’t let the story get away from you, create good characters. Unless it’s an integral part of the story don’t let an unfolding romance send your protaganist (s) off the rails. Romantic suspense is different – but there, the romance is an integral part of the story – think Mary Stewart.
So, here are a few wise words for the new crime writer. Don’t start with a dream or a flashback (although I think I have...) and Don’t Start Bland!. Don’t start the story too soon. Don’t forget that a mystery, or crime novel, is plot driven but the plot is driven by the characters. Depending on what sub-genre you have decided on, there should be at least one murder. The great Carter Dickson got away without one occasionally, but lesser mortals should stick to the rules. Make sure the murderer appears early in the story. If he, she or it doesn’t appear until late on in the book, the reader is likely to feel cheated.
If the detective/problem solver is to be the main protaganist, make sure they also appear early and unless they are official, give them a definite reason for getting involved. If they are a suspect in the main crime, the reason for getting involved is obvious – they must clear their name – but otherwise, don’t make them a suspect! However, introduce at least one suspect by the end of the second chapter, and make sure there are several VIABLE suspects by the end of the book. Not just people you’ve stuck in to make up the numbers.
The actual plot – my original idea of starting with the murder and working backwards is actually quite a good one, taken from the murderer’s point of view. A needs to kill B. Set that up and watch A cover his/her tracks. Then, with a bit of luck and careful concentration, you can go back and unpick it. This, of course, would be the ideal method, and I’m sure if I did this every time my life would be easier.
The other wise words are no different from those given to any writer, crime or otherwise, as I’ve already said. And here are my final exhortations: DON’T DO WHAT I DO.
In the first Libby Sarjeant I was told at the end that the murderer wouldn’t do, and could I put in a new character. I did. With two weeks to go.
We have got stuck with the “Murder” titles. So whatever story I decide on has to have a suitable title. And frequently I then have to fit the story round the title. This is NOT a good idea.
Don’t have a brilliant idea for a title with a bit of a story wafting round the edges, tell your publisher and then get stuck with it. Most of my books are written out of desperation.
Actually, of course, a good murder mystery is both satisfying to read and to write. It can be bent into all sorts of shapes by all sorts of people. After all – look at me!
About Lesley Cookman
Lesley Cookman writes the Libby Sarjeant Mysteries and the Edwardian mystery series, The Alexandrians. She has a varied background as a model, an air stewardess (when it was posh), a nightclub DJ (in a silver sparkly catsuit), editor of a Music Hall magazine, The Call Boy, a magazine called The Poulty Farmer, and pantomime writer and director. She lives on the Kent coast and has four grown up children who are variously musicians and writers, two grandchildren and two cats, not necessarily in that order.
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Two very lucky winners will receive a digital copy of Murder by The Barrel.