If this month’s posts have fired your ambition to write crime fiction, you may be looking for a mystery conference. This post by Lisa E. Betz on “Almost an Author” highlights some of the largest conferences in the United States. As with any conference, research the ones you are interested it to make sure they offer what you want. I haven’t attended a a crime writers’ conference before, so if you have, please let me know what you thought.
Today’s prompt is inspired by a real world mystery that happened to me last week on the road where I live. The sun was just clearing the horizon as I was driving home from dropping off my oldest at the middle school. I noticed a truck parked in my lane with its hazard lights on. I stopped to ask if he needed help. The man said a motorcycle had run off the road and he was looking for the driver on the steep hillside that ran down to the river.
I drove home, which was only a minute away, told my youngest to get ready for school, grabbed a blanket, and went back to the scene of the accident.
The motorcycle lay on its side, just off the edge of the road. Skid marks marred the road. A broken pair of sunglasses and pieces of broken plastic were scattered on the pavement. But no driver. The man from the truck and I climbed all over the hillside and found no one.
The neighbors who lived closest to the scene joined us and said they would wait for the police, who still had not arrived after forty minutes. When the man had first called the cops, they said no one had reported an accident on my road.
So what happened? Where was the driver? Why hadn’t he or she reported the accident? I still have no idea what the true story is, but the scenario provides so many sparks of inspirations for a crime fiction story.
How would you use this real world inspiration for crime fiction?
Sherlock Holmes. Hercule Poirot. Philip Marlowe. Kurt Wallander. Kinsey Milhone.
When fans talk about their favorite mysteries, they usually name their favorite detective, then mention their favorite stories featuring that character.
Mysteries, more than thrillers or suspense stories, depend on the appeal of their detective hero to keep readers coming back for more. Below are the characteristics I find appealing in a detective and try to include these in the crime-solvers I’ve written about.
As a reader, I want to feel like the detective is a friend I am accompanying on a case, someone I am excited to catch up with and learn about their latest adventures. The best description of how to create a detective, or any likable main character, I”ve heard comes from author Louise Penny, creator of Chief Inspector Armande Gamache, who works in the province of Quebec. You can watch the interview she did with CBS Sunday Morning.
If a detective’s major qualities are “strong”, “brave”, “handsome”, “beautiful”, “charismatic”, or any other in a long list of positive characteristics, I am likely to get bored. The characters I am drawn to aren’t the straight up, forthright detectives. I like the ones with quirks that break the typical hero mold. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle brilliantly combined the heroic elements with eccentric habits in Sherlock Holmes, making him far more interesting. He also tempered Holmes’s superhuman qualities with quirks that brought him down to earth.
A detective should never be correct all the time. That’s not human. But she also can’t blow a clue or a case so badly that the reader thinks she should go into another line of work. It’s a fine line. Readers will accept a detective making minor mistakes, if in the end, he solves the mystery. If he doesn’t solve the mystery, the ending still has to have some kind of satisfying pay-off.
In your opinion, what makes a great detective? Who are your favorites?
I am pleased to welcome Mary Ellis to my site today. Mary writes in several genres, including historical and Amish fiction. But my interview today will focus on her inspirational romantic suspense novels. She’s also a fellow Buckeye! Hello, Mary!
Which comes first when writing a mystery – plot, character, or setting?
Definitely setting. Once I find a town or neighborhood that inspires me, plot twists and characters start popping into my head.
I discovered that while reading What Happened on Beale Street. Memphis and its blues scene defines the story.
You write both romantic mysteries and cozy mysteries. What’s the difference?
I believe I’m the wrong person to ask this question. After reading several “traditional” cozies and talking to several cozy authors, I don’t think I’ve ever written a true “cozy.” Although my mysteries are often set in small towns and are “sweet” in nature, I always have at least two points of view (cozies are usually from one point of view) and I always write in third person. According to my editor and agent, cozies are usually written in first-person, something I have never done. I would describe my books as mysteries with romantic elements. I dare not describe them as romantic suspense because readers of those usually expect a far more sensuous story than I can deliver. So….if you come across a better definition of “genres”, please pass it along! Because after 25 published books…I’m still confused!
What are some unique challenges to writing mysteries?
I’m usually a “plotter” by nature, but when I switched to mysteries from historical romance, I found plotting more necessary than ever, especially to maintain the book’s proper pacing. As “clues” to the whodunit are dropped in, each should be “bigger” and more important to the storyline than the last. Frankly, I can’t see how a total “panster” can build the necessary suspense. Either you’ll reveal too much too soon, or you’ll land in the soggy middle where nothing much happens other than you increase your word count. I’m certain some mystery writers can “wing it” successfully, but they must have better memory than me.
What do you do to renew your inspiration when it is running low?
Ahhh, finally an easy question!! I renew my inspiration with travel. One-hundred percent of the time, my story and characters have sprung from an area I found intriguing. It could be close to home like Ohio’s Amish country, an hour away, or perhaps several hours away like many Civil War battlefields. But lately I’ve been writing mysteries set in the South. Thus far, I’ve set my books in New Orleans, Memphis, Natchez and Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, Savannah, Charleston, and Pensacola. Keep in mind I live in Ohio. My current work-in-progress is set in St. Simons Island, GA, a place where I plan to spend the winter.
What’s the most unusual source of inspiration you have ever used in your writing?
I believe the most unusual source of inspiration was an overheard conversation in a lovely restaurant in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Okay, true confession time—I eavesdropped on a marital spat that became quite loud at times. My mind started working overtime with “what if the husband did this” and “what if the wife did that” during the rest of that vacation. Hopefully the couple resolved their difficulties and they are still happily married, but that spat gave me fodder for my first published mystery called, “Something Very Wicked.”
What a great story behind the story!
What advice would you give to someone who wants to write mysteries?
Read lots and lots of mysteries, in the various sub-genres. Find the niche you feel you can fit into, but don’t belabor the “rules” of the genre and sub-genre. I wrote and sold several mysteries that frankly my editor didn’t know how to pigeon-hole. But she loved the stories and published them anyway. Get a feel for what you want to write and then go for it. If you try to write exactly like someone else you won’t sell the book.
While working to locate her adopted client’s natural siblings, Kate Weller tries to prove her landlord’s father not guilty of murder before someone who wants her dead tracks her down.
Mary Ellis has written twenty-five novelsincluding Amish fiction, historical romance, and suspense. First in the series, Midnight on the Mississippi,was a finalist for the RT Magazine’sReviewer’s Choice Award and a finalist for the Daphne du Maurier Award for 2015. Fourth in the series, Sunset in Old Savannahhas been nominated for a Bookseller’s Best Award and the Daphne du Maurier Award for 2017. In August, Severn House released Hiding in Plain Sightbook one of Marked for Retribution Mysteries. In January Kensington will release her mystery novella, Nothing Tastes So Sweet,for the Amish Candy Shop Anthology. www.maryellis.net or www.facebook.com/Mary.Ellis.Author
This prompt is based on a real life incident a friend of mine told me about. Late on a summer night, in the pouring rain, my friend, her husband, and her sons drove home from a restaurant. She lives across from a cemetery. As they passed it, they noticed that someone had parked his car so the beams of the headlights fell on a grave. The person was digging.
There’s more to the story, but I don’t want to ruin your inspiration. You could use this first line for crime fiction, family drama, or speculative fiction. You could even use it for a humorous story. Let me hear where your imagination takes you!
On a dark, rainy night, a man digs in a cemetery and …