Mary Stanton’s Advice For Writing Mysteries

Author Mary Stanton, who also writes as Claudia Bishop, has published more than forty stories. Now the author shares “the absolute low-down, dirty-dog truth” about writing mystery novels. 

Late in the spring of 1993, my agent called me to tell me Berkley Prime Crime had made an offer on the partial of my first mystery novel, A Taste for Murder. And they wanted two more after that. 

I remember yelling for joy. I remember blessing my agent and all of his progeny to come. I remember shouting that this was my big chance.

I hung up the phone, danced around the kitchen, ran into the dining room and danced around that, then stopped smack in the middle of the living room floor and pulled my hair in complete and utter panic. 

I didn’t even have one complete mystery novel, and Berkley wanted THREE?

I grabbed a brown paper bag from the storage bin, breathed into it, and tried to get a grip. I didn’t know how to write a mystery novel. Berkley had made the offer based on the other novels I’d published and none of it, not one single book, was a mystery novel, and I was absolutely positively certain I was going to make a complete and utter ass of myself. 

Well, with A Taste for Murder I didn’t make an ass of myself, but that was due to my wonderful editor at the time. What I did do was struggle, curse, weep, hyperventilate, and damn myself for a fool for five excruciating months. I finally got the manuscript in shape. And A Taste for Murder was the first of sixteen more novels about Hemlock Falls, three mystery novels featuring Austin McKenzie, and five urban fantasy mysteries in the Beaufort & Company series. 

The low down dirty truth is, I didn’t start to feel like a real mystery writer until sometime last year. (Yep, 2009. And that was only because Publisher’s Weekly made a nice comment about my plots: “In Stanton’s expert hands…” the reviewer said. EXPERT!!! Which wigged me out completely. I wanted to put the quote on a t-shirt and wear it everywhere so I’d start to believe it. 

But if Publisher’s Weekly says it, it must be true. So this (painfully) acquired advice about how to write mystery novels is for those of you, Dear Readers, who want to write mystery novels, too. 

And since unasked-for advice is very rarely welcomed—I’ll offer it in the form of the three most frequently asked questions mystery novelists get: 

Where do you get your ideas?

Do you know who did it before you start?

How DO I start?

Q: Where do you get your ideas?

I used to think this was a straight-forward question, and I’d answer it just that way. I get my ideas from the newspaper, TV news stories, events in my small town, from overhearing conversations in diners, grocery stores, from family history, from real history….anything that piques my interest.

But the more I thought about it—the more I realized it isn’t that simple. In a very profound sense, I get my ideas from all those mystery writers who came before me. 

I started reading mysteries when I was seven. When I’m not working on a novel of my own, I read five to six mysteries a week. I’ve read that way for fifty years. I read anybody and everybody. Some mystery writers I only read once. Others I reread compulsively. 

In the days when I was still horribly nervous about my ability to plot, I used to line up the novels of writers I admired and read them chronologically, just before I started a new novel of my own. It is REALLY interesting to see how Dorothy L. Sayers grew from Strong Poison to Busman’s Honeymoon. Same for P.D. James. It’s also interesting to see how the great writers grow, change, experiment, falter, and pick themselves up. Robert B. Parker is terrific example of a writer who improved by fits and starts. So’s Rex Stout, for that matter.

Q: Do you know who did it before you start?

I used to think this was a straightforward question, too. The obvious response to it?

Of course I do. Mysteries are one of the few genres where you have to write backwards from the crime. If you don’t, what happens to the fun stuff? The fun stuff, for me anyway, is the puzzle part. The clues. The red herrings. The motives. The time table. The most fun of all is when I successfully pull the rabbit out of the hat—when the murderer is revealed, and everybody gasps in admiration at my cleverness in plotting. (I’ve done it exactly three times in my whole career, by the way. Not a terrific track record for twenty plus novels.)

But the point is, a mystery should be a mystery only to the reader. If the author doesn’t know who did—who’s driving the bus?

But this may not be a good response for those of you who write in a much more intimate way then I do. Connie Willis—one of the great writers of science fiction—doesn’t work my way at all. When she sits down to a new book, she told me the plot premise is like a barely discernable body at the bottom of a muddy pond. She writes and rewrites until the body floats up to the surface and is clearly visible to her. It’s worth noting, by the way, that people will be reading Connie Willis long after they’ve forgotten me.

Q: How do you start?

Lewis Carroll said it best: Begin at the beginning, then go on until you stop. 

Which is to say—I don’t know how you start. It’s different for every writer. One thing I know for sure—you don’t have to begin at the start of the story. Begin instead with the most compelling scene you see in the story and then write backwards and forwards from it. I’ve read that Margaret Mitchell began writing Gone With The Wind with the burning of Atlanta. I don’t know if that’s true in fact—but it’s an excellent example of how to start. Begin with the scene that motivates you the most—and with luck, you won’t be able to stop until you’ve built a whole novel around it.

- Mary Stanton

You can see Mary Stanton put this advice into practice in her upcoming novel, Angel’s Verdict, which will be available in February 2011.