Anatomy of a Mystery


A little less than a year ago, I began to write my first straight-up murder mystery.

After my agent signed my first manuscript, Diary of a Small Fish, she made a point of telling me that “I really love it, but…” it mightn’t be an easy sell, since it wasn’t really a mystery, or crime fiction, or literary, and editors at publishing houses are really, really focused on knowing right out of the box where on Borders’ bookshelf it will “be at home.” (These publishing euphemisms can go the way of Borders, as far as I’m concerned.) Anyway, that genre-muddle mogul was something I wanted to avoid, and crime fiction was what I wanted to write, so I put a dead body on page one and proceeded to figure out who murdered him.

I say that because, being a panster, as I described the horrid scene that detective Martin Bishop encountered, I had no better idea who did it than he. That’s when Ms. Diana Lavonn began to talk to me.

I’d always been a bit cynical about this idea of fictional characters “talking to” their authors. Surely it was a sort of dramatic metaphor, not to be taken literally. For an author to claim such a thing would be evidence of schizophrenia, for certain. You don’t actually hear a voice, do you?

Diana lives across the street from the murder scene. She’s a filthy rich heiress, living alone in a huge mansion on the ocean. She is the first person Marty Bishop interviews, because she called the gunshot in to the Barnstable police. She is an older woman, in her mid-60’s, exceedingly attractive and elegant. She oozes a gaudy sexuality that is a grave threat to Marty, whose career and marriage are on the rocks after the revelation of his sex addiction.

Once Diana revealed herself to me, she wouldn’t pipe down, even as I knitted the intrigue surrounding the murder. There were the business competitors of the victim – all drug dealers. The lawyer to all of them, whose tax evasion was under investigation. And the entire staff of assistant district attorneys, not one of them able to resist the lure of free drugs, booze and sex. All of them with motive and opportunity. But a twelve gauge shotgun to the chest from 10 feet was a little extreme! Must have been the competition. Still, she was somewhat miffed that she herself was not a suspect.

I put up with Diana’s interruptions while the manuscript grew and the story evolved. Then in November, I attended the Crime Bake writers’ conference at which Dennis Lehane appeared. He sat up there on the raised dais and spoke matter-of-factly about how Amanda McCreedy, the 4 year old kidnapping victim from Gone Baby Gone (1998), had begun to speak to him and wouldn’t leave him alone, compelling him to write The Midnight Mile.

So is that how it happens, really? I wasn’t a bit of a loon for letting this fictional character pull me away from my story and tell me I should look at this or look at that? Is it perturbation or the muse that locates a remote, frivolous connection between a shotgun blast on Cape Cod and Diana’s grandfather in Philadelphia? Or is Diana that vain and self-centered that she’d insist on getting the credit, even if it might destroy her?

The manuscript now stands just shy of 60,000. So tell me – do you think she did it? I thought I knew, but now I’m not so sure.


17 Responses to “Anatomy of a Mystery”

  1. Intriguing, Pete, I’ll let you know whether she did it or not when I’ve read the book. But you’re describing a very familiar experience. My historical novel, The Figurehead, was going to be a crime novel – No, it IS a crime novel. But, but, but … as I wrote it, someone called Helen Anderson – just one of the characters – nudged me out of the way and began to dictate what she would and wouldn’t do. The result? It’s still a crime/mystery, but it’s also a romance. And when I eventually find time to start the sequel, I’m pretty sure she’ll be the central character rather than the figurehead carver who started out as my ‘investigator’. And it’ll be a crime/romance again. Your agent would hate it.

  2. My first reaction is that if it is that apparant to you that she ‘dunnit’, then perhaps it will be all too apparant to the reader also. Of course one would have to read what you have so far to give a really informed comment but I have an idea that popped into my head. However, I won’t post it here–that would spoil the mystery. 😉

  3. Pete, Pete, Pete-
    What are us pansters going to do or write when we know right off ‘who-done-it’? Or why ‘they-done-it? Better still, when do we let the reader know the answers to these and a miriad of other questions. Yeah, when we know.
    When I, and this is just me, sit down to write a full or short I know the answers to some of those questions, sort of. It’s the twists and turns, red herrings, along the way which make writing the story fun and interesting. And if you have two or more competing villains that adds to the fun.
    Creating the connections between the main characters is what drives the reader crazy as they try to unfold the mystery. Look at the dots between Cape Cod and Philly. Look for the false leads. The missed chance meeting. Diana could be a red herring those only desire is for her fifteen minutes of fame regardless of the cost to her.

  4. 4 Sian

    You are not alone.

    I had a character who apparated, fully formed, in chapter ten of what I was writing. I SWEAR she wrote herself. I didn’t know who she was until the words started appearing on the screen. She was such a strong woman that she very nearly took over the whole story and hijacked the rest of the plot. She was amazing and I liked her immediately, but she wasn’t an easy person.

    I, too, had heard authors say things like, ‘Sometimes my characters just take over.’ I had no idea what they meant until it happened to me.


  5. 5 Jamy Buchanan Madeja

    Did she do it? You did it. You know you did. The queston is why. HappyInBoston

  6. If they don’t take over, they can leave. Out. Piss orf. I mean, it’s their story, innit? If they don’t want to tell me what to write next, what am I supposed to do? Make it up?

    Of course Diana didn’t do it. Somebody’s setting her up to take the wrap. Very clever, that.

  7. 7 Pete

    LOL, well you’re all so kind to weigh in on this topic. Now I know that I am not the only nut case out there – me and Dennis are gratified.

  8. I hear you on that. I don’t know that my characters “talk” to me as much as I sit back and watch them to see what they’ll do. So far I haven’t had a non-main character bully his/her way in on their own. But I have seen more of them through their interactions with the main character and realized they were going to play a bigger role in the story than I thought they would.

    But, yeah, so much of what defines my books usually just happens when I’m not looking and I have to back up ‘hold on, what just happened there?’ The pivotal relationship in my first is like that. Not only did I not see it coming, I didn’t realize he would fall for another guy! I had no idea he was even open to the idea.

  9. Nope. Innocent of the charge but complicit in the cover-up.

    She got a little man in.

  10. I generally write only when the character is telling me the story. I just sit down and type as fast as I can, trying to keep up with the character. I can see the character standing there, tapping her foot, waiting impatiently for me to catch up before she loses her train of thought. Okay, I don’t physically see a vision of a character standing there, not yet anyway. But there are a number of times when the character takes over in a way similar to how a method actor ‘becomes’ the character, and I don’t know what the character is going to say next until I read it on the computer screen.

  11. Shall we start a Support Group?

  12. 12 Dr Anne

    I don’t think she ‘dunnit’ but I think she knows who did.

  13. Heh heh heh. It’s working!

  14. You’ve discovered the tension between creativity and craft. Creativity flows and comes from who-knows-where in your subconscious – like the character you describe here. The craft is your conscious mind which has to keep one eye on how it will work for your readers. My agent sometimes tells me I’ve spent too much time on one (sometimes minor) character and then I have to decide whether the detail about this character really serves the story or is simply self-indulgent and really extraneous to the book I’m writing. What is fun to write can be an irritating distraction to your reader. When the creativity and craft coincide – you’re on a roll!

  15. I know what you mean. I’m a panster too. The problem is when you don’t know who dunnit until the final section of the book you have to be absolutely sure the murderer wasn’t off having coffee with another character 100 miles away. To get round that I keep a timeline of each character detailing exactly where they were at any given moment. It beats scrabbling through the manuscript to make sure they were available at the time and on the day the crime was committed. By the way, how do you cope with the characters and voices who refuse to be evicted at the end of a novel?

    • 16 Pete

      Hi Chris! Thanks for visiting.

      I found that since the murder occurred on page one, I knew throughout the story who was available, so that wasn’t a problem. The problem is deciding who to pin it on!

      As for the overcrowded ending, most of the players are going to be loaded onto a Paddywagon, they’re all exiting Stage Left on their way to the hoosegow.

  16. I’m a firm believer that characters do, indeed, write themselves. They just happen along and take us for the ride at times.

    I hope you enjoy your time with her, because who knows what she’ll do when you try to end it!

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