Monday, September 29, 2014

5 Tips for Plotting a Mystery

By Pamela Fagan Hutchins, @PamelotH

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: No matter what genre you write in, there's going to be a "mystery." Maybe not the traditional whodunnit type, but there will be questions posed and information hidden and reasons for readers to keep reader to learn the answers. So it makes sense that non-mystery writers can learn a few plotting tricks from those who write mysteries. Pamela Fagan Hutchins visits the lecture hall to day to share a few of those tips.

Pamela Fagan Hutchins writes award-winning and bestselling romantic mysteries and hilarious nonfiction, chairs the board of the Houston Writers Guild, and dabbles in employment law and human resources investigations from time to time. She is passionate about great writing, smart authorpreneurship, and her two household hunks, husband Eric and one-eyed Boston terrier Petey. She blogs on writing, publishing and promotion at Skip the Jack and on her beleaguered family She also leaps medium-tall buildings in a single bound (if she gets a good running start), and much-too-personal life at Road to Joy. Check out her latest romantic mystery, Going for Kona, available now, everywhere.

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Take it away Pamela...

When I wrote my first mystery by the seat of my pants, I bought myself a year of heartache by winging it. It took me three more years and three more mysteries before the secret of mystery plotting revealed itself to me: plotting is a deliberate act of research, outlining, and experimentation, done before a writer types her “Once upon a time.”

It was a wicked blow for a cliff-jumper, but I survived, because I hate bad writing worse than a lack of spontaneity. Now, when I start a mystery, I sit down with my resident plot-destroying expert, my chemical engineer husband Eric, and we brainstorm scenarios to improve upon my original idea. Here’s how we do it:

1. Start with an end and work toward a beginning.

Man, I should have this tattooed on my forehead. Who dies, who kills them, and how our hero(ine) survives to bring the murderer to justice. Write your ending first, at least in your head. Now, how do you get there from page one? Your beginning has to be possible even if highly improbable in order for us to reach the end with you. Eric and I work backwards over and over and over, until we find a storyline that works.

When I was writing Finding Harmony, the third book in the Katie &Annalise series, we knew we wanted a dirty island cop to be our bad guy, and that we wanted a climactic scene in an oil refinery harbor where Katie and friends pilloried the bad guys. To get there, we tried out hundreds of ideas. Each one had to be tested against the timeline, and work us back to a logical beginning. We decided to have the good guys fleeing from Puerto Rico on a purloined cabin cruiser, after they’d rescued Nick from a crashed plane on a small island on the Dominican side of PR. Step by step we worked our way back to the beginning, Once we got there, we starting flipping switches and spinning dials until we had the whole plotline tuned like we wanted it.

2. Thoroughly research and discuss every plot rabbit hole before you start to write.

In order for us to complete a plotline, we have to become experts on issues far beyond the scope of the synopsis. I’m working on a book now for fall 2015 called Heaven to Betsy, the first book in the Emily series, that I originally described as follows: Emily is a paralegal who meets a young girl whose mother is killed in prison, and in trying to exonerate the mother, she discovers an unscrupulous business man who imports illegal immigrants and enslaves them into mining for silver below property he does not own.

I couldn’t get past the first chapter without becoming an expert on immigration, deportation, what happens to the kids involved, how to navigate the child protective services system, prison details, where near the U.S.-Mexican border one might discover silver (and I rejected potash, copper, turquoise, and uranium as potential mining products based on geography and difficulty of extraction). And much, much more. For a book based in my hometown. And I’m an attorney.

3. Include a compelling character-driven subplot.

Who wants to read a two-dimensional, fact-driven mystery if there aren’t any juicy characters with delicious flaws and disastrous personal lives to pull us along through the action? Decide upon your protagonist’s a) nearly-fatal flaw/weakness and b) superpower that will save the day, and work them into the plot line early and draw them out until the final scene. For instance, in Leaving Annalise, the second book in the Katie &Annalise series, we knew we wanted Katie to learn to hotwire a truck and be able to use the skill to save the day at the end of the book, and we knew her nearly fatal weakness was that she was too self-focused to embrace an insta-mom role, and nearly got herself killed in a hurricane as a result.

4. Plan your big plot twists and red herrings to coincide with your book’s structure and use them to set pace.

Beware the sagging middle. Your act two should be planned to include just as much mayhem and excitement as act one, act three, and your ending. Include at least two or three highly suspenseful, clever, and unexpected plot twists deliberately smack in the dreaded middle of your book. In Saving Grace, the first book in the Katie &Annalise series, I needed a reason to banish Katie to St. Marcos and irrevocably involve her in island life so that she would be forced to confront her parents’ murderer(s). I planned a humiliating train wreck of a courtroom scene to accomplish this, and it is widely cited as readers’ favorite scene in the book. Take that, middle-of-the-book blues.

5. Consider whether you want to make a thematic statement, and, if so, include appropriate events and characters that tie into plot and subplot, and unroll epiphanies with a soft touch.

I try valiantly to craft mysteries (genre books, plot-driven by nature) that are fast and easy to read, deceptively so, but include complex, highly-flawed characters and . . . deliver a thematic message consistent with the protagonist’s point of view. My editor accuses me of trying to be a literary mystery writer. Nah. My books don’t hurt your head. They’re just cross-genre. So, in my October 1, 2014 release, Going for Kona, the first book in the Michele series, I had a very strong sense that I wanted readers to come away feeling that love saves, and that Michele was saved by love. At the same time, I literally beat the crap out of Michele the entire book, and the pain came from every last person she loved on this earth. Theme. You don’t have to have it. If you use it, just make it work with the plot to enhance your mystery rather than get in its way.

About Going for Kona

When her husband is killed in a hit-and-run bicycling accident, it takes all of Michele Lopez Hanson’s strength not to burrow into their bed for the rest of her life. But their kids need her, and she promised herself she’d do the Kona Ironman Triathlon in Adrian’s honor, and someone seems to be stalking her family, so she slogs through the pain to keep herself on track. Her dangerously delirious training sessions become a link between her and Adrian, and she discovers that if she keeps moving fast enough to fly, she can hold onto her husband—even as she loses her grip on herself and faces her biggest threat yet.

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  1. Love the look of your site Janice. I also really love the themed posts you have the authors do. Nice work.

  2. Nice to know I did it right. Now what will the editor say...
    Good article, will get my fiance to read it.

  3. Thanks for such a good article. I'm nearing the end of a mystery I'm writing now, and, like Harry, it does look like I have done it right, but these are such good reminders for the sequel.