Tag Archives: mystery

Building a Mystery

2 Mar
~ original image from wiki commons ~

~ original image from wiki commons ~

I am no stranger to writing myself into corners. As a lifelong ‘pantser’ I frequently stop writing and wonder what the hell has happened to my narrative. Seat of the pants can still work for me, especially with short fiction. I love the weird surprises and unnatural connections that spring to mind when I’m putting together a short story. In those cases, it’s usually my readers who are wondering what the hell happened (hopefully in a good way).

The worst experiences I’ve had with this kind of work is with mysteries. I’ve dabbled in all manner of genres, and my brain was somehow designed to get a thrill out of mixing things up. But the strange constraints of mysteries and detective stories hurt my brain. And the more I write about double-crosses, red herrings, and dangerous coincidences, the more I get lost. Even straightforward tales seem to curl up and die after I run out of steam. Honestly, some of my favorite work has been abandoned too soon, just because I can’t untangle the mess I’ve made of things.

Looking back at my favorite authors offers some help. My love of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Arthur Conan Doyle have all informed me in various ways. I’ve pretty well run through their work and have moved on to Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) for a more modern turn of the screw. But I still feel like I’m doing things the hard way.

As an aside, here are some choice words that Chandler had to say about Hammett:
“Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish… He was spare, frugal, hardboiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”

This inspires me to simplify, tell the goddamn story, and not get caught up in being cute about it. I try, but it is a ongoing chore just keeping a lid on my weirdness. After a long distance from this kind of work, I am diving back in. I am plotting, working out the bugs, and outlining my schemes. I’ve been honing up on my “rules” of the game, and I have some fun ideas. But this is a kind of writing that I’ve never felt successful at before. I have an appetite to do the work, and yet it somehow still feels like work. That’s an unpleasant feeling.

If this focused effort doesn’t bear any fruit, I’m not sure what I’ll do. Probably drugs. Or something. Maybe take notes from both Hemingway and Hunter? Perhaps the seat of my pants has been the wrong place to drive this process from? Well, sooner or later, some kind of combination of hard work, planning, and illicit chemicals ought to shake something loose. We’ll see if it turns out to be readable.

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