How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries, by Kathy Lynn Emerson, is the book to read if you are writing historical mysteries. At the time she penned this book, Emerson had written 14 historical mysteries in two series, three contemporary mysteries, and other novels. Although the book was published in 2008, it remains relevant, with great advice and examples of what to do, as well as what not to do.
Emerson teaches writers how to create historical characters, including what to take into account when setting characters in the past and whether using real-life people as characters is viable. Using real historical figures in fiction could backfire, as mystery fans may not be able to suspend disbelief—would a real-life person really be traipsing around and investigating? Also, while your character has already been created for you, you will be bound to play fair with the real person’s timeline—you can’t have them in France during the years they were in England, for example. Emerson gives us much to think about when creating historical characters.
She also touches on “information dumps,” which can easily overwhelm a historical if the author isn’t careful to balance dialogue, plot, and pacing with the historical tidbits. The best piece of advice here is that not everything needs to be included. Emerson writes: “Historical mystery readers enjoy vivid settings and are prepared to read a great number of historical details, but they don’t want them all at once. Furthermore, there must be a good reason to include these details. Do you really need to describe everything your character sees while walking from one place to another in eighteenth-century New York? Unless one of those things will turn out to be important later, or you are using the trip to give the character a chance to mull something over, then simply take him to his destination.”
Language is an important part of a historical, and Emerson devotes an entire chapter to this, covering slang, proverbs, dialects and speech patterns, expletives, anachronisms, distinctive speech, and just how accurate an author needs to be—language that is accurate to the period might be unreadable to today’s readers, after all.
A chapter on anachronisms is a must-read for any historical writer. Anachronisms, writes Emerson, “are things used in the wrong time period” and it is very easy to have these slip through the cracks when you are writing. Unfortunately, there is always one reader (or more) who will spot even the most minor of anachronisms. Emerson gives tips on word usage, the deliberate use of anachronistic language, dealing with inconvenient historical facts, and how to deal with bloopers. There’s a great passage on changing attitudes—how do you present a character with modern-day attitudes in a historical.
Emerson also writes about research, plotting, and even selling your mystery. If you have your sights set on writing a historical mystery, this book should be part of your personal library. I can guarantee you’ll come back to it often.
The Elements of Mystery Fiction: Writing the Modern Whodunit, by William G. Tapply, is a must-read for any new crime fiction writer. It covers the basics, beginning with finding your story and defining your sleuth, “the character readers care most about,” Tapply writes.
While mystery story lines are driven by the “whodunit” question, a mystery is also a quest story, Tapply writes, with the sleuth having “purity of purpose, courage, conviction, and single-minded commitment to ideals.” These sleuths need to have a sense of mission. Create a great sleuth and keep their future in doubt—and you’ll hook the reader, Tapply advises.
He doesn’t leave the bad guys out either. He writes about the number of suspects there should be and how long they should be under suspicion. The answer: the more suspects you have the better, and the longer you keep them under suspicion, the better your puzzle. Tapply also addresses victims. After all, part of the sleuth’s job, he writes, “becomes the painstaking piecing together of the victim’s backstory, which comes in bits and pieces of information, often seemingly contradictory, filtered through the memories and motives and lives of other characters.”
Other topics include point of view, setting, narrative hooks, building tension, conflict, dialogue, and revising. The book is rounded out by several chapters from other mystery writers, who discuss such topics as working with a collaborator (Hallie Ephron) to whether you should write a series or standalone (Bill Eidson).
This is a book you’ll want to buy, and return to often. There’s always a gem there upon rereading.
The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, by literary agent Noah Lukeman, is an eye-opener. Any author querying agents should read this first. As Lukeman writes, agents and editors don’t read manuscripts for their own enjoyment. They read solely with the goal of getting through the slush pile, and so are reading with an eye to dismiss manuscripts.
Some of the reasons, he writes, to dismiss a manuscript:
* The presentation or formatting of the manuscript is wrong
* The author has queried an agent or editor inappropriate to the author’s work
* The overuse or misuse of adjectives and adverbs
* The rhythm of the prose is poor (this includes poor sentence construction and grammatical mistakes)
* The overuse of analogies, similes, and metaphors
* Stylistic errors, such as redundancy or writing that is too noticeable
* Bad dialogue. “If, at a quick glance, our initial impression of a manuscript is that it suffers from one of the preliminary problems, we then look to dialogue: if it, too, is poor, we needn’t look any further,” Lukeman writes.
If a manuscript does make it beyond the first few pages and shows none of the above problems, agents and editors then look at “showing versus telling,” viewpoint and narration, characterization, subtlety, tone, focus, and pacing, Lukeman says.
Finally, Lukeman admits (as I’ve heard other agents say) that they often ignore synopses and plot outlines at first, starting instead with the manuscript. If the manuscript is good, agents will then go back to the synopsis.
How to Write Killer Fiction: The Funhouse of Mystery & The Roller Coaster of Suspense, by Carolyn Wheat, is one of those must-read books for new authors writing in the genre. Wheat, an accomplished mystery writer, divides the book into three parts.
After describing the differences between mystery and suspense, the first part delves into mysteries and their basic ingredients, such as the “cover-up” (why the killer must continue killing), fair play, hiding clues in plain sight, and when the absence of a clue is a clue itself. She explains the structure of a mystery and different types of endings.
Part 2 looks at suspense novels and how to engineer the “roller-coaster effect.” She looks at the hero’s journey and how this informs suspense writing. There’s an invaluable lesson in these chapters as she deconstructs Robert Crais’ Hostage, using the book’s plot to show how to structure a thriller. Yes, there may be spoilers if you haven’t read Hostage, but it’s a terrific lesson. That alone is worth the price of this book.
Part 3 looks at the writing process, both for those who outline and for pantsers (Wheat calls them blank-pagers). Wheat covers writing scenes, narrative, tension, and even parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs–and when to use them or not use them).
The best part of this book are the examples she uses from various novels, and the summations she includes in easy-to-digest lists and tables. If you’re writing in the genre, this is a worthwhile addition to your library.
Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and copyediting instructor.