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Sunday, 20 October 2013

Sex, Timelines and the Murder-Mystery novel

Peta Fox, author of the brilliant Jen Madden series of mysteries, extrapolates on her methods of work,approach to humour, sex, satire and salaciousness.

Hi! When you write a murder-mystery series, you'd better know what you're doing. And where you're coming from. And who your central detective is.

The Detective

Jen Madden is my amateur sleuth. She's a raunchy, foxy, super-cynical reformed optimist who is happy to go to bed with both sexes and relishes beautiful, and dominant women. Jen is no pushover. She has a quip for every putdown, an off-centre angle for every situation. She's a walking time and sex bomb. And she knows it. Is Jen Madden Peta Fox? Well, not exactly. I don't have her bravery. I'm not as sassy. But I have her mindset loud and clear. Jen is who I'd love to be - without the terror, drama, mad situations. But then, you can't have everything.

The Plot and Timeline

Here, you really get into deep water. A well-constructed mystery depends on the interaction of at least ten characters. And you have to know where each is, what they know, what they are doing and have just done, who they have seen, what their motivations are. All at once. Otherwise nothing holds together. It takes a while to get this right. In fact, there's only one way to get it right. Forget rundowns for each character. That's too loose. The only way to do it properly... Okay - the only way I can do it properly - is to get a huge sheet of paper and draw vertical columns down it - one column for each character - and that gives you a great advantage - a visible timeline.

When something happens to character 1 involving character 6, then you can look across the columns and see what each knows and how they reacted. And how that affected character 12 the next morning. And what character 3 has to do when they learn about what happened between 1 and 6 the previous night.

Do you see what's happening here. On your huge sheet listing the actions and knowledge and emotional state of all the characters, you also have a timeline. You can position the action vertically to show exactly what is going on right across your cast.

In other words, you're using a spreadsheet like Excel. But don't imagine for a moment that Microsoft's baby can help you, even if you have the widest monitor going. You really need to do this on you great big sheet, rock-and-rolling the entries using pencil and rubber. That way, you're in full control and can instantly refer back and forward. There's no scrolling or jumping from spread to spread. You can't do it that way because you need to see the WHOLE thing at once - even if it's a linked series of sheets that stretches the length of the hall.

Because you are going to end up with at least fifteen very large sheets with vertical columns. And these need to be spread along the floor before you can see the complete panorama of what is always a vastly complicated plotline. Want to write a mystery novel. Dur! It take work!


So you have a funky detective and a fully worked out mystery plotline. You're already two strikes ahead. But there's a lot more to it than that. A novel, even a genre novel, has to entertain. And if you are a boring as batshit writer, you'll fall on your face no matter how well you've conceived your detective and your plot. You need to surprise, shock, delight, intrigue, engage. And all of that comes out of the interplay of characters. And if those characters are two dimensional - off the rack stock stereotypes - you're not only a bad scribe, you're bone lazy.

Sense of Fun

There is another secret to this one. You have to enjoy your book. If you don't enjoy it, how the hell do you expect anyone else to?

Okay, so there are a few pointers to writing a professional murder-mystery. Yes, I know. The murder should appear in the first chapter to grab interest. There should be red herrings everywhere. Yada yada. You can read all that stuff in the always boring tomes on how to write. We're not talking about the bare bones here. We're on about the guts of the process.

Think I'm full of shit?  Then read a Jen Madden mystery. The series is on Buzzword. You can get a book for less than you'd pay for a cup of coffee.

Final advice - don't write.

Oh yes - one more piece of sage advice. If you can possibly avoid writing, do so. Writing is an obsession and an obsession is a disease. And there is no pot of gold down the track, so don't waste your life trying to become famous or rich in this area because you won't. Find some practical craft or skill that will leave you with something real when you've finished. Like pottery, woodwork, welding, home brewing - anything but typing drivel onto a screen.  And that's the best advice I know about writing. 

Go in peace.