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The Top 5 Mistakes Mystery Writers Make - and How to Avoid Them

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I've been reading mysteries since I cracked open my first Nancy Drew novel back when I first learned to read. I'm the author of the Dreamslippers amateur sleuth series, and I've personally steered the storylines on hundreds of mystery-themed story video games over a 15-year career in that industry. I've had the opportunity to analyze when, why, and how mysteries work, and I make a living through a skilled understanding of how to fix them when they don't.

Here are the top 5 mistakes we mystery writers can make - and how to avoid them.

5. Skimping on character development.

Whether it's the vaudeville relic of the mustache-twirling villain or the über-perfect heroine, painting with too broad a brush is tempting when you're writing mysteries. But some of the best-known characters in the genre are... complicated. The PI who's battling her own drug addiction while trying to track down her brother's killer. A boy who's pushed to murder his own father in a fit of wild self-preservation. Maybe even the perpetrator of a justified revenge murder. We want to know more about people whose lives occupy the grey areas. The ones in mere black or white? We've seen 'em all before.

To avoid this pitfall, don't be afraid to torture your good guys, or lend a sympathetic ear to your crooks. We'll feel your hero's win all the more if she's had to prevail against her own worst judgment in order to get there. And a villain is all the more diabolical for her charm.

4. Failing to provide a motive.

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While asking "whodunnit" is the crux of the mystery genre, motive is always key. Sure, killers are gonna kill, but if they can get what they're after without resorting to murder, why wouldn't they?

Which is not to say that motive can't be mysterious, or even intangible. In my first novel, Cat in the Flock, the killer was bent not on personal gain but on the preservation of a religious ideal, something that never even really existed, but in her tortured mind, it was the most important thing. This is precisely how the "whydunnit" has supplanted traditional mysteries; we're fascinated by criminal intent, the motive behind a killing that seems otherwise senseless.

When you're working out the plot for your next mystery, constantly ask yourself, "What's the motive?" 

3. Slacking off on research.

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This is one I've seen a lot with beginning writers, whether they're writing for print or games. We're all walking around with sort of rudimentary understandings of the law-enforcement process, for the most part gleaned from episodes of Law & Order and Scooby-Doo. But that doesn't take the place of good research. For the jurisdiction you're depicting in your story, what officially should happen when a dead body is found and reported to police? What are the police department's procedures for filing a missing persons report? Do you know the difference between jail and prison? What is required for an arrest? What forensic evidence was found at the scene of the crime? What evidence is admissible in court? These are the questions that can make or break a story's authenticity.

Don't limit yourself to a simple Google search when you're researching details for your mystery. I have illustrated guides to pistols, rifles, and poisons sitting on my bookshelves, which might have been an intimidating factor back when I was dating! When I lived in Chehalis, Washington, I attended a 'day in the life' program at the Lewis County Sheriff's Office. That day alone gave me tremendous insight, from how police scenario simulations work to what the inside of a county jail really looks like to what the drug evidence room smells like.

2. Turning your story into an activist project.

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The place to watch out for one-dimensional portrayals the most these days is when the project is made primarily political. Are your people of color only victims, or only good? Are all of your villains stereotypical white males? Is your portrayal true-to-life, in all its nuances, or is it just true-to-narrative?

I read a thriller a few years back in which the twist at the end was that the big, bad mob boss turned out to be the bitter mother of a paraplegic son who ran her entire dirty operation via her cell phone while stuck at home caring for the kid. This was in the era before smart phones, too. It wasn't that I don't think a mother is capable of acting as a brutal mob boss; I do; but this scenario seemed pretty implausible. How did she manage to instill the fear necessary to traffic drugs and human beings across the US-Mexico border from the personal comfort and safety of her home, using only rudimentary text messaging as her weapon? Just because we want a woman like that as a villain doesn't mean it works.

1. Revealing too much too soon, or too little too late.

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The mystery genre is unique: It's the only form of writing in which the story itself is also a puzzle to solve. That means mystery writers must also be puzzle designers, not just storytellers. By the time the big reveal comes, readers should be, above all, satisfied by it. They can be surprised by the reveal, but they shouldn't be too surprised. They should be able to look back and trace the clues to see the logical outcome. 

For example, Murder on the Orient Express is a classic mystery tale that masterfully skirts a powerful genre convention: that the story must end with the murderer being taken away in handcuffs. Once Hercule Poirot traces the motives and means that not just one but in fact every passenger on the train has for killing the victim, we're surprised at this twist on the tried-and-true, but we can follow each thread to see why and how each person participated in the multiple stabbing, which makes for a terrifically satisfying ending. When Poirot tests our collective killer, and then determines that none of them possess the heart of a true murderer, we're right there with him, as we, too, have become invested in their mitigating circumstances. His moral decision, another surprise for a character such as his, is grounded in the masterful reveal.

This is probably the toughest aspect of mystery writing to get right. It really depends on whether you're the type of writer who likes to plot everything out ahead of time or just free-write till you figure it out, but either way, you should take a moment to see if the clues add up at the right moment. Tip your hand too early, and you spoil the surprise.

I hope these tips help you with your own sleuthsaying. Happy writing!


'St. Louis Noir' Reveals the River City's Mysteries - and Missteps

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American pop culture has long been dominated by the stories of its two most notorious cities: New York and Los Angeles. With the book-publishing industry set in one and the movie industry in the other, the narratives of the great flyover heartland have never really had their due. My hometown in particular is wildly underrated as fodder for entertainment, so it was with great interest that I picked up St. Louis Noir, a collection of short stories (and poetry) set in the River City, written by local writers.

Much like St. Louis itself, the collection is uneven, with a few gems, a fair number of decent stories, and a couple that probably shouldn't have made the cut at all. But the overall project and the gems it contains move me to highly recommend it nonetheless. It is a deeply satisfying experience to read stories set in a place you know well, one so few people get to know in fictional form. As a contact zone extraordinaire with an intense and complicated history, it's a crying shame St. Louis isn't taken up as a fictional setting more often. 

The collection is organized by geographic section within the metropolitan St. Louis area, which includes Southern Illinois. The best stories capitalize on the subtle distinctions between them, such as Laura Benedict's "A Paler Shade of Death," set in the suburb of Glendale. The deliciously unreliable narrator describes it this way, "Neighborhoods didn't come much more established than this one." It's a jarring backdrop for the dark deeds to follow.

Another gem is collection editor Scott Phillips' "One Little Goddamn Thing," a delightful revenge romp that doesn't take itself too seriously. Following close behind are L.J. Smith's "Tell Them Your Name Is Barbara" and LaVelle Wilkins-Chinn's "Fool's Luck." Smith's story is actually the only one in the entire collection that falls into the category of traditional noir, and the writer gives us a refreshing take on the complicated antihero in lawyer Kaycie Crawford. I would happily tag along on more adventures with that one. And "Fool's Luck" takes character quirkiness to a level you can only see from St. Louis' own Gateway Arch, epitomizing the down-home Midwestern storytelling I've come to know and love.

Where the collection suffers is when writers make the project primarily a political one, with stereotypical renditions (one story actually features a white male villain named "Bubba") and a serious lack of character and plot development. The poetry - ersatz Ginsberg - also seems out of place. But short story collections are like boxes of chocolate, and there's no harm done when you can reach for the next potential gem, of which this one has many.


'Cat in the Flock' Now a BooksShelf.com Editor's Choice Book of the Week!

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If you've ever thought to yourself, "There are just so many books, and so little time," you're not alone. That's the BooksShelf.com motto. A look through their wide range of offerings - everything from mystery to manatees - proves that we could all definitely use more time to read books. The BooksShelf.com team is a group of seven book lovers who work to promote authors and their books. And they've chosen Cat in the Flock as their Editor's Choice Book of the Week!

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The BookShelf.com portal is a great place to discover new authors, or find out more about your favorite writers. I myself discovered a talented new author in Cam Lang, whose mystery novel The Concrete Vineyard is the latest addition to my Kindle library.

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And if you're a writer looking for a way to get noticed, BooksShelf.com is offering 50 percent off services now for the holidays.

All thanks to the BookShelf.com team for the Editor's Choice Book of the Week spotlight, and happy reading, everyone!

 


Winners in Our Poetry Book Giveaway, Free Poetry Ebook, Twinkl Poet Spotlight

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By Lisa Brunette

You might remember back in April we ran a giveaway for a signed, paperback copy of the poetry collection pictured above. I'm pleased to announce the winners:

Marsha Pipes

Jolie Eason

Congratulations to both for the win! They're apparently too shy for a photo op here like we did with the wildlife gardening book earlier this year, but I can share some tidbits about both winners. Jolie let me know she's already lost the poetry book to her teen daughter, who can't put it down (yay, teens reading poetry), and it turns out that Marsha and I...

...used to dance together! I didn't realize it when her email address was chosen at random - her address doesn't contain her name - but we danced together at a studio in Centralia, Washington, called Embody. Marsha further made my day by telling me she actually had already purchased a copy of Broom of Anger from the brick-and-mortar bookstore in that area, Book 'n Brush, which sells them. I sent her a signed copy anyway and told her to gift the other one to someone who might like it.

And that's the story of our giveaway.

But you have another chance at nabbing a FREE ebook copy of Broom of Anger, as I've added it to Smashwords' Summer Winter Sale. So you can still pick up a copy gratis if you head to the Smashwords page by July 31.

Lastly on the poetry front, I want to share this great spotlight Twinkl (a resource for teachers) published in celebration of poetry and prose, including yours truly. It's nice to be listed among the authors there, and they also posted my poem, "The Eyes Have It."

Happy poetry-reading, y'all!

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A Smash Sale for the Dreamslippers Series 7th Anniversary

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By Lisa Brunette

I can't believe it's been this long already, but the Dreamslippers Series turns seven this month. To mark the lucky 7 anniversary, I've enrolled the series in the Smashwords Summer Winter Sale. This means deep discounts (and one freebie) on the ebook versions of all three original novels, as well as the boxed set, which includes a bonus novella. The sale ends July 31.

For those of you who are new to the blog, the Dreamslippers is my sexy-but-cozy murder mystery series, which Anthony and I released between 2014 and 2016 under our own imprint, Sky Harbor Press. Since he and I both went into the venture with many years of publishing experience under our belts, you can think of it as professional self-publishing. All three books in the series won indieBRAG medallions, awarded to only the top tier of independently published books, and the second novel in the series, Framed and Burning, was also a finalist for the prestigious Nancy Pearl Book Award and nominated for a RONE Award. The books have been praised by Kirkus Reviews, Readers Lane, Book Fidelity, Wall-to-Wall Books, BestThrillers.com, Mystery Sequels, and many others. All three enjoy Amazon ratings of 4-5 stars.

About the Books

The Dreamslippers solve crimes using yoga and meditation, along with their special ability to 'slip' into your dreams. But that isn't easy. 

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Cat McCormick comes of age both as a Dreamslipper and a private investigator in the series debut, Cat in the Flock. Following a mother and daughter on the run, she goes undercover in a fundamentalist church. FREE during the Smashwords Sale.

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It was supposed to be a much-needed vacation in Miami, meant to snap Cat out of a persistent depression. But when her great uncle’s studio goes up in flames, killing his assistant, Cat must find out who’s really to blame. Half off in the sale.

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What happens when your client thinks she knows who the killer is, but you don’t believe her? Cat and Granny Grace aren't too sure Nina Howell fell under the spell of a domineering, conservative talk show host... until he starts to look guilty. The case brings powerful new developments in Cat’s dreamslipping skill as she works to find the truth. Half off in the sale.

Boxedset

Get all three books, plus a bonus novella prequel--Work of Light, Granny Grace's origin story--only available in the boxed set. Receive a discount of 25% now in the Smashwords sale.

Rather Have a Paper Copy?

You can always purchase the Dreamslippers Series in paperback from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other outlets. 

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE THESE POSTS FROM THE DREAMSLIPPERS SERIES LAUNCH BACK IN 2014:

Cat in the Flock Facts

Cat in the Flock - the Trailer

Cat in the Flock - in the News!