Martha Conway’s first novel was nominated for an Edgar Award, and her
second novel, Thieving Forest, won the 2014 North American Book Award
for Best Historical Fiction. Her short fiction has been published in The
Iowa Review, The Carolina Quarterly Review, The Quarterly, The
Massachusetts Review, Folio, and other journals. She teaches creative
writing for Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program and UC
Berkeley Extension, and is a recipient of a California Arts Council
Fellowship for Creative Writing. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, she is one of
seven sisters. She currently lives in San Francisco. Find Martha on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and her website: www.marthaconway.com Her latest novel just launched: Sugarland: A Jazz Age Mystery. Why All Writers Should Write Mysteries (at least once) by Martha Conway, author of Sugarland: A Jazz Age Mystery
Far be it from me to say that writers should try different genres—or write anything other than what they want to write—but I have recently heard myself say to two different writers that everyone should write at least one mystery, for the purposes of craft.
I’ve written in a few different genres now: mystery, historical mystery, and historical fiction. My earliest publications were literary short stories, and my first novel fell into the chick-lit category (I didn’t even know what that was when I was writing it). But I think I really began to understand plot when I set out to write a mystery.
Mysteries have to be built scene by scene, with each development causing its own set of consequences. You have to keep the characters’ state of knowledge or ignorance in mind at all times. But most importantly, you have to keep your reader in mind. Are you, the writer, giving enough information, but not too much? Are you encouraging their questions? Are you allowing yourself to feel your way with them, even though you know the all the answers, so you can anticipate what they might wonder and exploit that?
It’s easy enough to say: when you write a novel, any novel, you want each scene to address what is happening in the plot and move that forward. But sometimes writers think, Oh I have to establish that the character is sympathetic, or a hypochondriac, or afraid of mice, so that a later scene is understandable. In a mystery, it’s a given that you are going to show that fear of mice while your detective is searching around an abandoned basement for a clue. And he or she will find a clue—or find something. In addition to revealing this phobia.
What I have found, and what’s been most helpful to me no matter what I write, is that writing a mystery forces me to create characters whose inner lives direct their actions. This is especially true of the bad guy, sure, but it can be applied to every character (and usually with interesting results). We sift through traits and experiences just as thoroughly as we check all the alibis for the night of the crime. Character is fate, as the Greeks would say. And isn’t that what a good mystery is all about? When we get to the end, we want readers to say, Ah, of course.