Sunday, August 26, 2018

WRITING A MYSTERY NOVEL: What kind of brain does it take? Guest post by Lise McClendon

Lise McClendon: 
Writing a Mystery Novel: What kind of brain does it take?

There are so many personalities in the world, and traits within them. The human race is infinitely varied, and so fascinating, especially to writers. But what sort of brain— personality traits— does it take to write a novel? Specifically a mystery novel?

For one thing, you have to enjoy the organization of a million pieces into a coherent whole, somewhat like putting together the Starship Enterprise out of Legos. Except you don’t even have picture instructions, you have to make up the instructions yourself. But like Lego projects the more you do, the better you get. The more you write the more you see that going down that path lies madness, or that path lies rich complications. You learn to choose wisely. You save time and energy by figuring out which direction will work for you, for your story, based on what has worked in the past.

That is not to say the start of each novel doesn’t bring a certain amount of panic. Especially when you’re writing a puzzle mystery or any story with elements hidden from but teased to the reader, the blank page can be a horror. How on earth did I do this before? Well, in reality, last time you probably had a really good outline, figured out “who dun it” and more importantly, why whoever did it, before you started, and had a decent, if vague, idea how it was all going to end.

So what kind of personality is that? Truthfully every writer has a unique approach to his or her work, a way to find a story that is tested and true. For me, there is a certain mechanical aspect to this organizing of plot elements. Not in a bad way, although I am not particularly mechanical. I can visualize well, I can see how things might work if you flipped them upside down. (This happened once while my husband and his friend were trying to put together the frame of a raft— I said, just flip it over. They were amazed.) And like most writers, I am observant. As writers we learn to really look, to observe the way people dress, the way they interact, the way to sun shines on their shoulders. We listen to their voices, we hear their accents. So all those details sit in a big jumble in our brains until we finally figure out a way to use them in a story.

In my most recent mystery, Blame it on Paris, I had a few self-made mysteries that, like a reader, I wasn’t sure how I would suss out. In fact, more than a few. But like visualization a writer learns to trust some weird element of intuition that tells him or her that the answer is there. Just keep going, keep looking. I wasn’t sure how I was going to clear this American student jailed in Paris on drug charges. It seemed sort of like Midnight Express, a hopeless case of probable guilt. But eventually my nose led me down paths to the answers. (My outline failed me in many ways: who wrote that damn thing?!) I wasn’t sure how I was going to clear Francie Bennett on sexual harassment charges either. Sure, it was convenient that she had to take a leave of absence so she could go to Paris and meet her sister, Merle, but what was going to happen at her law firm?

So many questions that the plot set-up asks and to which the writer must find answers. Not just good answers, because this is a mystery. The answers must be unpredictable, even clever sometimes, but also fair in retrospect. Writing mysteries and thrillers is such an odd profession. Thinking up crime (or ripping it from the headlines) and discovering how to find justice and truth— there is more drama on the television news than we could ever imagine. So in fiction our writerly brains find order, logic, meaning, compassion, and occasionally, revenge. That is our duty, and our joy.

Lise McClendon’s latest mystery is Blame it on Paris, the seventh in the Bennett Sisters Mystery series, released August 24. Learn more at her website:

No comments: