The Method to the Madness

Yes, how do authors write mystery novels? There is so much to sort out, characters and plots to contrive, details to keep straight, titles to create.

James N. Frey wrote an excellent step-by-step guide called How To Write a Damn Good Mystery which advises writers to devise a master plan, right down to having the characters write journals about themselves. What type of mystery are you writing: a police procedural, amateur sleuth, historical, romantic suspense? You'd better know. Will the murderer be clever and resourceful or wounded and afraid? What qualities will the detective/hero have?

Although he does not write mystery fiction, author Terry Fallis describes in his blog how he takes two or three months to do the planning until he ends up with an outline for each chapter which he follows on a split screen as he writes the book.

Writing an adult novel of 80,000 words or more is a considerable undertaking so creating a blueprint is clearly beneficial. The trick for the author is to do this without dissipating the energy required to actually write the book. There was a story circulating when I was in university about a guy who studied day and night for a law exam until he had it down cold. When the big day came he was thrilled to see that all the questions he'd studied for were on the exam. He checked off each question with a bold flourish, exclaiming, "I KNOW THAT ONE! I KNOW THAT ONE! I KNOW THAT ONE!", handed in his exam book and left. Authors get that.

Agatha Christie was a prolific writer, producing a book every year from the 1920s until she died in 1976. Every one was a bestseller. When her daughter, Rosalind, died in 2004, archivist John Curran retrieved and deciphered the 73 handwritten notebooks of doodlings and musings she'd used to hash out character profiles and plot contrivances. Christie would hatch out a beginning then move on to the characters that might be used, work them into a general plan, then offer up alternatives in case they were needed. Titles were suggested then discarded and sometimes the outlines sat awhile before being fleshed into novels.

I don't know whether Agatha Christie would be embarrassed or pleased to have her secret notebooks revealed but they provide an invaluable resource for anyone interested in probing the keys to her success. Pair this with the fascinating Agatha Christie: An Autobiography for hours of enjoyable reading.