Put on Your Mystery Thinking C.A.P.
These days, I write for both children and adults. For kids, I generally do series chapter books, and for adults, I do series cozy mysteries. Cozy mysteries are generally considered an adult genre but they have a lot in common with kid’s books. They almost always balance the mystery elements with relationship elements. For example, a mystery about a murder at a farmer’s market might also be about dealing with an aging parent. The two storylines might collide right at the beginning as the aging parents wanders away while shopping with her daughter (who will be our sleuth) and is later found standing over the dead body of someone who’d yelled at the mom earlier for nearly wandering away from a booth without paying. The amateur sleuth will have to navigate the twin problems of finding the murder so her mom isn’t blamed, and figuring out how best to help mom (which may include facing the painful reality of mental decline). Though the types of relationship issues and the sorts of crimes will be different from kid books to adult books, the twin issue of dealing with relationship problems and a mystery will tend to bump into one another over and over throughout the story. As a result, I’ve come to realize that my process for writing a kid’s mystery and an adult cozy mystery are very similar.
C = Character First
I may have a vague idea about what kind of mystery I want to solve, but in most cases, my mysteries begin with the main character and his or her circumstances. Then the character and circumstances will lend themselves to certain kinds of mysteries. A main character who is a caterer is likely to run into dead bodies while catering, for example. A main kid character who finds life at home stressful and often flees to a nearby woods to walk in that peaceful place will almost certainly find the mystery right there in the woods, wrecking his peace. So my characters will dictate my mystery.
As always, my character need to be well fleshed out. This not only helps me understand what this character will do in each situation, but it also gives me smaller bits that help me make the character real for the reader. For example, if my adult character collects antique glassware, that will give me a great deal of possibilities. The character is not only likely to encounter the murder for the mystery while on a hunt for glass (at an estate sale, or a flea market, or even a yard sale), but I will also have activities specific to her to do during the times I need her to ponder the mystery. She may need to wash her recent purchases or dust her collection, both are the kind of automatic activities that would leave her mind free to think while also giving me tangible actions to illustrate and keep the scene feeling anchored. Too much time stuck in a character’s head without action will get sloggy fast.
For a kid character I can give the kid a fascination with insects or a hobby creating buildings from the bits he finds in the woods. Maybe my bug-loving kid makes a habit of collecting bugs in screen-topped jars and bringing them home for a few hours of study before releasing them. This would give me tons of physical activity to fill a scene that is also about thinking or about conversing with another character: I’ll have the activity of catching the insect (which might allow my character to stumble across the mystery), and take the insect home to study it with a magnifying glass (while thinking about the mystery) and later to hike back out to the spot where he caught the bug in order to release it there (thus possibly finding more clues). By merging character activities and mystery, I can help make the character’s actions feel motivated and plausible.
A = Actions Have Reasons
Part of the reason I need to know my characters really well is because that will help me decide what to do next. When I’m writing my adult cozy mysteries, I must first match a character with a logical reason for stumbling over a body. For example, a mystery I am plotting right now has the main character as curator of a museum. I’ve written a number of books with this character and I’m now plotting the last one. This one is going to have a special event for donors as that is a common thing for museums and (since one of the donors is going to die) will put my main character in the perfect position to become embroiled in the mystery. Since the event is not public, the killer must be one of the people attending, which will mean the police will keep the characters corralled for a while, giving my main character a chance to collect clues as she goes from person to person doing the normal things her job would dictate. It makes sense for her to talk to each donor and for them to talk to her (at least until they begin feeling interrogated). I’m constantly asking myself if the conversation would be reasonable and the behavior of every character believable.
With a kid’s novel, I’m going to have to give the kid a mystery that he can logically access and logically investigate. A kid on a field trip might discover a missing bit of art at a museum, but is that kid going to be in a place to investigate? Can I make it believable that he’s able to do that? Once the field trip is over (and they tend to get over suddenly when something like a major crime happens) will I be able to bring the kid to all the places he’ll need to be to investigate? Will I be able to make this believable? Kids are tough because they don’t drive and usually have adults who aren’t interested in them having the freedom to ride a bike all over town. Some authors stretch the bounds of believability a little and that’s fine, kids will go along. But if you push too far, your reader won’t believe it can happen (and you’ll get hostile reviews from adults about putting children in danger).
Keep in mind that your character may do things you would never do. Equally, your character may simply not think to do the things you would. This is because your character is not you. Your character’s actions need to grow out of this literary person being fleshed out and complete. For example, if I (personally) hear odd noises outside my house at night, and I am alone, I will check the locks and that’s about it. I will not go outside and poke around. I can check out what happened tomorrow. I am not a brave person. My main character, however, may be very brave or might so desire to see herself as brave that this pushes her to do things despite being scared. I’m not big on pushing myself when scared. I’m fairly happy with hiding. But I am not my sleuth.
With young characters, I need to be aware that they may not automatically think to do things that a nearly sixty-year-old woman would do. My young characters are in different situations, have lived through different things, and have access to different information. I may immediately identify a sound as coming from a furnace, even if I’ve just moved into a house, because I have had experience with the sounds of a variety of furnaces in my life. My young character who recently moved to Maine from Florida will not have had that experience so the sounds from the furnace may provoke very different thoughts that make sense to him. In all ways, I must be so close to and knowledgeable about my character that I do not finding myself falling back on what I would do instead of what he or she would do.
P = Paths Are Rarely Straight
The action in a plot, including a mystery plot, will tend to be purposeful but not direct. The purpose of the actions of my museum curator character is to find out who killed the museum donor, but she will only have few, if any, clues to begin. She will latch onto one thing that pushes her in one direction. And she will go in that direction until that door of inquiry is slammed or a more compelling door opens. So she might suspect, at first, the caterer who seems to have served everyone undrinkable, bitter coffee. What would be in there? Could my donor have been poisoned (and the subsequent wound added only to give the caterer time to escape)? But then I may discover that someone dumped something noxious but not poisonous in the coffee because the person was angry with the caterer, and besides, no one drank the terrible coffee beyond a single sip. So now I look at the person dumping stuff in the coffee—do I believe anger at the caterer was really the reason?
So with every step my character takes, more possible steps appear and the character follows the ones that make the most sense to that character. This journey of discovery is going to be a lot like the journey of a pinball that strikes a variety of bells and flaps that send the ball off in new directions. Every action needs to hit something that sends my main character off again. I don’t let the journey end if I can help it, because action is interesting and inaction is dull.
So as I plot, I think of my character’s trajectory, but I really only have to ask one question: something just happened, what will she do and when she does it, what will result? After I’ve worked out the answer to that one question, I can simply plug the result into the “something” spot and ask the question again and again and again. For instance:
- Jeremy is late again so he has to run for the bus with his shoes untied.
- Because Jeremy is running with untied shoes, he trips.
- Because he tripped, he was in a unique position to see under the crack of the neighbor’s garage door, the one that never closes the last foot.
- Because he could see into the neighbor’s garage, he saw someone dragging a body across the floor.
- Because he saw the body, he scrambled up and ran to the bus screaming about it.
And so on, and so on and so on. In many ways, the plotting of a mystery novel is a lot like a game of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Something happens and something results, and all of it grows out of the logical behavior of the character given the circumstances. I must give the character reason to do what he’s doing or the story won’t work, but I don’t worry about motivating every element every moment. I only have to work out one smack of the pinball and where that makes the ball head off and what it will hit as a result. I don’t have to sort out all the smacks in one fell swoop. Plots are built in bits, and that’s what makes them doable.
So for your next mystery plot, put on your thinking C.A.P. and sort out who your character will be, how being that person will drive their action, and where that action will take them. Let them bounce off obstacles and shoot off in new directions and you’ll keep the story interesting and lively. Keep the character true to himself and you’ll keep the story real. And with those things in place, you may find you’ve crafted a real winner.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.