Ask any author, agent, or editor—heck, ask the publishing house intern who fetches the coffee—and they’d all agree: the most important factor in writing (successfully) is finding one’s voice. After writing eighteen mysteries in three different series, I decided to pen a standalone mainstream novel—THE PARIS KEY—and though I knew my non-mystery voice had to be around here somewhere (probably under a pile of laundry), I wrestled for a while in finding it. In the end, both genre conventions enhanced my new work, and reminded me when I had to let go of what I thought I knew and return to the basics.
Column by Juliet Blackwell, author of THE PARIS KEY (September 1,
2015, Berkley/Penguin), the New York Times bestselling Witchcraft Mysteries,
and the Haunted Home Renovation series. As Hailey Lind, she wrote the
Agatha-Award nominated Art Lover’s Mystery series. She is past president
of Northern California Sisters in Crime and former board member of Mystery
Writers of America. Connect with her on her website or on Twitter.
The Benefits of Mystery Techniques
All stories are mysteries at their core. What’s going on? What are the characters doing, and why? How will everything turn out? Where the heck are my car keys??? A few classic mystery techniques to keep in mind:
1. Ban the Information Dump!
Drop clues slowly, bit by bit. Allow your reader to settle in and discover your novel’s themes either along with, or before, the main characters. Mystery writers call this “playing fair”—not all readers will put the clues together, but they should have the chance to figure things out on their own. In The Paris Key, my protagonist stumbles on family secrets, while in alternating chapters her mother tells her own story. Having access to both viewpoints allows the reader to understand the past—and the present—long before the protagonist does, and the clues help propel the story forward.
2. Ratchet Up the Stakes
In mysteries the protagonist must find the killer before the fiend strikes again, or gets away with murder. Those are pretty clear stakes! In a mainstream novel the drama is subtler, such as succeeding or failing in a relationship, making a good career choice, overcoming a personal challenge, or changing one’s life to embrace happiness. Still, the stakes should increase as the novel unfolds: evolving money problems, family drama, romantic strife, or even, as in The Paris Key, trying to attain a work permit before being deported (a rather Kafkaesque experience in France, I happen to know from experience…but that’s another story.)
3. The Setting is Key
A book’s setting is essential not only to create atmosphere and inspire descriptive passages (which a lot of readers skip over anyway), but as a central character. Small town mysteries cash in on efficient gossip networks, deserted riverbanks, and wooded areas. Gritty urban mysteries evoke the dangers of the city at night, a sense of alienation, and miles of concrete and spooky waterfronts. Paris is beautiful, but also evokes romantic visions because of its history of wartime resistance and circles of writers and artists seeking creative freedom. In The Paris Key, the City of Light influences the main characters every day—from chocolate croissants to celebrity-filled cemeteries to the dank catacombs under Parisian streets, the story could not have taken place elsewhere.
The Challenges of Embracing New Techniques
While there are elements of mystery and suspense in The Paris Key, when I sat down to write I forced myself to shed certain genre conventions and embrace a different kind of story development. Keep these in mind, too, as you write:
1. Where Are the Bones?
Mysteries offer a clear skeleton upon which to build a story: someone is killed, a main character investigates, and a murderer is unmasked. Mainstream novels allow a writer more freedom to be creative—or to waffle. Without a dead body and a subsequent search for a killer, a firm character arc is crucial: what crisis must be faced, what challenges overcome? What does the story’s resolution look like, and how is it reached? In The Paris Key, my protagonist must not only unmask family secrets, but also learn to embrace this knowledge to create the life she’s always wanted.
2. Let Go of Plot
The first time I showed my agent a proposal for a mainstream novel he said it was “too plot-based.” This surprised me, since I’ve always considered myself a more character-centric storyteller; but I was measuring myself by the standard of the mystery genre. In mainstream novels the story is allowed—required, even—to meander a bit, giving the reader the chance to explore the minds of the characters and to dwell in an alternate reality. This gives room for flashbacks and descriptive passages; for reflecting on the beauty of Paris, and for relating these observations to a character’s past and future. The plot doesn’t have to be advanced on every page; what matters is drawing the reader into your imagined world.
3. Enjoy the Moment
It is necessary to linger in the moment long past when a mystery reader might become restless, ready to get on with the search for the killer. With the focus now on the arc of the main character, the pace becomes more reflective and leisurely, allowing the author to explore old wounds and new realizations about the self and the world. Much as new acquaintances reveal themselves to us bit by bit, with the most sensitive and meaningful aspects emerging slowly over time, a mainstream novel ekes out revelations, making the experience that much more meaningful to the reader.
The Bottom Line: Get to work!
Ultimately, finishing your novel is all about putting in the time. But it’s also about heart. As you write, allow yourself to play with genre techniques—and to step outside them—to keep the reader intrigued as you unravel your tale. Ultimately, the extent to which you integrate plot and character is all about your characters, the story you want to tell, and discovering the unique voice that is yours and only yours.
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- Read an Interview with a Debut Middle Grade Author.
- Writing young adult or middle grade? New agent Sarah Nego seeks clients!
- Trust Your Instincts: Write the Story the Way YOU Think It Should Be Told.
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- Follow Chuck Sambuchino on Twitter or find him on Facebook. Learn all about his writing guides on how to get published, how to find a literary agent, and writing a query letter.
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