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So You Want To Write A Mystery? Lauren Investigates

When I was in seventh grade, I really wanted to write mysteries. I even bought a book called You Can Write a Mystery by Gillian Roberts. At the time, I was heavily into Sammy Keyes, an excellent series of YA mysteries by Wendelin van Draanen. I never used Roberts’ book and I kind of fell out of reading mysteries as well.

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Image credit: Mark Coggins

Image credit: Mark Coggins

In college, I did read The Sign of the Four, one of the full-length Sherlock Holmes novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I have recently become interested the genre again after reading Dorothy L. Sayers’s Strong Poison and Gaudy Night (her Lord Peter Wimsey series is currently being re-released). I have a few others currently checked out from the library, including Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and a collection of English country house murders.

I’m interested in writing about mysteries as I read more of the genre. I’m also interested in actually writing a mystery of my own. Maybe I’ll never even show it to anyone. I struggle a lot with plot structure, so I’m interested in exploring the mystery genre as a way that will force me to focus on creating stronger plots.

Enter the Writer’s Digest Howdunit Series

I’m sure if this endeavor continues, I’ll definitely revisit Roberts’ book. But I decided my first move would be to get my hands on any number of Writer’s Digest’s Howdunit Series. The Howdunit Series provides information specifically for mystery and suspense writers on the facts of crime investigation from multiple points of view: forensic pathology, criminal profiling, toxicology, etc. Many of these books are written by professionals.

This list is mixture of books that I own and books I have borrowed from either my sister or the public library. I had to get one through interlibrary loan, but other than that I just grabbed everything I could get my hands on:

Unfortunately, it seems the publisher has re-vamped the series and cut the majority of these titles. But many of these books can still be found in local libraries or used on Amazon for very low prices. (Here’s an Amazon link to all 12 books in the series.)

The biggest mystery of all: why am I such a dork?

The biggest mystery of all: why am I such a dork?

Like any good writer (and probably any good detective), I grabbed a trusty notebook and pen and dove right into Amateur Detectives, since that’s probably a good place to start for an amateur mystery crafter. I went the deepest into this text. This was a great book for ideas about what my amateur detective character could do for a living, what she could find in public records, and cases solved (or unsolved) by many amateur detectives.

Unfortunately, it was published in 1996, before cell phones and the internet were mainstream (apparently it was before Caller ID was widely available, either). Here’s one gem: “Certain cellular phones duplicate as a pager, allowing receipt of numeric and alphaneumeric text messages” (107). Any legal information had to be taken with a grain of salt; the author states that concealed weapons are not allowed in Colorado when a Google search reveals something quite different. I found myself half wishing for a return to simpler times and half wishing that Writer’s Digest would update this title in their series.

In a somewhat similar vein, the authors of Private Eyes clearly state their goal of bringing accuracy to fiction featuring private investigators. Unlike some of the other titles in this series, the text didn’t seem bogged down with obsolete information. But of course, technology has changed so much since 1993 that anyone writing about a PI would really need to brush up on that aspect. While some of it can be a little out-of-date, the authors give thought to almost every detail, including the fact that a P.I. needs comfortable shoes—something that a) I may not have thought of on my own and b) I could use later as a plot device (maybe my sleuth gets stuck following someone in some uncomfortable heels?). Also the final chapter ties all the previous information together by walking the reader through an actual case from the authors’ contacts.

I spent the most time with Deadly Doses, trying to take diligent notes. This book contains a huge amount of information; every entry includes a list of forms, symptoms, antidotes, and reaction times. In fact, there’s so much information that I wouldn’t recommend it for brainstorming, which is what I tried to use it for. People have been poisoning each other since antiquity and poisons are all around us. I found myself wondering what isn’t poisonous. If I began with slightly more direction, however, I would definitely use Deadly Doses as a resource.

As I went through the other books in the Howdunit series, I found myself similarly overwhelmed by Body Trauma, Armed and Dangerous, and Scene of the Crime. Armed and Dangerous in particular spends four chapters on the history of firearms and spends most of the text on either firearms or explosives. I found this to be just a tad misleading—but on the other hand, I think weapons are like poisons: potentially all around us. The other two were saturated with facts: again, helpful for someone who isn’t in the brainstorming phase.

I thought learning these nitty-gritty details of crime execution would be the most interesting to me. In other words, if given the phrase “It was Colonel Mustard in the library with the lead pipe” from the game Clue, I thought learning about the lead pipe would captivate me: how would Mr. Body’s wounds present themselves? How would the investigator know which blow was fatal? Did Mr. Body have defensive marks? But that’s not what I was interested in.

I was surprised by how Modus Operandi and Malicious Intent drew me in. Modus Operandi tells about how Colonel Mustard might commit his crime and the idiosyncrasies of particular types of criminals (including arsonists, carjackers, safecrackers, etc. as well as murderers). The anecdote at the beginning was particularly helpful: the introduction tells of a burglar who gets so nervous his crimes make him have to move his bowels and yet whose obsessive-compulsive disorder is so crippling he will not allow another person’s toilet to contact any part of his body. Therefore, he leaves an—ahem—“calling card” of sorts on the kitchen table. After reading this anecdote and then learning the nuts and bolts of how kidnappers, jewel thieves, etc., work, I can see myself building interesting criminals from the details provided.

While Modus Operandi covers how to identify Colonel Mustard’s methods and some reasons why he might have killed Mr. Body, Malicious Intent really delves into that latter aspect. Included are sections on history of violent crimes, profiling, and typical behaviors of different types of criminals. While this book provides a good overview, I found the author’s tone a little overly sensationalist for my taste. Of course, he was dealing with a very sensational topic, but a succession of gruesome details can really wear a person down. But with a lot of factoids flying around, it feels as though sifting is necessary to get to the important stuff. And again, it’s dated: the author cites information from the DSM-III, when at present moment DSM-V’s release is imminent.

Photo credit: grahamc99

Image credit: grahamc99

So is the Howdunit Series still helpful and relevant for contemporary mystery writers?

Final thoughts: my overall feeling on the Howdunit series is: proceed with caution. First, know what direction you plan to take your crime story in and then locate the appropriate volumes. If you start without a few ideas, these books will only flood your head with unhelpful information. Secondly, keep in mind the information may be outdated, so it may be worth doing an internet search to see what you can turn up with some sleuthing of your own. But if you’re looking for resources written by people you know are experts on the subject, the Howdunit series is still a good place to start building the foundations of your mystery story.

An important thing to remember, though, is that these books are more about keeping the details in your writing accurate, not about stylistic improvements or bringing a strong structure to your story. For my next review, I’m going to look at something designed to serve those purposes. Until next time!

Have you ever written a mystery or crime fiction? Have you ever used a resource like the Howdunit series? Did it help or hinder you?

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Lauren Seegmiller has a B.A. in English Literature and isn’t afraid to use it. She currently lives in Denver, CO, trying to give enough time to reading, writing, knitting, and maybe even decoupage every once in a while. She helps other writers improve their craft as a creative writing coach.
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