This is sort of part two to the blog post I did the other day regarding Police Procedure in writing Crime Fiction. That was just a short post regarding how I sort of graduated from writing very basic police procedurals (my two gothic mysteries, Dream with Little Angels and Close to the Broken Hearted) to the series I am working on now, which is a hardcore DEA story that takes place in Seattle and involves both the Seattle DEA and the Seattle PD. The working title on this one is Shards of Glass and the outline for it is over seventy-five pages long.
It’s going to be a big book. So there’s a lot of plotting going on.
The Hiebert Knot
First things first. When I write my stories, I like to have all my plots and subplots come together and gel at the book’s Climax (or as close to the Climax as I can make it). My good friend Karen Dyer has read a bunch of my work and given this the name “The Hiebert Knot.” Sometimes I’ll have one straggler plot that doesn’t coalesce with the others, but in that case, I make sure I have at least two (preferably three or four) other plotlines that will be coming together.
In Shards of Glass I actually do have one straggler plot, but it peaks when the others all peak and follows the same path of intensity, so it still adds to the book’s tension and sort of feels like part of the main plot even though it has nothing to do with it. In fact, I think it only makes contact with the “A” Plot twice in the whole book.
For those of you who read Dream with Little Angels it looked as though the subplot with Abe and Dewey trying to figure out where the roadkill went and what Mr. Wyatt Edward Farrow might be building with it behind that garage door of his might combine with the main plot, but at the last minute it did not. That plotline didn’t resolve until the Harvest Festival in the denouement. However, the subplots of Mr. Gardner being unjustly arrested and Abe finding Jessie James’s grandpa dead in that shed definitely came to a knot at the of that story.
My point is, knots are good. They’re satisfying for the readers.
Introducing the Antagonist
This is always a tough one. When do you introduce the antagonist into the story? You don’t want to make him the obvious “he did it” guy. Sometimes on television you get this problem. The show reaches the twenty minute mark and a new character is introduced and you know he’s the bad guy simply because they brought him in with just enough time left in the hour-long episode to catch him.
The antagonist should be introduced early. The name of the bad guy (or gal, I’m not trying to be sexist, it’s just… most bad guys are… well… guys) should be given to the reader sometime in the first twenty to twenty-five percent of the book or so with a face to face meeting between him or her and the protagonist that is ultimately going to bring the antagonist down happening sometime before the thirty-five to forty percent mark. These are just estimates of course, but they are good estimates. You want your readers to remember meeting the baddie so that when things come back to bite him in the tush, they say, “Oh yeah. I knew I shouldn’t have trusted him,” while at the same time forgetting about the character and not focusing on him.
Plot is Important
Out of all the genres, mystery brings with it the highest reliance on plot. You must plot your stories. If this means you have to outline (and it probably does) and you aren’t an outliner, your left with two choices. Become an outliner or go write a book about a bunch of elves and dwarves walking through a forest.
One way to plot a mystery that works so well I’ve heard many professional writers use it (I believe Anne Perry is one–I heard her speak about it on a panel discussion) is to write your outlines backward. Decide how you want your book to end. Not the denouement. That doesn’t matter at this point and besides, it will be dictated by your Setup, but you Climax and resolution. Think of something that will hit like a hammer and leave your readers wanting more. Then wind it up even tighter. Keep winding until you can’t think of anyway to add to the tension or the stakes or the suspense throughout this final scene.
Now you’re set to go. Start thinking about how you got to that scene. If you need to, work back piece by piece, like Hansel and Gretal picking up their litter on the way home from Grandma’s. Usually, you can come up with some key scenes you’d like to see on your way to that killer ending. If you do, write them down on index cards. Start creating scenes this way–one scene per card. Keep going until you have forty scenes or so.
The hardest part will be your first act. You’re going to need to push your protagonist back so that he has a character arc after your magnificent Climax. You’re also going to need a wallop of an Inciting Event to kick things off and get your story rolling. Remember, you want to start the tension high in the Inciting Event and hold it there all through Act II, raising the stakes as you come to the Act II Pseudo Climax in the center.
This is all part of the Hero’s Journey. For more on the Hero’s Journey, see my earlier posts.
Once you’ve got most of your scenes worked out and your beginning and your ending, it’s time to start writing. Just remember, keep the stakes and tension high, and make us like your protagonist. Because when we like him, we fear for him.
Authenticity: As Perfect as Possible
I’ll tell you now, you’re gonna get it wrong. You’re gonna load your Glock 22 magazine with twelve bullets instead of fifteen. You’re going to give your cop a shotgun in his car hanging overhead in (I can’t remember the name of the contraption and don’t feel like looking it up because I don’t have to be authentic here) two shots before he has to reload instead of five. It actually might not even be five. I think it depends on what state your in. I don’t know. Again, I’d have to look it up.
But do your research, because there are people out there (too many, in my opinion) that know everything about weaponry. Buy some good books on guns. I have three: The Complete Encylopedia of Pistols and Revolvers by A.E. Hartink, Gun Digest Illustrated Guide to Modern Firearms Edited by Jennifer L.S. Pearsall, and Gun Digest Shooter’s Guide to Handguns by Grant Cunningham. I also have other books that give me ballistics information, things like that.
So get yourself some books. You’ll also find books specially written for writers on crime items, such as Police Procedure & Investigation: A Guide for Writers by Lee Lofland. I buy everyone of these I find. I own about fifteen, I suppose.
But the books are only so useful. Want the best resource? Go find a cop and ask him when he gets off his shift and if he’d mind it if you bought him a drink. Explain that you’re a writer and describe a bit of your book. If you haven’t published anything yet, tell him you have a publisher interested, even if you don’t. If you have published, don’t let him walk away without him having a copy of your book under his arm. But most of all, make sure you have his business card in your pocket. If you can get even halfway friendly with a cop you can get to the point where once a week or whenever enough questions pile up, you just fire him off an email. He feels like a mastermind (and of course you have told him he’ll be acknowledged in the book) and you get hours of research done in seconds.
Those are my tips for today. Writing mysteries can be very rewarding. It can also be very frustrating when your book comes out and suddenly your website is flooded with emails telling you the ballistic shield your heroic cop wore as he walked straight into the line of four .50 caliber automatic rifles going off would have put him six feet under faster that you can say, “Bad research.”