Saturday, May 28, 2016

Julia on What We're (Thinking About) Writing Week

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Hallie's post earlier this week about "ruby slippers," ie, the Maltese Falcon, ie, the Macguffin got me thinking about the different types of mysteries I'd someday like to try. I don't mean hardboiled versus cozy - I'm talking about the gimmick, the particular plot device that fuels the story.

As a writer, I spend a great deal of time working on the structure of my books. I've produced a book written along two opposing timelines, one going past, one heading to the future. I wrote a book with framing scenes bracketing past and present episodes. The one I'm working on now, with three interlinked storylines in three different eras, is giving me the devil of a hard time.

But I don't tend to think in terms of the plot device, which is a shame, because just like writing haiku or sestinas instead of free verse poetry, adhering to a form can spur a writer on to greater heights. The mystery genre itself is a type of restricted style, with its requirements of crime and solution. But except for those two items, there really isn't anything that can't be shoehorned into A Mystery. Cozy, caper, romantic suspense, genre blending, hardboiled, noir...the list goes on and on.

I've used a couple of classic devices in my series so far. I've written The Detective Becomes The Suspect (All Mortal Flesh) and The Ticking Clock (Through the Evil Days). But like many crime fiction authors today, I start with characters, and where I want them to go, rather than the plot, which has led to (I humbly think) a rich, detailed tapestry of life in the imaginary town of Millers Kill, NY. Now, however, nine books in - okay, eight and a half - I'm beginning to feel the urge to challenge myself with a stricter form. Readers already know the characters in my books pretty well, right? So why not see if they work as well in a canon or fugue, instead of a symphony?

I'd love to do a Locked Room Mystery, which I think could translate very well in the modern age. With wifi, apps, and executable software around, as well as slightly futuristic - but already here - nanobots and genetically tailored medicine, there must be more ways to kill someone in an inaccessible room than ever.

I've also long loved the Country House Mystery exemplified by And Then There Were None and The Mousetrap. Updating the concept of a group of strangers trapped together without any means of communicating with the outside world would be a challenge in our always-connected present. Could I fit the form into Millers Kill? I don't know, but I'd love to try.

Dear Readers, what are some of the classic mystery devices you'd like to see updated into the modern world?


  1. Whatever you decide to do, I'm sure Clare and Russ and company will pull it off quite nicely.
    I love the locked room mystery idea . . . it's a format that I have always enjoyed when it's done well.
    I'm also a fan of hidden rooms in old houses . . . .

  2. We talked about this today, actually, in Rhys's talk, about how few mysteries use these classic devices today. It's been a good long while since I've read a locked room story. I'd love to see what you come up with, Julia.

  3. I'm not sure this is a plot device, but I've always loved Agatha Christies' Nemesis, where Miss Marple is sent on a quest and must figure out why and what she's to do. I think I could see this working--in the right hands--for a cold case murder, investigated by a old/new detective, police officer, etc.

    And can't wait to see how you've wrestled this latest Russ/Clare into shape.

  4. Multiple timelines are brutal.

    On lot devices:
    The smashed wristwatch or clock that supposedly sets the time of the murder.
    Or chilling the body to fool the coroner on the time of death (just saw that again in a TV show in which... the culprit turns out to be the blind witness who said she was hiding in the closet when the murder took place!)

  5. If you start thinking about it, there are only so many things that are going to happen in a mystery : someone gets killed, someone finds out, just before the next person. I am working on a locked something mystery right now, and it is fascinating.
    It is so tricky to play with identities, or disguises, or hidden histories, you know? Certainly no long forgotten missing relatives.
    I guess my favorite might be the assumption situation… Where the writer makes you assume something that later you realize oh my goodness, that's not right! And then realize that the writer was fair .

  6. Hank, I love the assumption device. I think so many good mysteries turn on that. Reginald Hill--one of my all-time favorite crime novelists--was a master of it.

    I love the country house set up, too--my first book was a version--so much that I might be tempted to do it again.

    I've never done a locked room. So challenging!

    Julia, thank you! I'll be plotting a new book soon and it's nice to be reminded of some of the classic devices.

  7. I've thought of another one that has been done in contemporary mysteries - the unreliable narrator. One of my favorite books to recommend is Robin Merrow MacReady's BURIED, which won the Edgar Award for best YA novel in 2007. Best example of how an unreliable narrator can ratchet up the suspense I've ever seen.

  8. Oooh, I love an unreliable narrator!

    Now I'm thinking of how to do a country house set up....