When writing a murder mystery, keep in mind that the story always starts before the book does.
Every character in the story you are telling has a storyline. They have a past that influences their present, and a future that beckons – except for the victim, who only has a past. And, while the victim’s past may be unknown to some, it is by no means unknown to every character in your story. After all, one of those characters is the murderer.
A murder mystery starts with what is termed ‘an inciting incident’ – a body is discovered – and this kicks off the story of the investigation to identify the killer.
In one sense, your story always moves forward into the future. In another, it’s always looking back into the past. You start in the present moment of the discovery of the body and tell your story through the lives of the people influenced by the victim’s unexpected death: the investigators, pathologists, forensic experts, and the victim’s family and associates. But, the main purpose of the story, at least as far as your readers are concerned, is to show how interactions between characters in the present moment reveal what happened in the past, and how those past events led to the victim being murdered.
This means you need to know your victim’s backstory. It may also mean you need to know who killed your victim and why before you start writing – but, not necessarily.
When I wrote The Holiday, for example, I knew Kieran Moore’s backstory, who killed him, and why he’d been killed before I started. Whereas, when I started writing The East Park Syndicate, I had sketched out Doug Clarke’s backstory but I had no idea who had killed him or why. That only became apparent as the story unfolded.
The one character I knew a lot about when I was writing those stories was Detective Inspector Carl West. His storyline is one of the threads connecting every story in the Inspector West series. That’s something you can do when you write a series of murder mysteries involving the same investigator. But, even if you’re writing a standalone novel, you still need to know your investigators’ backstories, otherwise they’ll come over as two dimensional characters without any personality – and, believe me, you want your main characters to have personality.
The amount of detail you need to know before you start writing depends on how you write. If you’re someone who likes to create an extensive outline before you start, you’ll need to map out all the relevant events you want your investigators to uncover so they can solve the mystery. In other words, you’ll need a breadcrumbs trail of clues to sprinkle through your story, along with a few unexpected twists and distracting red herrings designed to keep your readers guessing – but don’t overdo it.
If you write into the unknown (or into the dark, as Dean Wesley Smith calls it) like I do, you’ll need to stay attentive to what your characters say or don’t say and to how they behave as they reveal the story. You’ll also need to pay close attention to the way your story unfolds to ensure there is a logical sequence of events connecting someone with the murder and enough distractions to keep your readers guessing. The biggest challenge when you don’t outline in advance is keeping things in alignment throughout the story. This is where revising your manuscript to ensure internal consistency comes in.
Although people commit murder for a range of irrational reasons, which you are at liberty to explore in writing a murder mystery, solving a murder mystery always comes down to logical processes. Yes, sometimes luck is involved but, in the main, police work is procedure driven and very routine, even if at times it’s confronting.
The confronting moments, like dealing with mutilated bodies, telling family members their loved one has been murdered, risking your life for the benefit of the community you serve, being abused by members of the public and so on, provide you with opportunities to explore the emotions and coping mechanisms of your investigators – the human interest aspect of storytelling.
But, to make your story credible, you need some idea of how the police go about their work. Sure, you can make stuff up, but keep in mind that a lot of what you see on TV about the forensic investigation of crime scenes is science fiction. In the real world of crime fighting, although police have access to technologies that didn’t exist ten or twenty years ago, they still can’t do magic. Do the research. Get a basic understanding of what police do, and know which parts of the police force conduct murder investigations within the jurisdiction in which you’re setting your murder mystery. It’s not rocket science and it’s available on the internet for you to study.
Writing a murder mystery is about creating a puzzle to solve but that puzzle is set within the lives of the characters that populate your story, and they all come into your story with baggage. Explore that baggage. That’s where you’ll find the answers.
Peter Mulraney is the author of the Inspector West and Stella Bruno Investigates crime series.