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Behind The Fiction, Past
A Fiction Column
By Michael G'Francisco


"I LOVE A MYSTERY", these words are a mystery buffís "sweet tooth" for enjoyment and pleasure. The trick is how to feed the huge mystery reading market with delightful morsels so appetizing that they want to return to your candy store of words over and over again.

Ha, if I could give you the answer to that statement, Iíd be a famous author sunbathing on a tropical island sipping flowered decorated drinks. But, that doesnít mean you canít answer that question.

Not all of us are cut out to be famous authors; just a few are gifted with that God given talent of being able to spin a story naturally. Oh, it can be achieved by working very diligently at the craft of being a wordsmith. It takes a stubborn nature, dedication, perseverance, research, thought and above all the love of what youíre doing.

Iím grateful that all writers donít possess that talent, because if they did, no one would standout as being exalted, such as: Poe, Dante, Shakespeare and those akin. Now, enough of my philosophy of literature. Letís get to the matter at hand, Mystery Writing.

There are five basic categories of mysteries, which also have sub-categories:

  • The Straight Mystery
  • The Quest or Hunt Mystery
  • The Puzzle Mystery
  • The Whodunit
  • The Hard-Boiled Mystery

The Straight Mystery is an action plot that usually evolves murder and is solved by a very strong protagonist (male or female). It is sometimes referred to as a character driven story where the main crime solver is often used in sequels. The works of Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky are excellent examples in this line of mysteries.

The Puzzle Mystery generally is a writer maze of tricks and clues, which sometimes defies the reader to solve the crime before the writer invokes it in the ending. I guess one could call it a writerís "cat and mouse" game. Once a reader gets caught up in one of these authorís mazes, they invariably want to read more of the authorís work. A perfect example in this category is S.S. Van Dine, a pseudonym for Willard Huntington Wright, the creator of detective Philo Vance.

The Hard-Boiled Mystery is a rough and tough story around a crime of murder with plenty of action and intrigue, sometimes with a few hot sexy exploits of the protagonist. The main character can be either a male or female. A good example in this category is Mickey Spillaneís Mike Hammer series.

The Quest or Hunt Mystery in most cases is about espionage and it steers the reader inward to the plot, instead of the reader following the main character throughout the story. Terror, foreign affairs, fugitives, supernatural, wartime and Armageddon are the usual topics. One would think Shawn Lloyd McCarthyís thrillers featuring Johnny Fedora (a British Secret Agent) are a great fit for this category. McCathy wrote 16 novels under the pseudonym of Desmond Cory (1951-1984). Oh, as a note of interest, McCarthy preceded author Ian Flemingís 14 novels of the James Bond series (1953-1966).

The Whodunit is a character driven story where the reader is completely surprised at the storyís ending. The protagonistís actions and tribulations lead the reader down many avenues of clues giving the reader a chance to figure out the antagonist or the type of crime. There are many sub-plots such as: The Cozy, Romance, Western, Police Procedural, Private Eye, The Period or Era categories plus a few more. If one would like a good example of a "Whodunit" try the column writerís book CHICAGOíS JACK.

The most popular novels are Romance Novels, which also tend to follow a certain formula. Readers of this category desire and want a fairy tale way of participating in the experiences of the story, thusly, allowing them a vacation from the world around them.

In romance novels, there must be a hero and heroine in a story sprinkled with endearment coupled with dangerous intimacy. It can be spiced with humor, but must have a specific conflict that involves the hero and heroine. And, last but not least, they kiss and the ride off into the sunset to live forever in blissful love.

In mystery novels there are twelve typical footprints in its formula:

  1. The writer must create a mystifying crime of extraordinary and imaginary circumstances. In the case of murder, be sure to give the reader a reason for the killer(s) to be caught. Hatred of the antagonist(s) is a good hook.

    Motive is not completely necessary in the beginning, but clues that send the main character(s) in a direction are important, whether the direction is the right course to the killer(s) or not.

    A formal introduction to the main character or protagonist is necessary at this time. But, donít expose their entire persona. Deal it out slowly and let the reader build this character in their mind. Toss in a flaw of character, a little imperfection goes a long way for a readerís association.

    Set your story in time and a place that the reader can associate with. If you can, give them something that will serve as a metaphor such as, a piece of clothing, sign or object that can be tied in at the end to give the reader a feel of completeness.

    Alfred Hitchcockís style of dialogue at the beginning of his works serves up a good way to grab the readerís attention. Another way is to put someone in "harm's way" to make the readerís juices start to flow.

  2. Now is the time to get the main character into motion, even if you put him or them on a "merry-go-around". In fact, it actually can thicken the plot. In other words, add some misdirection into the plot.
  3. Toss another murder, robbery or intrigue into the main plot to throw off the reader. It could be a mishap to the main character that causes a crisis in their life. Just be sure to solve or correct it before the ending. Donít leave it hanging.
  4. Begin to eliminate suspects and start to deal out a few more clues. Stress the need to finalize the crime. Naturally, thatís impossible at this time.
  5. In some cases, it becomes necessary to have the main character hurt or temporarily out of commission and allow a sub-character to enter the story. This sometimes picks up a sagging reader's interest. There are some writers who think that now is the time to redirect the story.
  6. Most writers at this point would bring doubt into the story about its solution, so that the main character finds himself or herself at their "witís end". Of course, the secondary character comes to their rescue and explains what has to be done. Thusly, the main character forges on and finds a new clue to carry him or her in another direction.
  7. Here, the secondary character carries the story for a chapter, giving the main character a well-deserved rest.
  8. The main character now finds the error of his or her ways and almost has the name of the villain(s) or mystery figured out.
  9. Now, it's time to find a solution to the murder or mystery by giving the main character the necessary proof to collar the murderer or solve the mystery. All he or she has to do is spell it out in a convincing manner to the authorities.
  10. Aah, at last the prelude to the climax. This can be written in an explosive manner whereas the main character is at deathís door or his sub-character is killed.
  11. At this point, the story can get a bit tender and have retroactive scenes to pull at the heart of the reader.
  12. The end. The good guys always win and if there is a female the final scene is warm and tender or leaves the reader quite satisfied having read the book.

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