Thursday, June 7, 2012

Making Mysteries Ring True by Rebecca Forster

When Michelle asked me to submit a piece to her site, I was honored. I was also stumped. I had no idea what to write about.  Graciously, Michelle gave me free rein to write about anything I wanted: how to write a mystery, a real life experience that showed up in a book, my favorite color.

The first thing that came to mind was the ringing in my ear.

Last October I had two operations in the course of eleven days. Hooray, the operation was a success, but I woke to an incessant, metallic ringing in one ear.  It is loud enough to keep me from sleeping, and loud enough to wake me if I do get to sleep. It rings all day long and doesn’t even have the courtesy to balance out by ringing in both ears. I discovered many people have this problem. That did nothing to ease my misery. It was my ringing!

What does this have to do with writing a mystery? Simple. I tried to solve the ringing snag in the same way I write a mystery.

First, establish an unexpected problem:  In a mystery, this is usually manifested by a body but it could be a theft, a burglary, an explosion etc. etc. We’ll stick with body for now.

Next, employ logical discovery: In the case of a body, walk it back. Figure out who the person was, where they had recently been, who they had crossed, who loved them, what their business was. . . . You get the picture.

Third, serve up a healthy dose of red herrings: What other characters say about the dead person may not be correct, time lines can be flawed. Physical evidence might have reasonable explanations. Backtrack, regroup, question everything. Solutions to real life mysteries are illuminated slowly, they don’t hit you over the head. It is the same in fiction.

Finally, reach a conclusion:  In a mystery, the resolution is usually the discovery of whodunit  and why.  The end of the journey (that which the reader enjoys so much) is a delicate pulling together of threads of information that are carefully woven throughout the book.

 In the case of my ear ringing, my detective work led me to find out that anesthesia could create the problem, that I was not unique, that there were remedies that ranged from the possible (scientific) to the ridiculously improbable (red herring solutions), and to a reasonable, if not happy, resolution. It was a draw: ear ringing wouldn’t kill me, but it would change the way I perceived my world.

Mysteries can be as intricate as courtroom dramas or as crisp as cozies, but at their core the common aspect is that the unexpected problem demands investigative action, inventive red herrings, intelligent inferences, and reader-acceptable conclusions. In real life, a mystery can be as simple as why your ears ring or as horrendous as finding dead body in the alley. Either way, when it comes to books, it is the information chase that makes the mystery fun and satisfying.

P.S. My favorite color? Yellow.

Rebecca Forster is a successful mystery writer with several best-sellers. Visit her website for a complete list of books. Click here for a free e-copy of the first book in the Witness series - Hostile Witness -  and join the Witness Club. You will read them all.


  1. Damn, I was kinda hoping you had a solution to the ear-ringing problem. I've had the same thing but no logical reason why it started.

    My sister has a similar approach to mysteries. Since she was little, she'd read the last page of a book and then try to decide, for herself, how it got to that point. No surprise she writes now too. :-)

    Thanks for sharing!

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