Friday, December 22, 2006

Creating Suspects

(Above: Nick getting in the Christmas spirit.)

I've written books in three genres over the course of my career--romances, thrillers, and mysteries. Ironically, I find that romances and thrillers are plotted in very similar ways. Mysteries are a little different. But in all genres, the need for a satisfying story arc remains strong. As a book progresses, its characters become more emotionally involved in the action and the peril--whether to life or happiness--becomes more acute. It's like tightening a screw: with every twist of the wrist, the point bites deeper.

In many ways, suspects in a mystery are subplots. These are people with their own histories, their own agendas, their own goals, and their own secrets. Their stories flesh out a book, give it substance, and shine a new light of understanding on the life and character of our victim.

So how do I come up with these suspects? I look at my victim’s life, and the suspects grow naturally from there. If her life doesn’t seem to present enough suspects, I give her a more complicated life!

I then give each of these suspects at least one but preferably two or three deep, dark secrets. These secrets form an important part of the game that is a mystery, because it’s when we discover suspects are lying about something that they look “suspicious”—or at least more suspicious. Most people have aspects of their lives, past and present, which they’d rather keep hidden. (In fact, some people will kill to make sure their secrets stay secret.) These secrets are useful in another way, too, for they present opportunities to introduce “twists” into a story. The plot seems to be going in one direction; we discover a secret and—surprise—the story takes off on a new, unanticipated path.

One mistake some writers make is creating suspects who are too similar to each other. If my suspects are three young English lords, for instance, it’s hard for my readers to keep them straight. It’s also rather boring. But if my suspects are a lord, a pimp, and a thief, not only is each distinct in the reader’s mind, but their differences provide me with an opportunity to explore various aspects of life in Regency London. And as fascinating and fun as the clubs and ballrooms of Mayfair might be, I’ve discovered my readers also like learning about the seamier side of London.

One of the reasons I like planning a book in advance is that it gives me a chance to arrange my suspects—along with the unfolding of their secrets and the resultant plot twists—in a useful pattern throughout the book. That’s an important part of plotting any book, not just a mystery: creating a good story arc with well timed plot points. I plan to talk about that more after Christmas.

But for right now, I’m going to let you in on a secret. When I started plotting this book, I thought I knew who the killer was. But as I’ve worked my way through the story, learning more about my victim’s life, the suspects, and their secrets, I’ve changed my mind. It’s someone else,

Happy Holidays, everyone!