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How to Write a Damn Good Mystery, James N. Frey - Review (1 Viewer)


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I'd decided my next novel will be a Murder Mystery, and I didn't have a good idea how to plot it.

In my experience, there are two ways to design mystery clues: Treasure Hunt Mysteries, and Puzzle Mysteries. The nomenclature is my own, and if you can find anyone discussing this subject with different labels, let me know. In a Treasure Hunt mystery, one clue leads to the next clue, which then leads to the next clue, and so on until the solution is revealed. In a Puzzle Mystery (think Agatha Christie), clues drop through the novel, along with red herrings. The detective looks to put the clues together like pieces of a puzzle to solve the mystery. While you could include elements of Treasure Hunt, not every clue should depend on a prior clue.

My last novel was an adventure, but it did have Treasure Hunt Mystery elements. I regard a Treasure Hunt as the easy way out. You can excite the reader about the next step in the hunt, but the plotting is simplistic. I want to write a real Puzzle Mystery, so I started research to see who might give some tips. You know who has so far? Absolutely no one.

That includes this book. Very little in the book is unique to mysteries, and there is no guidance at all on the nuts and bolts of creating a Puzzle Mystery. In fact, there is very little in this book which isn't covered in blogs, and with a lot less filler along the way. When you write a blog, you can get right to the essence of the subject. When you write a book, you have to fill pages to make sure the reader thinks they get their money's worth.

I'm not reporting there isn't some good material in How to Write a Damn Good Mystery. For novice writers, there is a lot of good general advice on the ins and out of writing competent prose, general plotting, creating characters, and even a bit of grammar. If you have two or three well-written novels behind you (and strangers are telling you that, not just friends and family--or worse, yourself), then Frey's lessons are already behind you. That is, Frey tells you to write with clarity, trim verbosity, be careful of overloading with modifiers yet make some descriptions more colorful ... the ins and outs experienced writers try to beat into the heads of nascent writers.

His best advice on how to write a mystery is to keep separate plots. One, what the investigator witnesses, and two, what's going on behind the scenes. And yes, that's essential, but it's not unique to mysteries. Most plots are going to have protagonists bedeviled by things they don't know.

So, for a solid entry level book on writing, Frey is providing a good foundation. If you're already an experienced writer eager to dip your toes into the mystery genre (or just include a mystery in your own genre tale), you'll be disappointed by the lack of depth (detail) particular to Mystery. However, that isn't unique to Frey's book. I've read numerous blogs on how to plot a murder mystery, and none of them were particularly useful.

I was very intimidated when I first decided to write mine. How to plot all the puzzle clues looked confusing. I had to develop my own method for plotting the mystery, which I think will work nicely, and if I'm right about that, I'll discuss it in detail in the appropriate forum, or a blog ... or maybe write my own how-to book. ;-)
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