Alright, so I've been studying this a lot recently and I want to break it down into chunks. I'll find the formula all over the place, breaking down what must be included in a mystery novel. However, some of these things have to be compounded into the same scenes. Some of them need to be included more than once. Some of them are subtext.
I'm pretty sure we're supposed to feel it out for ourselves, but I'm going to go ahead and give my hot take on the matter. So say we're following a recipe. These are the ingredients you need to get started, as told by yours truly.
Let me be up front: I'm writing Urban Fantasy and Cyber Noir and I started doing this after the first five Nim books were already written (yes, I said five, I managed to recover most of Far From 127.0.0.1 and am hoping to release it this year), so they aren't going to follow any of this noise.
But as far as future books go, I'm working with a blend of the formula for mystery, and the formula for romance / buddy cop stories. Why yes, they are the same thing with a different paint job. Why yes, Urban Fantasy does blur that line beautifully. But while romance / buddy cop leans mostly on the relationship between the two protagonists, mystery is very event based and so that is what I'm going to focus on. I'll break down the other later probably.
Oh and here's a note, if you're writing a series, you'll want to answer all of these questions for every book before you start. I didn't do this for Nim. That was a huge mistake. I've been getting back to my urban fantasy roots recently in what I'm reading and it's very obvious some of these authors did and to magnificent effect. /tangent
So! You are going to go to your ingredients store and you are going to pick up the following things!
0. The Sleuth: You aren't always going to have to recreate this character. Most of the time, if you're writing Urban Fantasy, you're doing serial fiction. This is what the genre expects. There are always exceptions but typically this kind of reader wants to get comfortable with one character's first person voice and oh boy, does that character have to be interesting. I could do an entire blog entry on making a sleuth and in fact, I think I will so we will pit a pin in this -inserts pin- for later.
1. A victim: You can't have a murder mystery without murder alright? And in most genres it has to be a murder. But that isn't the case in Urban Fantasy. Jim Butcher and Seanan McGuire have done some pretty amazing things without a body to investigate. Missing children, for instance. So no, there doesn't have to be a body but if you're doing noir, there does have to be a victim.
---Decide your crime: Was it a murder? Usually. A kidnapping? A theft? Blackmail? A sexual assault? Careful with that one, make sure to do your research and treat it with respect!
2. Whodunit: Who, you might ask? Not a suspect? Why yes, you should know, at this point, who committed the crime. The perpetrator and the victim should be created together. Remember the perpetrator should have something in common with the sleuth as well. Something. They don't have to be a direct foil.
--Why? What Motive? - It is so much easier to know this from the beginning friends, rather than try to shoehorn it in. You are going to want this character to be kind of subtle, too. You want your reader to have a chance to see them coming. But you don't want it to be obvious from a mile away. My personal rule is, if one of my five betas gets it, it was fair. If all of them do, it was too easy.
3. Suspects 1-5: Note, the who that done it might be one of these five. But they also might not. If your sleuth never suspects them your reader will be less likely to. the point is, you need 3-5 people with motives and means. Make one of them look guilty as sin. Make two of them look plausible but create reasonable doubt. Make two of them have viable alibis and very good reasons why it Was Not Them. Hint: Your reader knows it wasn't the one that looks guilty as sin. That would be too easy.
--Their Obvious Motives: What the sleuth knows from the beginning. The reason that puts them on the suspect list.
--Their Hidden Motives: Not all of them need these, but at least two should have them for the sleuth to discover later. I like to write down one for each and then pick the most compelling ones when I'm outlining properly.
4. Private Life Subplot(s): I have multiple listed on my ingredients list because I am blending this with the buddy cop formula. I have two sleuths in the series I'm outlining right now, ergo, two private life plots. This is useful to me, because I can contrast between them and use them as an extra vehicle to show the growth not only of each protagonist personally, but of their relationships to each other. These sub plots are their own mini-stories with their own beginnings, middles and ends. You can create their basics in a vacuum but try to find a way to tie at least one of them to the case indirectly. (You know the aha moment where the sleuth is coloring with their child and notices something about the drawing and it gives them this epiphany that they arrested the wrong man? Yeah, so do I)
5. Crime Complications: When I tried to explain this one to my husband he thought I meant clues. I do not mean clues. I mean the things that complicate the sleuth's investigation from the very beginning of the story. These are all introduced in Act 1 and typically clues come in Act 2. Things like "The victim was notorious on social media and his followers are sniffing around", or "The boss doesn't want the sleuth investigating this crime". I'll for sure be doing it's own blog entry for this one.
6. Clues: You'd think a mystery story would be all about so many of these, but the truth is I use three. A ton of evidence is easy to lose yourself in (see previous Nim books, oh if only I knew then what I know now) but three is enough to keep the plot moving without proving to be too much. Clues should point at multiple suspects. Clues should reveal something about the victim and their inner life. Everyone has secrets. The Sleuth is bound to stumble upon some of these during the investigation. Not all of them should be pretty. In fact, sometimes one of the clues should be true, and ugly, but point the sleuth in the wrong direction.
Alright friends, there is your shopping list. I have left you a template below and will go into farther detail about this later.
Oh right, and before I forget, Torchlighters is finished! It's currently in the hands of my beta readers and one of them has already gotten back to me with his notes. I'll be editing as of the 21st and as long as Ingramspark doesn't poop the bed, it will be out in February. More news incoming <3
Megan R. Miller
Blank Template For Ease of Use:
-Private Life Subplot Point 1A:
-Private Life Subplot Point 1B:
-Private Life Subplot Point 1C:
-Private Life Subplot Point 1D:
-Private Life Subplot Point 2A:
-Private Life Subplot Point 2B:
-Private Life Subplot Point 2C:
-Private Life Subplot Point 2D:
-Crime Complication 1:
-Crime Complication 2:
-Crime Complication 3: