Saturday, 23 July 2011

The Game's Afoot

Summertime - a great time to catch up on reading. Or writing. Not a great time for watching television.

Not that I watch a lot of that, of course. Who does? (wink wink) Still, there are new episodes of Murdoch Mystery to see and the new series of Sherlock on DVD to watch again. This week both have reminded me of the joy and challenge of a constructing a really good puzzle.

Unlike reality, a good mystery has to have all the pieces laid out for the reader - the true detective. While real cops have to muddle along with messy real crimes, a whodunit needs to present the clues - not in plain sight but not too obscured with extraneous information. Also unlike reality, not only does it have to make sense, it has to be engaging too. Not easy.

It wasn’t until I had to plot out the action plan for a climactic battle that I got a handle on how I could pull off a decent murder... mystery. In order to keep everyone straight, I had to make maps of the battle field, diagrams of the actions with “with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one” to quote Arlo Guthry’s Alice’s Restaurant.

The most useful part of the process, from a writing point of view, was the timeline. This told me who was fighting who, when, and why. I slotted the motivations and outcomes into a table, but the timeline kept everything straight.

It was the same principle as a detective’s evidence board. When I finally had a crime to commit (to paper), it was like a murder investigation in reverse. I started with all the facts, worked out some of the critical misdirections, then decided how the information would be revealed in the course of the story.

I was on the third draft of Under A Texas Star when I started using this method of organization. Though the murder investigation is the B plot of the story, I wanted it to stand up in court (the one where my readers are the jurors). I created a timeline, a table of suspects and list of clues that would lead to the murderer plus a few red herrings that would point to the other suspects. Marly and Jase’s detective work - separately and together - further the investigation, their character development and their relationship. I kept it all straight with my timeline...“with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one.”

It becomes a kind of game. The puzzle has to be challenging enough to be interesting, but not so complicated that you annoy your reader. Above all, the puzzle must further the story, not replace it.

When I plot out a mystery, the game’s afoot.

Of your favourite authors, who creates the best puzzle for you to solve?