Another Journey to the Next Mystery

If there is such a thing as writer’s block, that may be what I’m going through now. My next book, Return to Umbria, is being copy edited as you read this, and is scheduled for November publication. It will be the 4th Rick Montoya Italian Mystery. So my thoughts now turn to the next book in the series. Readers of this blog are interested in the process, so I thought I’d describe my sequence of tasks for what I hope will become number five. Every author has his or her own routine when starting a new project, this is mine.

First I must decide where protagonist Rick Montoya will go this time. In each of the previous books he finds himself in some charming Italian locale, and this one will be the same. I’ve decided at this point to send Rick to one of my favorite towns in northern Italy, Mantova, or if you will, Mantua. It checks all the boxes for a good mystery. To begin with, it’s an innately mysterious place, dominated in winter by Lombard fog which rolls in off the lake and weaves its way through narrow stone streets and alleys. So it will definitely be set in winter. Mantova has some fascinating history which adds to the atmosphere: the birthplace of Virgil, the duchy of the Gonzaga family, and the workplace of some of the great artists of the time like Rubens and Mantegna. It also has some of the best food in Italy, and that’s saying a lot. So Mantova it is.

Mantova, Piazza Sordello, notturno.  Photo by Massimo Telo'  from Wikimedia Commons
Mantova, Piazza Sordello, notturno. Photo by Massimo Telo’ from Wikimedia Commons

Second, I must come up with some good characters for Rick to interact with. Right now I have an elderly and wealthy American who is returning to his roots in Italy, needs an interpreter and guide to do so, and is willing to pay top Euro to Rick for his services. He is accompanied by a female special assistant who looks after every detail. There will be some Italian relatives who will be involved in something shady, still to be decided. Also still to be worked out is what kind of personalities the American and his assistant will have. Is he grouchy, demanding, and a pain in the butt, or gregarious and fun to be around? Will she be aloof and see Rick as an underling or perhaps interested in Rick for more than his bilingual skills? There are other combinations and permutations, of course, but that can come with writing. Often characters reveal their personalities after they first appear on the page.

Next, decide on a good murder and work up a first scene portraying it. At this point I’m leaning toward discovering the body rather than witnessing the murder itself, since that leaves more possibilities for suspects, but I may change. The first scene is, as we all know, the most important in the book, so I have to get it right. Grab the reader by the throat, and all. That first scene should evoke all the mystery of the place, so maybe we’ll find the body floating in the river below the castle, with fog wafting over the water. Or it could be found in a warehouse under a pile of aging parmigiano reggiano wheels, with the heavy cheese smell hanging in the air. So I’m still thinking about that one. But who will be the victim? For sure an Italian relative of the rich guy, but that’s all I’ve got at this point. This decision on victim is connected directly to the next issue, so it’s really a toss-up as to which comes first.

That issue is the knotty one, deciding the motive for the murder and the actual perpetrator. I’m wrestling with that now, knowing that it is the key to the whole book. Motives are often taken from the usual list: jealousy, money, revenge, passion, avoiding prosecution, stopping blackmail, or a combination. It would be nice to come up with something unique, but I’m not sure it’s possible or necessary. Once I figure this out I’ll work on a few subplots, often inserted to distract from the main crime but possibly connected to it. They often create themselves.

Then, since I’m obviously not a pantser, I’ll work up a plot summary, and start a sequential list of scenes, just a couple sentences each. With all that done, I’ll start writing. Nothing to it . . . as long as I get these first decisions right.


David P. Wagner, a retired foreign service officer, is the author of the Rick Montoya Italian Mystery series.  His website is