How to Start Writing a Mystery Novel

Mystery cave

The hardest part of writing a mystery novel is starting.

I have a friend who dreads launching into the actual text of his book so much that he’s been writing ever more complete outlines for more than five years. The outlines might turn into some sort of complete narrative eventually, but I suspect it will be dragged down by the bullet-point boredom of a boardroom sales pitch. Knowing everything in advance is comforting but comfort is not what you should be looking for when you set forth on the adventure of a new novel.

The truth I’ve have been forced to face as I move beyond the fourth of my Henry Kennis mysteries is that even if you’re working on the fifth installment of a long-running series, packed with familiar locations and familial characters, each book makes its own rules and stubbornly refuses to tell you what they are. And it turns out that discovering them for yourself is the true process of writing the story.

Crossing the Cave

Still, it’s a nerve-wracking sensation, tip-toeing forward, stumbling blind through each scene as if you were moving across a pitch-black cave. You feel your way toward the next narrative step, hoping you won’t fall into a hidden crater or cut yourself on a stalactite. Assuming that if you can keep moving, a sliver of light or an opening in the cavern wall will eventually guide you up and out.

Even though it seems unlikely, the path appears over and over again in every book, and every chapter. Somehow you’ll find your way, but that doesn’t make the subterranean shuffle any easier. What are the other options, though? Sit down or go back. And neither one of them gets your book written.

Testing the Ice

Another image that informs the process of starting a book, is watching a pond freeze over. You want to cross the surface but you don’t want to fall in. How much do you really need to know about your story before that frost is firm enough to hold your weight? The answer differs for everyone. Ultimately you have to find your own, which inevitably results in a dunking or two, or at least an occasional shoe flooded with cold water and some hasty steps backward.

I need to know my ending. Who actually “did” it? I need at least a few of the false steps, and misdirection that will zap the straight path of criminal investigation into a satisfying zig-zag. Some of these require more thinking, or procrastinating on the shore, than others. Those days of mulling and pondering and testing the ice with a toe might not look very productive or creative from the outside, but we know better.

My second book  involved someone being framed for framing someone else, and that took an especially long time. Every piece of evidence had to work three ways, plausibly incriminating three different people. The first time I stepped out onto the pond on that one I saw the surface fracture into a web of cracks, and the dark water sloshing below. Time to retreat! But for how long?

Filling the box

That brings me to my final image: Empty boxes. This is the most comforting one, and the comfort is real. Each scene at the beginning of the book is like a big U-Haul box. All you really need to do is fold it together with the cardboard flaps woven over and under. After that you set it down roughly where you think it should be (the initial crime scene visit I’m working now clearly belongs at the beginning of the book), and start throwing in various items. The hard thing to remember is that you don’t have to fill it right away; you probably shouldn’t. You’re not shipping the box to someone important, it’s not going to an actual police property room with stringent chain of evidence requirements. It’s just your private box full of “story stuff.” If you think of more later or have to change things, it’s fine.

My generation of writers, who grew up banging on typewriters, retain a sort of white-out PTSD. It was much harder to rearrange things in those days when each letter was driven into woven cotton paper through a ribbon of ink by a stab of your finger and the gun shot catapult of a metal key. That stuff felt permanent! Changing things was messy and time consuming, as if you had to glue each item into each box, and then pry it loose with scrapers and solvents if you changed your mind.

Well, now it’s easy. A detail you think of after the first draft is finished can easily be flipped into that first box, or moved to another one. The story is endlessly flexible and that takes the pressure off. The early stages of putting the plot together become play instead of work, because you know in your bones exactly how things are going to turn out.

Spoiler alert: The pond always freezes over, and you’ll always get out of the cave.