Tuesday, October 11, 2011

It's a Mystery

I never set out to write a mystery.  I'm still trying to figure out how I ended up with one.  But one thing I'm sure of, mystery is a component of nearly every book, whether it's a book in the mystery genre or otherwise.  And that's basically how I got here.

In the beginning...

I was a fiction writer, sure, but mysteries require planning, and I was not a planner.  Nope.  I was a firm believer in the let the story grow organically school of writing, and writing a mystery sounded too much like actual work. So I figured mystery writing was probably not for me.

Then, through a series of fortunate events, I realized how wrong I was:

First, I wrote a paranormal romance called SILVER.  Not a mystery book, but when it was done, I realized that mystery played a huge role in the story.  Strange things happen to the protagonist and she's trying to figure out why.  The mystery builds over the first act, culminating in the protagonist's discovery of who and what she really is, and what that might mean for her future. It was fun to play with the tension that came from her not knowing, and then to increase the stakes as she made her discoveries.  Hmmm, maybe this mystery writing thing wasn't so bad.

Second, I tricked myself by calling my second book a thriller.  A thriller implies edge of your seat suspense and lots of action that drives the story forward.  That sounded doable, in a way that mystery writing did not.  I don't know why it sounded easier, but it did.  So okay, I could try a thriller.

Third, I had an idea for a story that lent itself to the mystery format: the story of a teenage girl who works for her father's private investigation firm, who gets in over her head when investigating the cause of her mother's death eight years earlier. The idea sprang from a memory I had of the summer before I started law school, when I worked part time for my own father's private investigation firm.  I recalled trying to look invisible as I crouched in the back seat of my car with a video camera and waited for a client's ex-spouse to emerge from the house with her latest boyfriend. You get some strange looks when skulking around neighborhoods with video cameras. 

That visual led right into a first chapter.  A teenage girl, Berry Fields, popped right into my head fully formed. She conducts a surveillance of  a cheating husband in a restaurant, but is interrupted by a cute guy who catches her spying...

That initial scene grabbed me and I started to ask a lot of questions.  Who was Berry spying on?  What was she trying to find out?  How did that impact her personally?  What was important to her?  As I searched for the answers to these questions, the story did grow organically, but I also knew I needed a plan.

Fourth, I outlined.  The outline was not terribly detailed, but it provided a road map from the beginning to the ending revelation of what happened to Berry's mom.  I knew the four main scenes leading up to that moment, and I knew I wanted the romance to tie into the Darcy and Elizabeth arc from Pride & Prejudice.  And SPIES & PREJUDICE was born.

In the middle...

Fifth, I wrote. Now that I had the basic plot elements and a story structure in mind, I sat down and wrote the book. The easy part, right?  Berry actually did appear on the page quite easily, complete with bitterness, fear, wit, pride and of course, prejudices.  Her voice poured out of me, and I finished a draft of the novel in a few months.  Good news! Or not.

Sixth, I rewrote. Turns out, I wasn't wrong about mystery writing being hard.  Too many things going on in the plot detracted from the tension.  Were all the elements there for the reader to see how it all fit together?  Was it too confusing? I also needed to decide what the story wanted to be.  A romance with a mystery element?  A mystery with a romance element?  A book about recovering from death or discovering love? Even at this stage, the book itself was a bit of mystery.

Seventh, I simplified.  I streamlined the multiple plot elements, eliminating secondary characters that didn't serve the main thread, and moving up a key revelation from the end to the halfway point in the book.  I was able to keep the main thrust of the mystery moving forward at a brisk pace, and focus more on the romance.

Now, having [almost] finished a mystery, I can pull back the curtain to find that the mystique of mystery writing is a facade.  It's writing.  And like all writing, it's hard.  But it's worth it when the pieces finally come together to form a well crafted story with escalating tension, and yes, even a few thrills.

In the end...
I write mystery, because I can't not.

Talia Vance is the author of the YA paranormal SILVER, coming from Flux in Fall 2012, and YA thriller SPIES & PREJUDICE, coming from Egmont in Spring 2013.

We are giving away a copy of COLD CASE autographed by Julia Platt Leonard! (Our Interrogation Room suspect interviewed 10/7/11). To enter the contest, simply comment on any of the Sleuths Spies and Alibis posts between Tuesday October 4 and Friday October 14. Contest closes October 14 at midnight, EST. The winner will be announced on Monday, October 17. One comment = one entry in our drawing; limit one per day. 


  1. Oh OH OH Pick me! I'm so excited about this give-a-way.

  2. Your process reminds me very much of mine, Talia. Thanks for this post.

  3. Spies & Prejudice - what a great title. Looking forward to 2013!

  4. I've been looking forward to this book, mainly b/c I love spies. Can't wait!


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