Deciding What to Include in a Mystery Story By Karen McCullough


I believe writing novels is half craft and half art. The craft part includes mastering using agfm_v2_200the language – grammar, word usage, sentence structure etc.  Plus an author has to understand the basics of effective storytelling, which covers a lot of ground. Knowing what a hook is and how to craft one, an acquaintance with basic plot structure, control of point of view – those are all skills that anyone can learn and an author must master.

The artistry of writing is harder to define and probably impossible to master. Even authors I consider very good, if not excellent, say that they’re always striving to do better with each book. There is no way you can ever say you’ve got it completely figured out and there’s nothing more to learn.

As authors, we work to convince the reader that our story is real, that it’s happening right now in a place they’re getting to see in their mind’s eye. The art of writing novel lies in crafting a story that will bring the vision that lurks in the author’s mind to life in a reader’s brain as well.

Beginning writers often mistakenly believe that describing everything in painstaking detail will create that vivid impression of their world. They will painstakingly list all the furnishings in a room to set a scene or supply every measurement of a character and enumerate each feature.

In fact, though, one or two well-chosen details usually work much better than long lists of them. If I tell you that the room has velvet drapes at the windows and flocked wallpaper, do I need to describe the carpet as well? We know it’s going to be plush because the other things already speak of wealth. And unless there’s something particular about the furniture, I don’t really need to describe it in detail either. A reader’s imagination will fill in the blanks.

Then there are the characters. I don’t tell everything I know about a character to the reader the first time we meet him. I may give a few physical details to help the reader form a picture. Height, hair color, eye color and build are the visual things most readers want to know about the people in the story. The truth is I treat meeting characters in a story the same way it works in real life. We see them first from the outside, and usually form and impressions based on gender, physical build, and other obvious characteristics.  But it’s in their conversation and actions that we get to know them more deeply.

Much of the artistic process lies in choosing which details you need to include in a story. The heart of a story is all about what you tell readers and when.

In a mystery, the story is all about introducing the players – the detective, the victim, the witnesses, suspects and other necessary individuals—setting up the crime, and then revealing information about what happened in small doses, spaced out appropriately through the story, until the solution is revealed. Because it’s plot-driven genre, there’s usually not much room for deep character development. And yet, readers love some mysteries and series more than others based almost solely on the main characters.

Because of tight word counts and plot focus most character development is woven into how the detective solves the mystery. Think of Nero Wolfe and the way he sends Archie Goodwin out to gather information because he refuses to leave home. Or Jack Reacher’s lone wolf tough-guy style. Or any of Agatha Christie’s odd assortment of detectives.

But all the lovely little bits that show the character have to be worked pretty deeply into the overall plot. The only time we get to see Nero Wolfe working with his orchids is when Archie goes to fill him in on some important information from the case. Hercule Poirot twirls his ‘moustaches’ while discussing the latest suspect.

In my own mystery novel, A Gift for Murder, the first in my Market Center Mysteries series, I worked in a lot of the detail of trade shows and how they operate when my heroine, Heather McNeil has to explain the job to a newcomer. And then I tried to work in a bit of atmosphere with each little bit of evidence I revealed. That’s been one of my guiding principles in writing – make sure that everything I include serves more than one purpose. Each clue to the mystery is part of the background of the show and helps make the setting more real. I try to be sure each interaction the character has also helps demonstrate character as well as advance either the main or a subplot.

A couple of scenes I included in the first draft did what I thought was an amazing job of showing some of the depths of the main character. One I especially liked was a small section where Heather stopped at a booth showing an assortment of paintings. A couple of them inspired some interesting musings on her approach to life and her work.

Unfortunately, as my editor pointed out, that was all they did. Those scenes didn’t advance the plot in any way, provided no clues to the mystery, and didn’t help establish the setting. She suggested cutting them and I did. When I self-published the book after rights reverted to me, I didn’t put them back, even though I’d like them.

Everything has to carry its share of the weight in a story by serving double duty. Those scenes didn’t and therefore they didn’t help to make the story more real for a reader. Out they went.

Karen McCullough is the author of a dozen published novels and novellas in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres as well. She has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy, and has also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Daphne, Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards contests. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the mystery, fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She has three children, six grandchildren (plus one on the way) and lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years.


Blog: http://www.kmccullough/kblog



A Gift for Murder Blurb:

The Home and Decorative Accessories Show makes for a long week for the Market Center staff, and particularly for Heather McNeil. As assistant to the director of Washington, D.C.’s, Market and Commerce center, she’s point person for complaining exhibitors, missing shipments and miscellaneous disasters. It’s a job she takes in stride—until murder crashes the event.

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8 thoughts on “Deciding What to Include in a Mystery Story By Karen McCullough

  1. an informative and interesting post. Best of luck to Karin McCullough in your book “A Gift for Murder” in the Market Center Mystery Series. It sounds like you have a busy life and lots of experience to make this a successful endeavor. I like your ideas about keeping the writing tight and making all things work double to make that possible. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Karen, I wrote a long welcome and response post this morning, posted it, and it seems WordPress has eaten it! Yikes.

    Welcome to MMO, Thank you for joining us. Because I am at work, here’s the Cliff Notes version of my response (which I hope shows up in real form). I so agree that writers should set a scene, locale, character in a few concise words. While we (ok I) write reams of notes and sometimes draw sketches of locations) that’s really information for the author and the reader does not need or want it.

    As a reader, I like having a few landmarks of set and character, then my imagination can take over. It’s the reason that we often don’t visualize the same person when books become movies. The reader has brought his/her own impressions to the characters.

    It’s interesting that you describe mysteries as plot driven not character driven. Looking forward to reading A Gift for Murder.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Really interesting post, Karen, and I think your points are spot-on. I do, however, believe mysteries CAN (in some instances) be at least partially character-driven. Of course you must have an interesting storyline that grabs the reader and keeps him hooked. But character, to me, is very important. The best example that comes to mind is Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer mysteries. As the series progresses, the astute reader comes to know and identify with what drives Lew Archer. Some books in the series border on literary, (in my humble opinion), while retaining the drama and drive to keep the reader flipping pages. Hmm, I suppose my point is that a running series gives the writer ample time to flesh out the main protagonist and recurring secondary characters.
    Thanks for joining us here at MMO, and you’ll always find the welcome mat out for your return! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “…. border on literary… while retaining the drama….” those are important. Why shut out the things literary as they introduce a kind of cross genre that could actually catch fire. Too much fun. Wonderful post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, MJ. I’m sure Karen recognized and agreed with where I was going with those statements. In a standalone mystery, the author might not have the convenience (due to page-length) to properly/completely flesh out the protagonist/secondary characters. With a series, those restrictions are basically eliminated IF the author has a grasp on his/her characterization. 🙂


  5. IF is a big little word. And we all do not have the luxury of it. Be it as you say. IF. Nice teaching. Don’t be so humble. We all benefit from your expertise and those in this group. It is after all a writers group and a workshop. It is f un to have the fun and instructive to have that from all points. You never know what instructive point will be a help. I got one today from here and also another place that got me unstuck from second book. Words of wisdom are not lost but saved. Thanks to all and I am enjoying this greatly.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. As soon as I finish this comment, I’m going to recommend this book to a former colleague of mine. We worked together at a national trade association — I set up educational sessions around the country; she set up the organization’s large annual conference every year (and still does). It’s a complicated, detail-driven job and things ALWAYS go wrong. The Market Center series sounds as though it focuses on the staff at a particular large venue, rather than the side we were on, but still…! It’s territory ripe for the picking — I often thought setting a book in such an atmosphere would be fun. Looking forward to reading it, Karen!

    Liked by 1 person

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