As an historical romance novelist, my pages are filled with angst, longing, yearning, the promise and hope of love, and the absoluteness of happily ever after. As a first time murder mystery writer -- there's none of that.
First and foremost, I thought writing a murder mystery would be semi-easy. I wouldn't have to do much research on word choices, I could use contractions, I pretty much grew up where the novels are set, and I have a couple of yearbooks where I could pick my character's names from. The plot lines were supposed to be fun -- I had killed a half dozen people in my head over the course of my lifetime. Bad bosses, a couple of frenemies, not to mention nasty ex-boyfriends. How hard could it be?
*cue the laughter*
Research Is Killing Me
Killing people takes guts. It also means you have to know about guts, and physiology, biology, science, chemistry. You need to know where bullets holes go in and out, what happens when a particular body part gets hit by a bullet, the difference between the sizes of bullets to make bigger or smaller holes, and how long it will take to recuperate from said bullet wound. And that's just for starters.
Do we want to talk about poison? Chemical reactions? Deterioration of evidence? Chemical compounds? Knife wounds vs. bullet wounds? Yeah, I didn't think so.
To put it simply, you can't just write whatever you want. People will laugh. Especially people who actually protect this country from bad guys for a living. And I hate being laughed at. So research it is. I'm finding I research when I need to know, not before. Also, what you think is simple common sense, isn't.
For instance, my MC has a gun. The gun has a magazine for the bullets. In researching, I found out that most police officers don't call it a gun, they call it a weapon. They don't have bullets, they have rounds. They don't have magazines, they have clips. (Or vice versa, I forget.) They also don't call cars, cars, they're called vehicles. They also don't generally say "10-4" anymore. Real life isn't Adam 12. (How many of you remember that show?)
Research takes time, and for anyone who wants to write (anything), if you're not going to do the research, don't write the book. (This statement also applies to the blog post I wrote last week. Thanks to VR Barkowski for reminding me.)
Writing About Murder is NOT for Sissies
The first book (novella) I wrote, was this crazy idea I had one day because the characters in my head would not shut up. I said, "Okay, if I get this out, will you please leave me alone?" They all agreed and so I wrote it from start to finish in 17 days. It was a rush, and I felt proud that I did that quickly. (Not exactly a sucky first draft, but after two critique partners read it, I know what's it's missing and where it needs to go.)
The characters begged me to write another story. I figured, hey why not. I can blast out another one. It's summertime after all. I'm on vacation. However, this story was different. The plot was about a cold case murder that had been languishing in the police department for forty years. My MC finally gets a break in the case and he learns pretty much what happened the night of the murder. Suffice it to say, it was not pretty. What the murderers did to this poor girl had me depressed for DAYS. And she is only a character.
I was absolutely distraught because, well, I knew what happened to her long before anyone else did. The problem was, now I had to get it down on paper (laptop). Writing that scene was probably the hardest thing I've ever had to write. In the first book, the murder had already taken place and I only shared the details sparingly throughout. In this book I had no choice but to make the murder scene/sequence as real as I could get it. Yikes.
This book is not going to end with a happy ending or even a clear resolution to the murder. I'm dreading that scene as well, but it will have to be written. Police work does not always bring the bad guys to justice. And that's hard for a writer who's used to writing happily ever afters.
Slitting My Own Throat
Overwriting is the bane of my existence. I want these stories to be tight, well-worded scenes that flow from one chapter to the next. I want the writing to be hard and fast, in your face because that's how I want to write it. That's not the case. I'm finding I'm heavy with dialogue, explaining everything twice (because one character knows something that another character doesn't). And because I'm a pantster I don't follow an outline. Editing is going to be a nightmare because it's all about the clues -- who knows what when. I want to make sure it's all in there. I don't want people to say the story dragged or that they missed something because I inadvertently cut it out.
I also want my characters to sound realistic. One of my biggest challenges is that most cops, most real people of my acquaintance swear. I don't want to offend my readers, not that these books are rife with F-bombs, but peppered with shit, hell, damn it, son-of-a-bitch, bastard, and asshole. In this day and age, are those considered swears? I hear them on tv all the time. And I don't even get HBO. I hear them in the grocery store. I hear them at the gas station. I use them myself. If my hero gets shot, he's not going to say, "Oh, drat." He's not even going to say, "Damn it!" He's going to use strong language. Right now, I'm leaving everything in. And yes, I've read detective/mystery/thrillers in which no offensive language is used. Amazed and shocked was I that it could be done. But that's not me. It's not my voice. However, when I go through edits, I'm sure most of them will go. It's a fine line between realistic and offensive.
The Kiss of Death
In writing this series of books, (what was I thinking writing a series!) my MC the detective has a deceased wife. She's been gone five years, and only now, since he's met the psychic does he think about women again. He doesn't want to become involved because he thinks he's not good enough. He's a small town detective, she's a once-famous celebrity. He also doesn't think he's ready to let go of his deceased wife. Love, and all its complications, must play a role in these books. Why, you may ask? Because love is the glue that holds people together, whether they're together or not.
I also have several other characters who are in the midst of breaking up or trying to stay together. Why am I sub-plotting all this craziness? Why drag the romance into murder mystery? Because most murders are considered to be crimes of passion. (more research). Passion is the element that lies underneath love and hate. It's all very psychological bouncing passionate murders against passionate lovers and I don't quite understand it all, but I like the idea of it, and well, it's my series, and I'm writing it that way.
Killing My Darlings
Why am I doing this? I'm supposed to be writing another historical series, not messing around with murder. I'm also supposed to be finishing up a contemporary romance I've had kicking around for years. (That I totally promised myself I would do at the beginning of the summer.) Why am I killing myself trying to write books in days rather than months?
Because it's fun.
Writing the historical romance series was fun in the beginning. I had no idea what I was doing. I was just writing, writing, writing, books that I wanted to read because I couldn't find any historical romances that were like Jane Austen's. (I'm sorry, I just don't like Georgette Heyer.)
Writing this detective series is fun for me. I get to challenge myself mentally (research), spiritually (good vs. evil), emotionally (love, hate, death, life), and physically (10-12 hours days because I just can't stop writing). I also have no idea what I'm doing, and so far, I've only let two people read it, so there are no reviews to cry over. (Remember the Kryptonite from last week?)
I also think it's fun because I'm exploring contemporary characters, which I haven't done in almost ten years. I don't have to think about social mores, or social classes, about a society that only exists in history books. I'm right there, in the middle of someone's life, someone I might know (if he actually existed). I'm diving into the depths of what it means to be human, what makes someone who they are, in the here and now, good, bad, and everything in between. I don't have the strict rules of writing historical fiction to get in my way.
So, that's what I've learned. So far.
Tell me -- What genre do you get the most fun out of writing? Do you like the challenge of writing something different or do you stick with what makes you comfortable? Do you have any tips for writing murder mysteries?
Anne Gallagher (c) 2015