How to Write a Mystery: finding your voice

How to Write a Mystery: finding your voice

The china figure of Peter Rabbit in my own collection, along with some the many neighbors he’s gained over the years. Photograph by Margaret H. Laing

One of my favorite memories of growing up was finding a manuscript — specifically, seeing the manuscript of “Peter Rabbit” by Beatrix Potter. Now, of course that’s not a detective story, but it did involve finding the voice, the way to tell the story.

Beatrix Potter didn’t know what to write to a young friend, she admitted in a letter, so she started to tell him a story about four rabbits: Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-Tail, and Peter.

The rest is history.

I keep a figure of Peter (as shown in the accompanying photo) in sight near my desk to remind me of that letter-turned-manuscript. Sometimes, my writing is a diary entry about something I didn’t get written — until there I am at bedtime, writing it. Sometimes, instead of writing my mystery (or trying to sell the one I’ve finished), I wind up writing blog posts about good advice I’ve read.

Or sometimes I write in my diary that something’s going to be a great blog post some day — and the month goes by with only one published post. (Sorry.)

I’ve written before (here) about the essay in the Mystery Writers of America book “How to Write a Mystery” about the essay on “finding your voice” as a writer. Lyndsay Faye points out that “Authorial Voice” is how you sound, while Character Voice “is the way your imaginary friends sound.”

I have a new instance this week. Something happened that brought back bad memories, and I thought, “It’s a rerun!” (Well, other thoughts, too, but the word “rerun” stuck out.)

I made the bad rerun easier to handle when I thought of giving it to Daisy. She’s one of my imaginary friends, er, characters — and I’m writing her second mystery. (I finished the first in July 2020 and started the second in September of that year.) Daisy MacDonald is a college student in 1983 — and the second book is happening in summer school.

I’ve been researching how the murder will happen and trying to figure out just why Name Withheld, the villain, will do it. But while that’s stalled, I wanted to write something more and figure out what Daisy would do when news of the murder gets out.

When I thought of the word “rerun,” I knew it was the way for me to go on with Daisy. In those days of broadcast TV, not cable, and videotape only in TV production courses, reruns were the way to catch up on what we’d missed of favorite shows.

This single word fits what Faye calls Specificity — knowing Daisy’s use of the word gives her “a voice without a backstory,” Faye puts it. I won’t have to explain Daisy’s favorite programs or her impatience once she’s seen less-favored things already. Also, it’s a word that a less-involved new friend can use to tell her that she’s been through an investigation before (in the previous book), and can handle it again.

I’ll be looking at my own writing — my 1983 diary — to check for campus events, names, and favorite words from that summer. But I won’t worry about having to make everything read like 1983 does. Daisy is telling the story in the present, remembering ’83, so her voice in the new century can vary from her student voice.

Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose writing influenced Lyndsay Faye at least as much as it does mine, didn’t sound all that “old-fashioned” in every sentence of his Victorian and Edwardian stories. As Faye points out, here’s a sentence from “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton,” with Sherlock Holmes speaking:

” ‘I’ll be back some time, Watson,’ said he, and vanished into the night.”

I’ll be back sooner next time myself.

Filed under:

How to Write a Mystery


Welcome to ChicagoNow.

our bloggers,

post comments, or

pitch your blog idea.

Meet The Blogger

Margaret H. Laing

I moved to Chicago from the south suburbs in 1986. I have diverse interests, but I love writing about what I’m interested in. Whether it’s a personal interest or part of my career, the correct words to get the idea across are important to me. I love words and languages — French and Scottish words enrich my American English. My career has included years as a journalist and years working in museums, and the two phases were united by telling stories. I’m serious about words and stories. So here I am, ready to tell stories about words and their languages.

Subscribe by Email

Completely spam free, opt out any time.

Monthly Archives

May 2022
April 2022
March 2022
February 2022
January 2022
December 2021
November 2021
October 2021
September 2021
August 2021
July 2021
June 2021
May 2021
April 2021
March 2021
February 2021
January 2021
December 2020
November 2020
October 2020
September 2020
August 2020
July 2020
June 2020
May 2020
April 2020
March 2020
February 2020
January 2020
December 2019
November 2019
October 2019
September 2019
August 2019
July 2019
June 2019
May 2019
April 2019
March 2019
February 2019
January 2019
December 2018
November 2018
October 2018
September 2018
August 2018
July 2018
June 2018
May 2018
April 2018
March 2018
February 2018
January 2018
December 2017
November 2017
October 2017
September 2017
August 2017
July 2017
June 2017
May 2017
April 2017
March 2017
February 2017
January 2017
December 2016
November 2016
October 2016
September 2016
August 2016
July 2016
June 2016
May 2016
April 2016
March 2016
February 2016
January 2016
December 2015
November 2015
October 2015
September 2015
August 2015
July 2015
June 2015
May 2015
April 2015
March 2015
February 2015
January 2015
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
July 2014

Read these ChicagoNow blogs

Cubs Den

Chicago Cubs news and comprehensive blog, featuring old school baseball writing combined with the latest statistical trends

Pets in need of homes

Pets available for adoption in the Chicago area


It’s like the couch potato version of Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

About ChicagoNow



Recent posts RSS

Privacy policy (Updated)

Comment policy

Terms of service

Chicago Tribune Archives

Do not sell my personal info

©2022 CTMG – A Chicago Tribune website –
Crafted by the News Apps team

Read More

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.