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.

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Writing

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How to Write a Mystery

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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.

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