How to Write a Mystery (or Anything) with Style

How to Write a Mystery (or Anything) with Style


When you’re new to writing, you may think of “writing style” as something you see on the fashion pages or web sites. But style, when it comes to writing, is a way of using words. As a writer, you develop your own voice — and whether you’re writing about fictional characters or non-fictional ones, you want them to “sound real,” to have their own voices on the page or screen.

Style is the subject of a long essay in the Mystery Writers of America’s book “How to Write a Mystery,” which I’ve featured in previous posts. In the essay “On Style: The writer’s voice, or, cooking with cadence, rhythm, and audacity,” Lyndsay Faye compares writing mysteries to cooking donuts; describes “Authorial Voice versus Character Voice”; and covers pastiche and “the sincerest form of flattery.” In the last section, she mentions her own credentials as a writer, beginning with a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and shows difference in style with two different quotations from the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (Of course, I recognized both.)

But Faye also covers writing style in “On Music, Rhythm and Humor” and, at the end, “How to Read.” Partly to avoid the temptation to spend more time with Sir Arthur (again), I’ll be contrary and tell you about “How to Read,” and do it by quoting some of the early part of the essay, then look ahead.

In the first section, “Why Style?,” Faye asks, “Aren’t the simple mechanics of clues and deductions paramount? Why dither around with style when a mystery novel depends on plot twists? Isn’t that like asking whether any one airport donut tastes significantly different from another airport donut?”

Then she compares taking a “hapless airport noob” and putting him in first a kitchen, then an office, and trying to get him to make first a donut, then a mystery novel. “He’ll have about the same amount of luck,” she says. “We know that there are myriad doughnut flavors — and as many styles in the mystery genre as there are mystery authors writing them.

You may feel free, ChicagoNow reader, to extend that to as many styles on ChicagoNow as there are those of us who write them.

In “How to Read,” Faye assumes that we love to do it. “I’m going to further assume that what you read influences what you write, if only subconsciously,” she adds. In counseling us (myself included) to pay attention to style, she writes, “Style isn’t some ineffable quality possessed only by the brilliant. It’s a learned skill that will eventually mold itself to fit the shape of you.”

In my own style, I’ll add that I pay attention to the styles I love in Sustaining Books, but I also pay attention to new authors I find through a reading group on Facebook or through books passed along by friends. If I don’t like the style — if characters are so shakily written or so incomplete that I catch myself thinking of them as bad influences — I’ve finished the book right there.

There’s more to the essay, even including quotations from authors other than Sir Arthur, but giving you eyestrain isn’t my style. Making you wait for another post sometimes needs to be my style… and here it is.

Have a donut while you wait.

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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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