Off Center has been completed. The first part of this challenge is done. But the first part is only the first part. It’s easy to do something once. As any first-time Oscar winner will tell you, the pressure hits immediately: can you do it again or were you a one-hit wonder?
I’m already developing the plot of The Eisenhower Murder. Can I be witty, engaging, and entertaining a second time? Can I develop these characters a little more while keeping the story believable enough to be entertaining? Can I set up a murder and keep the reader guessing until I do The Big Reveal?
This is the basic essence of the writer’s craft—keeping your reader engaged. However, this basic story formula (character + action + complication + resolution) takes on a new level of difficulty in the murder mystery.
You see, the problem is that one of the most important characters in the story is, well, dead.
That’s why it’s called a murder mystery.
The murder victim is as important as any other character, but they can only be developed through witnesses, diaries, recollections, etc. Your reader will have no direct interaction with the victim. The mere fact of being murdered makes the victim interesting by default, but this can only carry you so far. You have to ensure the audience invests enough emotional energy in the victim to want them avenged, or else the story is pointless. The murder writer has to ensure a corpse is exceptionally interesting.
I don’t know about you, but every stiff I’ve dealt with as been a real conversation killer. They are just not the life of the party.
The next challenge is actually solving the murder! The writer has to work it out almost as if they are a detective solving a real-life case. It’s easy to come up with a starting point: “Master Chief Petty Officer found shot through the head in apparent suicide with his wife’s gun” or “Sailor has heavy hatch dropped on head aboard an aircraft carrier.” Great! Then what?
Writers often tell you the story often writes itself. To a degree this is true. You are writing a murder mystery that was set up to look like a suicide. You know the master chief’s yeoman is the culprit…until two obscure lines of dialogue, one by the widow and one by the son, suddenly pull back the curtain and you (the writer) realize the yeoman was acting with someone. But who and why and how?
One of those careless lines of dialogue by the widow reveals a husband not at home much. So…an affair between the wife and yeoman and a panicked mindset when the illicit lovers think they are about to be caught. A toss-away comment by the son hits you (the writer) by making you realize how the yeoman got into the house to get the gun: the wife left the back door open for him, taking advantage of a surprise visit by the son to set the murderous plot in motion. The yeoman gets the gun and makes it seem the master chief shot himself with his wife’s weapon. The story itself reveals the whole sordid affair to you (pardon the pun).
After all this, the writer must then competently deal with the aspects of a murder mystery everyone thinks of: misdirection, characters, and plausibility.
Misdirection is critical. You must get your audience looking left with logical clues and definitive motives or else stonewall them with apparent dead ends…and then hit them over the head from the right with the kitchen sink. The most likely suspect has motive…but absolutely no opportunity. The two unlikely suspects have no motive or opportunity…at least until a small detail in a photograph undermines the killers’ story.
The characters and their mannerisms are important to creating believably real people. My “good friend” friend Isaac Shepherd is, to anyone who knows me, very obviously my personal ambassador to this world. However, no one else is truly modeled on any one person (with one exception you have not yet met and may not meet if I can’t logically work him into a future plot). Agatha Christie remarked once that she often got inspiration for characters and victims from strangers she observed around her in England. My characters do reflect characteristics of people I’ve encountered simply because the people I’ve encountered in my life are the “library” of human experience I have to draw from.
Engaging NCIS through the character of Abraham Gray gives Isaac Shepherd has a believable on-ramp to get into the story. Gray’s position as a law enforcement officer allows him to summarize things without me explaining them in detail. Hearing him say the murderer killed a guard and escaped a Navy brig frees me from having to show how it was done when such a feat is, while possible, highly improbable. Gray’s character possesses an inherent credibility that allows the reader to accept what happened at face value.
Readers who have been to the Virginia Tidewater area will recognize much…but there is no “Navy Expeditionary Public Affairs Command (NEPAC),” or “Laughing Gull.” This duality gives me the credibility of writing a place I know well but using fictional locations to provide the literary freedom of movement I need.
Storytelling is stage magic on paper; a writer is an illusionist with a pen instead of a wand.
The story will ultimately succeed if it is fun, believable, engaging, and emotionally connects the reader to the characters. If it meets these criteria, then it has achieved its goal of providing entertainment.
A murder mystery also affords the writer the singularly odd satisfaction of telling a crowded room “I’ve just killed my next victim” without actually being arrested!
The Eisenhower Murder will be coming soon. I have already killed my next victim. Now I just need to solve it so I can tell you the story.