The Mystery of Writing Mysteries—
Or Why Would an Author Kill Her Characters?
Saint Cuthbert made me do it.
I started out as a romance writer. I wrote wonderful, dreamy stories, historical or contemporary, set in lush locations that I loved researching and then living in in my mind. (Settings have always been one of the most important story elements to me.) I published several books and even won a few awards. Then one day I realized I couldn’t read another romance.
If you can’t read them, you can’t write them. So I concentrated on my lifetime love of English history and wrote a number of historical novels, including my Arthurian epic Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England, still my best-known work.
Then I met Saint Cuthbert. Not in any mystical sense, but the way I meet most of my characters: researching another project. At Durham Cathedral I heard the story of this soldier-turned-monk who transformed the north of England by his holiness. I knew I wanted to tell his story. But what could I do with a character whose claim to fame was his sanctity?
My greatest challenge in writing had always been plotting. My family knew my struggles so well that when my writing flagged, my young daughter would say, “Mama, you don’t have enough conflict.” I seldom did. I had once mentioned my struggle to an editor who advised, “You need to read thrillers.” He promptly sent me a box of mystery novels he edited. I was hooked.
My love of history took me back to the Golden Age. I devoured Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham and, of course, Agatha Christie. I saw that mystery writing incorporated not only the rich backgrounds and alive characters that I loved, but also kept me involved with that all-important strong story question that must be developed early in the story and solved at the end.
That was it—what I needed for Saint Cuthbert was a story question strong enough to keep the pages turning. I needed to involve my reader with strong characters in interesting settings so they would care enough about what was happening to be willing to read about an ancient saint whose beliefs are still valid for our day and can transform our world as they did his own.
The Monastery Murders were born. I had understood the story question idea from the early days of my writing—I had some great teachers, especially Lee Roddy. But I had never applied the story question principle with blood before. Let’s face it—nothing keeps the pages turning like a dead body.
In this third permutation of my writing career I author three mystery series: The Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime mysteries; The Elizabeth and Richard Literary Suspense series; and The Monastery Murders. In each of these I try to develop the rich backgrounds, vital characters and historical elements that have always driven my writing, but now I also concentrate on keeping the story question moving forward to what I hope will be a satisfyingly surprising conclusion.
Once I plant my story question—which may or may not be an explicit query followed by a question mark, but must raise a question in the reader’s mind—I then develop my chapters by focusing on small elements of the over-arching question. A clue or red herring leads my sleuths (in my books, all amateurs) to explorations, evaluations and then a new question to be explored in the next chapter. This is a mystery-writing application of the classic scene and sequel structure which I discovered many years ago in the classic Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain. I highly recommend it—there’s nothing better for understanding the bones of fiction writing.
This question and answer method, which I first applied to A Very Private Grave, Saint Cuthbert’s story, has carried me through the writing of fourteen more mystery novels. I’ve never been bored for a minute—and I hope my readers haven’t either.
Donna Fletcher Crow is passionate about English history and loves telling the stories of the men and women who have shaped the world we live in. She is the author of some 50 books--all available on her website along with pictures from her research trips--something else she is passionate about. Her newest release is A Lethal Spectre, Lord Danvers Investigates