1.Start mid-scene and keep the story moving!
2.Sketch characters quickly and concisely and unpack their motives and complexities by action throughout the story.
3.Maintain suspense, do not reveal early. If there is sexual tension/possibility, defer, defer and defer the consummation.
4.Action drives the plot and reveals character.
5.No pontificating and explaining until the end when motive, means and opportunity are revealed.
6.No backgrounding and scene setting at the start.
7.Dialogue must be to the point, revealing either character or plot [or both].
8.We must want to keep reading and discover ‘what happens next’ = a good old page turner.
9.The ending is foreshadowed at the beginning and the story is a satisfying whole where it ‘all makes sense’.
10.We want to find out what happens, yet do not want the story to end.
Okay, on the one hand this adds nothing new to what I have been taught in the few creative writing workshops I have done in the last year. On the other hand, becoming aware of what was happening in me when reading a quality detective story and then making this list did give me a fresh insight and a template against which I can keep checking the progress of the fourth draft [total rewrite] of my mystery/romance set on the Camino.
On the other hand, as a former academic there is always an ‘on the other hand’ and always a caveat, how different would these insights have been in the mid-nineteenth century when there was not the same emphasis/obsession with ‘showing, not telling’ and when there was room to stretch out and take our time telling a story without an editor telling us to get on with it because readers get bored after sixty seconds [or is it less?] and won’t tolerate slabs of narrative or description.
More on this question in my next rant – oops, I mean my next post.
We await the police, too shocked to speak. One accident was bad, two deaths is beyond belief. Though we have no reason to suspect foul play, the police will deliver the body for a routine autopsy, we start to look at each other a little askance, a little fearfully.
What is going on in our little group?
Two dear companions dead.
Jenny vanished for two days.
Now Rod and Wally are leaving our shrinking group.
David scribbling notes under the pretence of writing a Gothic tale of the group.
Surely now the walk must be abondoned, if only out of respect, but no. Will insists that we must go on; the Company (unbelievably) has offered a big discount for our troubles (perhaps to keep our mouths shut and to avoid bad publicity?) and anyway, perhaps Ralph and Maggie would have wanted us to struggle on? Maybe we are simply too stunned to resist? It is agreed and off we trudge.
Where once we were 12, now we are 7 on a long walk to Keld through squelchy moors. The wind is brisk as we climb up past the Nine Guardians and onwards across the lonely moors, half expecting to see the tormented spirits of Cathy and Heathcliff wandering before us, this being the heartland of their tragic love and the perfect setting for our own horrors.
Will is looking more harassed each day as once more we plod into a village to find the cafe promised to be open and once more shut for some unknown reason: are we cursed that we can never find a place open for lunch? No matter what day of the week or what village we stumble into, all is closed for that particular day. What tricks is England playing on us?
At dinner that night, lightning flickering and thunder threatening outside our solitary inn, Jeri is persuaded to try that fine old English dessert, namely, sticky toffee pudding. She has one mouthful, a second and falls to the ground clutching at her throat, gasping for breath, her face white. She is dying before our very eyes! An ambulance is called, Will springs into action and miraculously she is kept alive until she is taken to hospital in a swirl of siren. And then silence.
This can be no accident. We cannot deny it any longer. There is a killer at large and that person must be one of us! The hotel is sealed off under police orders and we are told to stay in our rooms and await the big guns being called in from Manchester. We scurry to our rooms, all of us placed in singles now, and lock our doors. Each of us lies awake as the storm rages and each one of us ponders ‘who is the killer?’ and ‘will I be next?’ as we listen for the sound of our door being opened in the night and the flash of a blade or –
To be continued …
What seems hours later, there is a window in the weather and the rescue helicopter arrives and poor Ralph’s body is whisked away. We try to console Maggie as we wind our way down to Shap. Nobody eats or sleeps that night and our petty grievances are lost in grief for our poor companion. What a dreadful accident.
At breakfast the next day, Maggie declares that we must go on, that Ralph would want us to continue and to fulfil his dream of completing the Coast to Coast. Afterwards she will return and collect his body, take him back to the USA and have his ashes scattered over the Grand Canyon. We agree to push on; it is a joyless day of hiking despite the glorious sunshine and the pleasures of slogging through boggy pasture after boggy pasture and stepping carefully between great piles of cow and sheep manure. Stile after stile do we clamber over.
The group is losing its identity: Bruce and David are no longer speaking; Denise the gazelle walks solitary far ahead of the herd; Jean has let slip that once she was in army intelligence and now refuses to say more; Mel complains that at breakfast they gave her activated almond milk instead of soya; Rod appears out of nowhere, walks with us for a time and disappears again with a bizarre story that he and Wally are going to see a Shakespeare play and Jeri tries to explain differential calculus to the stragglers.
At dinner that night Maggie wonders how Ralph could have fallen. She knows it must have been an accident and yet it seems so improbable: Ralph was an adventurer, a mountaineer and trekker who had even lived in the wilds of outback Australia. She knows it was a horrible accident in dreadful weather and yes, he was a risk taker bounding from boulder to boulder and yet – so she will go to the police tomorrow in Kirkby Stephen and get them to double check re the possibility of foul play. ‘It is silly, I know, but I will rest easier’.
The next day there is no Maggie or Jenny at breakfast. Jenny has complained of a sore foot and disappeared for the weekend to find a doctor; a tad strange, but we shrug and accept. Maggie, the poor thing, must be overwhelmed with grief. It comes time to leave and still no sign so Will knocks on her door; no answer, they force the door open and – oh no! – there lies sweet Maggie stone cold dead! She has died in bed of a broken heart. Romantic, of course, very Juliet or Lady of Shalott and we stand dumbstruck that this can happen still in our post modern world.
What on earth is happening in our little world?
To be continued …
It was a dark and stormy night when first our little group met in Saint Bees – actually it was not; it was a mild and pleasant evening when we gathered for dinner, met our guide Will and introduced ourselves. There were 12 of us from across the globe: one couple, two good friends travelling together and an array of singletons. With one eye on the World Cup final being played that night, we chatted and inspected each other. Was a future soul mate present? Or someone who would become a true friend long after our 13 day hike had ended? Someone to whom we had taken an immediate dislike? Our ruggedly handsome leader outlined what we could expect in the coming days and we toddled off to bed ready for our big adventure.
If only we had taken more seriously the ominous local newspaper headline so evocative of the film The Birds (attached image)!
The first 2 days passed pleasantly in weather fair and foul, yet already cliques were forming and tensions rising beneath our middle class politeness. Bruce complained that his roommate David expected tea and biscuits in bed every morning. Jean and Ralph had a heated argument on whether the lesser spotted Caledonian wood warbler was the same as the Antipodean speckled pond splasher and dark looks were exchanged. Will had been seen wandering at night tearing at his hair and muttering to himself. Could Maggie really be so sweet? Seriously? What were Rod and Wally whispering about? Jeri and Denise complained and brooded over why they were exiled from the group to different accommodation every night. All of us groaned each time Will encouraged us with ‘it is just around the corner, about 200 metres, well no more than 400, certainly less than 600 and definitely not a km’.
And Matilda observed and said nothing (name changed to protect the innocent).
It was on the third day that disaster struck! The weather turned wild as we neared the summit, the wind howling from the very depths of hell and the wind lashing our faces as we clung to the narrow path and slithered and slid our precarious way forward. Will shouted that ‘it will be better just over the hill’ and we pushed on. Then a scream of terror! One of us has fallen! Can they have survived falling onto the rocks far below? Will calls Mountain Rescue on his emergency beacon and we hear Maggie’s heart rending sobs. It is her beloved Ralph who has plunged into the darkness. We call to him, no reply. We huddle and wait, shocked and scared as the rain chills us to our very bones.
To be continued …
I have just completed the iconic Coast to Coast walk across England, starting at the Irish Sea and ending 13 days later at the North Sea after crossing the hills of the Lakes District, the Yorkshire Dales and the North Yorkshire moors. I walked with a guided group, a change from my usual solitary expeditions, and was very pleased with that decision as it was a lovely little group led by an excellent guide.
Walking one day with my thoughts drifting to writing as is often the way, it occurred to me that a walking group would make a perfect setting for a traditional style murder mystery in which the drama unfolds in a closed community with a defined group of characters – an isolated manor house, an island or a monastery and so on.
Lost in my reverie, I decide to use the next ten days to write a murder mystery based on the group with whom I was walking; some would live, some would die, one would be a murderer and many would have dark secrets revealed. Just for fun.
I checked with the group and all were happy for me to do this; indeed, my writing the little story became an object of conversation each night as people tried to guess/learn what was happening and what was their individual fate! I read the story to the group on our last evening and received permission to put an expanded version on my blog and to use people’s names, except one or two cases where individuals preferred me to use fictional names.
So let the story of love and death, of secrets and raw human emotion begin in the coming days, one episode at a time…