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What makes reading a good mystery so satisfying? A writer’s hard work. A complex story à la Gone Girl doesn’t just pop out of a writer’s brain fully formed on a random Tuesday. Giving readers what they crave is about structure and pacing and, ultimately, originality. In 2019, it’s also about writing characters with more depth than your archetypal male dick motivated by some dead girl who maybe, if she’s lucky, gets to have a name.
To learn more about the elements of great mystery architecture, Vulture asked eight masters of the form to anatomize their thinking, from the most conceptual level down to the technical details. None of their tips or habits are compulsory, and some even contradict one another, but together they represent craft perfected to the level of art. (Spoiler: Literal crafts are sometimes involved.)
“When I wrote my first novel, I was just writing it for me,” says Alex Michaelides, whose debut, The Silent Patient came out in February. “Now, for my second novel, I have an agent and a really good editor. I’d be lying if I said they weren’t in my head. I think a lot about Would they like this? What would they think about this?, but it’s not helpful to focus on that stuff. You have to try and forget about it and just focus on the story.”
“The stories we write should give the victims in the work real standing,” says Laura Lippman, the best-selling author whose latest is The Lady in the Lake. “The biggest trap for a crime novelist to fall into is that the murders themselves are the MacGuffin, that the people who die and the circumstances in which they die aren’t that important, that you’re writing a story where the only thing that matters is what happens to the investigator. I don’t want to write crime novels in which a bunch of people die, but since my main character becomes a better person, it’s all good. I want to write a story in which people die, and their deaths matter because they were living, breathing human beings, and they’re not there anymore.”
“It sounds insane, but I’ve heard enough writers say it that I guess we’re all collectively insane in the same way if we have fictional people making choices for us,” says Alafair Burke, author of the Ellie Hatcher series and other suspense best sellers. “My book The Wife is about a woman whose husband is accused of sexual misconduct, and she doesn’t know whether she believes him or not. When I started that book, all I knew was who she was. I knew why she didn’t want to be in the spotlight. I knew what her secrets were, and I knew that his scandal was going to drag her secrets out, but I had no idea what his scandal was going to be. I didn’t know what his job was. I didn’t know what he was going to get accused of. I didn’t know if he had actually done it or not.
But I knew her, and once I figured out who she would be drawn to — this kind of cocky, confident guy — I was like, ‘Oh, I know!’ Then the book almost wrote itself, because the things I didn’t know, she didn’t know either.”
“I might print out like 100 articles from LexisNexis,” says Attica Locke, who has written a series of novels set in Texas. “As I read them, I began to understand what matters to this community, what’s interesting about this community, what has been a problem in this community, and somehow the crime that this thing is going to be centered on in the book begins to emerge and tell itself to me. It comes back to me as I read, read, read about what would actually happen in a place like this. I am not a writer who feels like everything has to be so research perfect, but it needs to feel like, No, this is some shit that could probably happen here.”
“Spending hours and hours doing research can be a bit of a trap,” says Burke. “You tell yourself you’re working on your book, and you’re really just going down a rabbit hole. You may as well just yell on Twitter with that time. I try to crystallize what I need, and I’ll often skip a scene, telling myself I need to talk to a pathologist or something before I write it. There’s a writer named Jonathan Hayes — he works with the medical examiner’s office, but he’s also a writer. He must be in a lot of people’s acknowledgments at this point. We’ll meet up for a meal and be having some beautifully constructed little tomato dish while talking about cutting someone’s head off. Definitely some sideways glances at the restaurant.”
“My latest book came out a few months before Trump was elected, says Lisa Lutz of her mystery The Swallows. “Thinking back to when I was writing it, I want to say that it would still ultimately be the same book, but it probably wouldn’t because I was so out-of-my-mind angry. I can’t remember ever being so angry. That book was about a gender war and egregious male behavior and women being complicit in that. It was my attempt to shed light on things. Of course, even in a normal time, I would still approach a plot or a story with, ‘What am I obsessed with, what have I not seen?’”
“I will confess,” says Lippman, “that I have extremely complicated and ambivalent feelings about the podcast true-crime boom. I always tell people I’m inspired by real-life stories, but they’re not ripped from the headlines. I’m not trying to give people the inside scoop on what really happened. As a matter of fact, if I’m inspired by a real-life story, I immediately curtail any research into it because I don’t want to be influenced by it.
“I start with the bull’s-eye,” says Anthony Horowitz, creator of the Alex Rider spy novels. “The bull’s-eye is two people, or three people if it’s a double murder. It is the killer and the victim. I ask myself: What makes that completely unique? What hasn’t been done? And then I build around that.
Let’s say the killer is a dentist. I’ll start thinking, Well, the dentist has patients, and the dentist has a hygienist and possibly a receptionist, and these are all people who have stories that connect to the dentist. And then the victim might be … I don’t know what the victim is, but he or she also has these … And these other layers are stories because that’s all a murder mystery is. It’s merely human beings brought together in violent circumstances. I’m looking for all the different human stories, and I build them in a sort of an outward-going spiral. So you’re building up to this dartboard that will finally have the triples scores, and the double scores, and it’ll be a large, circular thing. But it all rests on the bull’s-eye at the middle.”
“When I don’t use an outline, my books become longer,” says Locke. “They’re more fun to write because I like writing to feel like being a reader. I don’t want to know what’s going to happen. If I had an outline from jump, I don’t know that I would write the book because I know what happens.
I mean, let me be clear: It makes me fucking miserable.
But I also love it. I have that neurotic dance of “Oh, this is just so great” and also “This is terrible, I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“You don’t want to be doing many, many drafts for a novel, but you can do many, many drafts of the outline,” says Michaelides. “I did that for a very long time and then tried to sort of see how to bring it to life. But I do outline an awful lot, particularly with this kind of novel, where it’s about the architecture of it.”
“It’s a mistake to build your whole book around twists,” says Megan Abbott, whose female-centered thrillers include The Fever and Give Me Your Hand. “Like, if it doesn’t work without the twist, if you still wouldn’t be engaged in the story that we’re telling … it’s just a gimmick. You always want to have moments of surprise for the reader, and you want to do a little sleight of hand. It’s part of the intense relationship with the reader that you have. But I never want to be writing toward just some sort of an aha moment.”
“I’m a little bit known for an insane thing I do,” says Lippman. “When I’m about midway through my novel, I go to a craft store and buy something. One never knows what it will be, and I create these non-text outlines of my books so I can just sort of sit there and look at them and see if I can see imbalances and things that aren’t working based on these really weird color-coded designs I create. One time I even created a song for my novel, which is: I assigned musical notes to the points of view and then I would play the song and see if it sounded pleasant.”
“It’s what I call the Don Draper Principle,” says Abbott, “because he always did that on Mad Men. I tend to see something, usually horror, something that completely demands my attention and is very big and spectacle-oriented, because it can knock me out of what I’m thinking about in a good way. Or sometimes it’s just reading a book that has no relation to what I’m doing but will just get me creatively excited. It’s the same principle — it gets me out of a bad head space.”
*An earlier version of this piece misspelled Alafair Burke’s name.