A big welcome to Virginia King, author of The First Lie! She is dissecting the process of writing a mystery that has the capacity of taking the reader by surprise. How is it done? Over to you, Virginia…
How does a mystery writer create the unpredictability needed for a mystery to be ‘mysterious’? Experienced reviewers often comment that after you’ve read a few mysteries and thrillers they can start to feel formulaic. Why?
The Limits of Plotting
Here’s the blurb for a writing workshop on plotting:
Time spent planning a story before sitting down to write can prevent a laboured or stalled work. Lack of planning can result in flawed plots, stereotyped characters, clichéd dialogue and derivative style.
Sounds good in theory but exactly the opposite is true for me. In my experience a blue-print is too static. It kills the freshness of an evolving story, especially a mystery. And a character profile is like a straightjacket. Goodbye unpredictability. Any ideas I have at the beginning need to evolve in unexpected ways with the writing, not limit what happens by being set in place at the start.
When prize-winning author Kate Grenville created an outline of her first novel, she wrote later: “A weariness came over me at the thought of fleshing this out. I closed the exercise book and put it away. I never wrote in it again.” Then she says about her process: “I’d … write without a plan, following thoughts and images into the unknown … The criterion was energy.”
The Energy of ‘Clueless’
I approached my psychological mystery The First Lie with no idea what was around each corner. The resulting mystery contains layers I could never have plotted. If the writer is on the edge of their seat wondering what the hell is going to happen next and why, then so is the reader.
Without a plan in mind, I dropped my main character Selkie Moon into Honolulu because the story hadn’t been working when it was set in Sydney. What felt like a ‘crisis of place’ flipped into something edgy and unpredictable. If I’d stuck with a story plotted in Sydney I would have laboured away at a location that lacked spark. The move to Hawaii was exhilarating – and terrifying – for me and for Selkie.
Here are some examples of how Honolulu inspired a ‘clueless’ approach to The First Lie:
The role of the stranger
Selkie is all alone, a malihini (newcomer) in town, bringing an edge to her relationships and experiences. When a voice in a dream says, Someone is trying kill you, she’s forced to investigate what it’s got to do with her. A new friend tells her that in fairy tales it’s the newcomer who heralds the truth. This message becomes the theme of the book.
A cauldron of cultures
The Hawaiian, Japanese, Portuguese, Chinese, Filipino, American, English, Irish and many other cultures who inhabit Hawaii create opportunities for quirky characters. How about a kahuna who lives in the bus shelter, available for roadside prognostications? She only speaks Hawaiian or pidgin (tricky for me as a non-speaker) so she’s an oracle who gives one-word pronouncements: Pilikia, she warns Selkie. Trouble.
A smorgasbord of mythology
You can’t wander around Hawaii without falling over an old graveyard full of ghosts, or a visionary mirror, or a cursed lava rock, or a character from folklore such as Pele the volcano goddess, who might hitch a ride with you on a dark lonely road. These mythical motifs created layers of clues for the ‘clueless’ author.
One Way to Go ‘Clueless’
My process is to write a scene, letting it create itself and following up any thoughts that pop into my head with research. Then I allow my subconscious to explore everything (usually while I’m asleep). Most mornings I’m scribbling my overnight thoughts – connections I didn’t know were there, snippets of dialogue that give me new insights into characters, tangents and twists that might work, links to experiences I’ve had or things I’ve read or overheard. Then I weave these ideas into yesterday’s scene. I don’t control the story, but I use my judgement to shape and cut it when I’m redrafting.
Now I’m writing Book Three in this way. Selkie is drawn to an Irish mystery dating back to the 1890s, so I’m ‘clueless’ in County Kerry!
The First Lie is a winner of a B.R.A.G. Medallion.
The First Lie by Virginia King
Someone is trying to kill you.
When Selkie Moon flees Sydney to start over in Hawaii, it’s to live life on her own terms. But Life has other plans.
Though she tries to dismiss the warning as just another nightmare, it soon becomes apparent that someone, or something, is stalking her. Attacked by frightening visions and mysterious compulsions, she must piece together the fragmented clues before time runs out.
Virginia King effortlessly blends funky creativity and deep spirituality – with a dash of Celtic folklore – to craft a story of one woman’s fight for truth, and her discovery that the lies we tell ourselves are the most dangerous of all.
You can read more about Virginia’s ‘clueless’ writing process in her recent interview about her first draft on Rebecca Bradley’s blog: https://rebeccabradleycrime.com/2016/05/20/whats-your-first-draft-like-virginia-king/
A Free Ghost Story
This is how I wrote Laying Ghosts, a 24-page standalone haunted house story tangled up in a Russian folktale and a murder ballad dating back to the 1700s. It’s also the prequel to the Selkie Moon Mystery Series and explains to the reader (and the author!) just why Selkie suddenly took off to Hawaii. Download your free copy http://www.selkiemoon.com/#popup