23 July 2021

The Incredible Brain of a Mystery Writer

 Mike (Emergency Contact sitting in the Swedish recliner opposite me, reading my latest manuscript) said something today that really got me thinking:

"I am absolutely amazed by your mind.  How you create all these characters, make them all different, and keep them straight is beyond me."

So - being Author person first in the list of my personas, I said the obvious thing all writers would say given the circumstance: "But the thing is, YOU can keep them straight when reading that manuscript, right?"

"Oh sure," he said, to my relief.  "I'm just wowed by your imagination."

I think what he really meant was memory.  And I have to admit, I've been thinking about that a lot lately.

Writing a mystery is hard work.  I don't want to say it is harder work than most of the genres - I've written in most of the genres and each has its challenges.  But writing a mystery has specific requirements that make me wonder how long I will be able to measure up.

In fact, it requires an incredible memory.

In mystery writing, you need a large cast of characters.  

First off, you need a victim.  Check.  Probably two.  And if you're writing a Brit Mystery a la Midsommer, you probably need three.  (Emergency Contact and I joke about who will be the third person murdered in each episode of Midsommer, Brokenwood, Death in Paradise, etc etc).  This victim (or three) must be a fully drawn character.  He must have a past.  There must be a *reason* he is a victim in the first place, and that means drilling down to a life before the murder.

But we said there could be three victims.  Three characters.  Check.

We talk often about the need for five good suspects - three at the very least.  I personally try for three darn good suspects with lots of supporting material, and a couple more perhaps less drawn out.  

So five good suspects, all with believable motivation.  All with *different* motivation on why they would be the killer and take a whack at the victim for gain.  

That's eight characters so far, check.

You need a protagonist, almost always the sleuth.  And a sidekick for the sleuth.  Maybe even a love interest for the sleuth, who could be a local cop.  Three more characters.

That's eleven.

Probably there will be more than one named cop. A constable to search the grounds. Probably there will be a secondary character or two, to run the Inn, serve at the table. You know the drill.

So that's at least twelve unique characters, all with individual motivation, and personalities.  All looking different, with different histories.  All in selected places at the important times for the sleuth to keep track.

Not only the sleuth.  You - the author - has to keep it all straight.

Writing a mystery is an incredible feat of memory.  We intertwine the lives of more than a dozen people, and work them around the novel like so many pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.  I don't know any other kind of writing that requires such complex thinking and as I start my second book in the latest series (The Merry Widow Murders) I am truly shaking in my go-go boots.  Will I be up to it once more?  Will the task of keeping everything straight, creating a dynamic, exciting plot that MAKES SENSE but isn't easily solved, be once more in my grasp?

It's daunting.  And I haven't even talked about the fact that I've already used up eighty plots.  But just keeping the whole thing in motion in my mind is something I know won't be possible forever.

This year, I think I can do it.  The plot I have outlined excites me, and my agent is keen.  Next year?  Meet you back on these pages next summer for a recap.

Melodie Campbell always has a mob angle in her novels, and usually they can't shoot straight.  "Impossible not to laugh" says Library Journal about THE GODDAUGHTER.  "The Canadian Literary Heir to Donald Westlake" says Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.  The Goddaughter series and The B-Team sold in all the usual suspects.


  1. This is what taking notes is for! If you find yourself sitting at the computer, thinking, what book am I writing? Who is my main character? You just look at your notes, and voila! You can keep going!

    1. Yes, Barb - I have character sketches for the six main characters in my current novel. AFter 80 stories, I'm having trouble keeping my players straight! Or is it age?

  2. Great post. Thanks.
    Like Barb said, I finally had to write down facts and motivations for the recurring characters in my series stories to avoid inconsistencies.

  3. "Take care of your brain. I spent all this time worried about my heart, taking my idiot brain for granted. Don't you make the same mistake. I am now at a heightened risk for dementia, but perhaps you are not. Keep it that way if you can. Do crossword puzzles. Read a lot of books. Avoid playing professional football. Know the warning signs of TBI and stroke for you and your family. Watch out for your brain because your brain IS you. It's your intellect, your memories, your personality. It's all you got. Why, it's a marvelous little engine, and no one gets to use yours except for you. I injured my brain and it felt like I injured every single part of my body. So love your brain and use it to love others." - Drew Magary

  4. Oh, that is a great quote, Elizabeth. I will take it to heart.

  5. I've always been a big note taker and user of Excel sheets. I consult them a lot to jog my memory, but the whole idea of starting a new full-length mystery becomes less appealing as I age. I'm more excited about writing novellas right now (fewer characters and subplots) and am thinking about going back to short stories, which is what I started writing 40 years ago. The thing is, I still love writing and challenging myself. I also write for brain health. Watching my mom go through dementia taught me a lot about not exercising the little grey cells as often as I can. It just might not be mysteries.

    1. Deb, my first love was short stories, and I may also return to them when my novel career is over. My natural length is novella. I have to really work to accomplish 75,000 word novels. Yes, I will also write for brain health, as there is nothing more demanding, is there? Thanks for commenting!

  6. You're welcome. I forgot to mention that I've been working on an urban fantasy for some time. It's 120,000 words, and yeah, it's a huge challenge. Busy paring it down and working with a critique group these days. Now that I'm retired from the day job, I work on it everyday, which helps a lot with the memory issue. Still need those notes, though :)

    1. Oh my goodness, you've come over to the dark side! My first series was fantasy (and it has made me the most money, wouldn't you know :)

    2. LOL, the tentative title of the fantasy is When Darkness Draws Nearer.

  7. I used Scrivener to create my character profiles, including finding and storing photos for characters and places. It was useful and stll is, despite my changing or dropping some of the characters. Then Scrivener and I had a bit of a parting. It was driving me nuts. But I still use it for keeping track of characters. I hear the latest version is much improved. I'm thinking of going back to it. Word is OK but Scrivener keeps everything together in one app.

  8. Marilyn, I do know many writers who use Scrivener and love it. I started SOOOO long ago, that I can't change from Word - Man, it nearly killed me, changing from Word Perfect! (Which I still say was a much better program for writers.) Thanks for commenting!


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