In keeping my promise to answer some of the questions posed in comments over the last few weeks, tonight I'll focus on a couple of the Mystery Questions.
Q) How are you able to come up with a mystery different from all the rest for each book?
A) This is actually the hardest part of developing the story for me. In part that's because I don't want to repeat myself, but in a broader sense it's because I don't want to repeat something another author's done. Not that I've fully succeeded there, but I do strive to make the motive unique, even if the mystery (like, say, who kidnapped the dog) has been done before. I also like the mystery (or, rather, the motive) to be thought-provoking. And relevant to my readers. And edgy! I have no interest in retooling the ol' Where-Did-Sparky-Go? mystery, where Sparky is really Sparkie and is off having baby bunnies (or kitties, or puppies, or hamsters, or alien zombie snails). Everyone knows what Sparky's up to by the end of Chapter 1. Please.)
Sammy Keyes and the Runaway Elf is probably the closest I've come to writing a cliched mystery, but I thought exploring the motive (and theme) of forgiveness served to keep it from going too far into Cliche Land. Plus that furball dog got buzzed (which is not standard for a missing dog story) and when Sammy opens the box of fuzz (pg 101) and tells the evil owner, "Yup. She's bald," well, I laughed for days. Knocking on the door of Cliche Land is worth it if you can make yourself laugh for days.
So, yeah. Thinking of a unique mystery is very important to me and I very much appreciate the question because it implies that I've been successful. To better answer the question I would add that sometimes I get my ideas from things I've read about -- usually from a news source or a magazine. Night of Skulls was that way. So was Cold Hard Cash -- the root of the mystery came from articles I read. Not the story itself, just the idea. Reading is a very good thing for writers to do!
Q) (Paraphrasing here...) How do you decide where to plant clues?
A) Another biggie! My goal is to have the mystery unfold in a fair and steady manner. My readers are smart and I know it so I want to make solving the mystery challenging, but not unfair. I hate mysteries where I think I know on page 10 whodunit, and then read another 300 pages to discover that, yup, that's whodunit. I also hate mysteries where I'm really invested in figuring out who the culprit is and suddenly the author brings back a dead character who (miraculously and inexplicably) didn't really die. No clues. No foreshadowing. Just poof, they reappear.
I don't need to be the cleverest person in the room. I don't think there's anything great about being tricky. I want to play by the rules and respect the trust a reader places in an author. I like to feel like we're all in it with Sammy so, ideally, I want my readers to figure out whodunit slightly before Sammy does, To me that's the perfectly executed mystery--one that makes everyone feel smart.
The problem with writing a mystery is that the author can't not know who the culprit is. (Okay, there are those authors who say they don't know whodunit until the sleuth does, and you know what I say to them? You're CHEATERS! You cannot write a fair mystery--drop fair clues and set up a satisfactory unveiling--if you don't know whodunit.)
The other problem is that if you ask someone to read your mystery while you're in the developmental stages, they then know who the culprit is and are not able to reread your mystery with objectivity. You get one shot with them and then they know whodunit. This is why Nancy (my editor) doesn't read a Sammy in the developmental stages. She doesn't get much from me until I'm done. She's a mystery buff and her first read is crucial to finding out if I gave too many clues, gave them too early, or concealed them too well. My question to her is always, "When did you know?" And her answer determines what I do and change. Sometimes it's as small as removing a single word.
That's probably enough for this week. Next week I'll try to address the broader questions posed--about the unfolding story lines within the series and how (and maybe why) those happened. Meanwhile, I'll look forward to seeing you in the comments!