Can a writer of historical mysteries do too much research? I think the answer is a resounding yes. But what’s too much you ask? If all you are doing is research and not writing, then it is too much. I guess we could take some solace in that it’s not just writers of mysteries who use research as an excuse to procrastinate. But enough already, let’s get down to writing.
Of course, once you get writing, you might – as I did – find you do need help – may not necessarily be with your history but certainly with your mystery. This is where How to Write a Damn Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript by James N. Frey comes in handy.
I found it immensely useful – particularly in the context of writing mysteries. Three techniques I took away, in the order of value
- Plot behind the plot what drives the murderer – I’d always been so focused on the protagonist/hero/detective
- Journals for key characters this was different in that it was done in their voice revealing interesting facets to them
- Step sheets while I’d tried and read about outlining, the step sheets – were a great way to get a quick handle on where you wanted to take the story and in some instances where the story wanted to take you
I really liked the chapter on writing titled Writing Damn Good Prose – almost reminiscent of Strunk & White – concisely capturing a lot of good actionable ideas on writing tight prose.
Frey outlines a book Murder in Montana as a means to illustrate the points he makes about step sheets, the plot behind the plot and character journals. In Goodreads and elsewhere other reviewers complained of it being “cliche-ridden and too long.” However, I really liked that he tried to work through all of Murder in Montana and found it useful, as an actual practice of what he preached – regardless of whether it was the final manuscript, seeing where he started and how it evolved, even more than where it ended. It taught me a whole lot. The main value that Frey brought was he did away with most excuses all of us, as writers, make and took apart any obstacles that stand in our way – by providing practical methods to work through them. It’s now to each of us, reader and writer to make as much good as we want out of this.
I’m going out there to buy this as a keeper.
This review first appeared in an earlier draft form on Goodreads.