Mysteries / The Monthly

What Was on My . . .

Sandra Nickel, What was on my... August 2013Agenda: Switzerland’s 712th birthday. My first ‘Combat de Reines,’ a sort of bovine girl fight to determine who is in charge of the herd. Guests galore. And, 4 straight days confined to my office, teaching myself WordPress. I even learned to write a bit of code, if you can believe that.

Desk: Saving St. Martha’s, my middle grade mystery—responding to comments from 5 first-rate readers, sending it out to 2 more, then polishing.

Nightstand: The usual wobbling stacks, which this month included Tim Wynne-Jones’s The Boy in the Burning House, Kirsten Miller’s Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City, and Michael D. Beil’s The Red Blazer Girls: The Ring of Rocamadour.

Stovetop: Tomatoes, onions, garlic, and basil—all from my garden—simmering into gallons of sauce.

Mind: Mysteries. Which probably isn’t much of a surprise since you’ve already seen what was on my desk and nightstand. But, to be exact, I’ve been thinking about a friend saying: Truth be told, I don’t usually read mysteries. Hmm. Curious. Because this friend’s favorite book of the summer was Where’d You Go, Bernadette, a novel whose very title sets up the mystery of the story.

My friend probably meant she doesn’t usually read detective stories and whodunits, Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple. Books of a certain genre. And it is true that the very term mystery suggests something other than mainstream fiction. When I started writing Saving St. Martha’s, I asked the experts around Vermont College of Fine Arts: How do you write mysteries? What are the great craft books for them? As if mysteries are written differently than what I usually write, from what I usually read.

But are they? Are they really?

Since I’ve been working on Saving St. Martha’s, I’ve noticed that mysteries are at the core of many works that we normally associate with other genres. Just think of: Franny Billingsley’s Chime, Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, David Almond’s Skellig. In fact, the book I first picked up and scoured for mystery-writing tips was one I think of as a present-curing-past novel: Louis Sachar’s Holes.

Yet, Sachar is an expert at using the mystery writer’s tools. From him, I learned how to discredit a fact by having an unreliable character say it, or even by having a reliable character throw it off as a joke or exaggeration. I learned to blatantly set out information, and then pause for 90 or more pages before mentioning something else that would make that information significant to the reader. I learned to mention a pivotal fact and to follow it rapidly with a dynamic event so that the reader immediately shifts his or her attention to that event and forgets the more important information. Sachar even uses a Miss Marple sort of trick, by having his narrator show up in the final chapter to set everything straight. Yet Publishers Weekly calls Holes, a combination of “social commentary, tall tale and magic realism.” No mention of Sachar’s adept use of the mystery writer’s tools.

That is perhaps because these tools are more widely used than one might think. They stretch beyond conventional mysteries. Everything I learned from Sachar may be used for foreshadowing in other genres. Each tool may be used to set up the ‘mystery’ of how a given book might end or how a given character might change.

And this is where I come full circle, back to my friend. Truth be told, maybe it’s not only she who is reading mysteries more often than she realizes—maybe we all are. And for the writers among us, maybe we are crafting mysteries more often than we think.

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4 thoughts on “What Was on My . . .

  1. “Each tool may be used to set up the ‘mystery’ of how a given book might end or how a given character might change.”—Great points, Sandra. I remember your pointing out my need to solve mini-mysteries right away in my fantasy. I took your advice throughout the book. So, I have to admit that I was inspired by mysteries. (Or at least, you helped inspire me.) I have a Sherlock Holmes book on my list, so I don’t have to change my inspirations list. 😀

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