Crimebake Workshop–Writing the Traditional Mystery

Firstoff, huge thanks to MWA NE and SinCNE for making Crimebake 2010 a fabulous conference!

Friday at Crimebake started off with an amazing welcome for Sisters in Crime New England. They had coffee and cookies and the perfect ice breaker–a scavenger hunt to find people with different abilities–like Agatha Winner or Writer of Paranormals. Immediately, we all had a conversation breaker and it make the conference kick off the best ever!

I signed up for the master classes and soon made my way to Writing the Traditional Mystery with Roberta Isleib. She’s a great public speaker and I highly recommend taking any workshop she does on writing mysteries.

She started by explaining that all cozies are traditional mysteries but all traditional mysteries are not cozies.

Typical traits of a cozy include:

  • Amateur Sleuth
  • Violence and sex happen off-screen (if they happen)
  • A closed/contained setting
  • Emphasis on deduction
    • Victim and murderer know each other and the sleuth has to figure out the relationship between the two
  • Being a comfort read
  • Not jarring

Traditional mysteries can be darker than cozies. Cozies are a subset of traditional mysteries and usually include a craft/cooking/gardening.

She stressed the importance of knowing your genre. If a book can’t be labelled, it can’t be sold.

The killer must be in the book in enough detail so that the writer plays fair with the reader. At the end of the book, the reader should think, I should have seen it coming.

The three most important things in a Traditional Mystery are:

  • Character Development
  • Stakes
  • Setting

In the past, characters weren’t expected to change much in a series. Now readers expect growth and change within the book and over the course of the series.  There must be a character arc–what she learns and how she changes. The arc of the character can be: character realizes she’s obsessed with an outer goal/desire but needs x to be whole/fulfilled. You have to have an idea of where you wants the character to end up.

Nathan Bransford blog talks about how every protagonist wants something and the novel is about them trying to get it. The antagonist is in conflict with the protagonist.

The character’s stakes are also crucial. Here are the things you should ask yourself to get a better grasp of the character’s stakes. (BTW, this was my favorite part of the workshop–very interactive and thought-provoking).

  1. What brings character into story now?
  2. What is her goal?
  3. Will her goal change?
  4. How will the character change by the end of novel?
  5. What makes your character unique?
  6. Central strength of your character?
  7. What weakness should she have?

Think about your characters history and from that make the stakes feel more real. Convince reader why they got involved. Can’t sell plot until sell character.

Setting is the third key part of a mystery. Change has to be underway–a place in turmoil and something happening in bigger world. Setting has its own value system.Something new to reader.

Setting has to intersect with character and plot. We were now asked to write a two sentence setting. Go ahead and write yours.

Okay now take that same setting and view it through the protagonist’s eyes. Description should do double duty by showing and telling character’s feelings. You can use description of setting to convey stuff about the character.

Audience members also got up and read their responses to parts of the workshop to illustrate how to use her teachings. Overall an awesome workshop–Thank you Roberta!

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4 Responses to Crimebake Workshop–Writing the Traditional Mystery

  1. berry says:

    Sounds very informative. Pretty soon you can lecture on this subject.

  2. Rhonda Lane says:

    Great post! I missed that particular talk of Roberta’s. Thank you for being so thorough in your coverage.

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