Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Writing Mysteries

By Betty Jean Craige

Writing a mystery entails creating a puzzle and then enabling the reader to solve it with pleasure and satisfaction.

The reason I like writing mysteries is the reason I like reading them. Mysteries compel interaction between reader and story. When the mystery is good the reader does not passively absorb information but rather works to figure out what happened, who did it, how, and why. So the writer must play fair: develop the plot and the characters in such a way as to enable the reader to solve the crime, or at least to see the solution of the crime as logical and satisfying.

I write mysteries to entertain readers, to stimulate their imagination, to engage them intellectually, and to introduce them to ideas and situations which they may not have previously encountered. Along the way I hope to make them laugh, or at least smile. I want my readers to have fun.

I set my three Witherston Murder Mysteries—Downstream (2014), Fairfield's Auction (2016), and Dam Witherston (2017)—in a small town called Witherston in the north Georgia mountains to introduce readers to the charm of this part of the country.

In the novels I deal with issues and events I consider important: the pharmaceutical pollution of our natural environment; the seizure of Cherokee gold and land in the nineteenth century and Cherokee artifacts in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; the historical interactions between the Cherokees who occupied the southern Appalachian mountains for a thousand years and the white settlers who drove them out; miscegenation and intercultural rape; the consequences of dam construction, and the relationships that DNA ancestry tests disclose.

To involve readers in the solution of the crime I give them information from multiple sources. An online newspaper carries breaking news, announcements, editorials, and letters to the editor, columns by local writers, the weather, police blotter, and occasionally a cartoon. All these items advance the story, provide historical context for the events of the present, and offer clues about the crime. So do official documents, such as wills, deeds, and DNA ancestry reports. And, of course, so does the narrative, in which a detective investigates the crime with the aid of her smart and funny teenage twin boys.

I write what I want to know about. And in the course of writing I do research on the web. That's how I learned about the Cherokee civilization, Georgia history, pharmaceutical pollutants, and DNA.

And that's the advice I would give to new writers: Write what you want to learn about and what you want your readers to learn about. Also, write what about you think is important. Write carefully, as well as you can. Words matter, every single one of them. And finally, write about something other than yourself. Your "self" will inhabit your novel anyway. You'll have more fun, and so will your readers, if you write about other people and how they can get into trouble.
Dr. Betty Jean Craige is University Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature at the University of Georgia. She has lived in Athens, Georgia, since 1973. Betty Jean is a teacher, scholar, translator, humorist, and writer. Her first non-academic book was Conversations with Cosmo: At Home with anAfrican Grey Parrot (2010). After retiring in 2011, she published a column about animal behavior in the local paper titled "Cosmo Talks" and began writing fiction. Her Witherston Murder Mystery series, set in north Georgia, includes Downstream (2014), Fairfield's Auction (2016), and Dam Witherston (2017).

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