Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Mysteries of Writing

by Jean Henry Mead

I wonder whether some of us are born with a compulsion to write. Many writers have created not only elaborate stories while still in elementary school, but novels and three-act plays.

But why do we write?

Mignon G. Eberhart once said: “I write because I like to, sometimes hate to, but I have to write. I started when I was very young, almost as soon as I could put pencil to paper.”

Fellow mystery writer Lawrence Kamarck added: “I suppose I have a storyteller’s compulsion. I want to tell somebody what’s happening to all of us. I’m convinced nobody really knows but me. And because I want to keep the [reader’s] attention, I tell my story with as much force and drama as possible, within credible limits.”

Pulitzer winner A. B. Guthrie, Jr. told me during an interview that “the fun is having written well.” But he confessed that he didn’t enjoy the actual process of writing. “At the end of the day, I go back over it and say to myself, ‘By golly, that’s right, that’s right.’ And then I’m rewarded.”

So why do we write mysteries?

Ross MacDonald said: “Mystery stories have always interested me because they seem to correspond with life. They deal with the problems of causality and guilt that concern me.”

Loren D. Estleman wrote as an adolescent and sold his first novel at 23. He saw little of his parents because he spent so much time in his unheated, upstairs room, his only companion a typewriter. "I lived in my study and I didn’t have much of a private life,” he said. “It revolved around my writing.”

I like Estleman’s description of a mystery. “For me, a good mystery places story and character ahead of all else, yet never loses sight of the simple truth that in order to be a mystery, a question must be asked. It needn’t be a whodunit, and might be something as simple and maddening as why the murdered man had three left shoes in his closet and no mates. If the writer has done his job well, the reader will forget the question as the story draws him in. But there had damn well better be a mystery involved if he’s going to call it one.”

I pulled an aging copy of Mystery Writers Handbook from one of my book shelves and found the following quote from the editor, Lawrence Treat: “Great mysteries are great novels, like Crime and Punishment, A Tale of Two Cities and The Scarlet Pimpernel. And they’re clearly mysteries.”

I then asked my fellow Murderous Musings blog team members why they write mysteries. Ben Small had this to say:

“I write mysteries and thrillers because I love the high stakes competition between good and evil, the uncertainty of justice, and the suspense of the ticking clock as the protagonist puzzles out a solution. Good stuff, escaping into a make-believe puzzle-world where I push the reader to beat me to the solution.”

Beth Terrell said that she loves the fact that the detective puts his own life at risk to protect others. She also loves the fact that “the good guy always wins--or almost always--even if it’s at a terrible cost. I feel like mysteries work on so many different levels. They are ripping good stories, thought-provoking puzzles, and wonderful vehicles to write about real human problems—things that matter. They’re a challenge to write; a good mystery or thriller has to do all the things a literary novel does and weave a gripping plot as well.”

Pat Browning concluded that a mystery is the oldest form of storytelling. Sometimes there's a moral, sometimes it's a cautionary tale. It reassures us that good triumphs over evil. It satisfies our need to know that everything turns out all right in the end. Contemporary mysteries often have a romantic angle, and a humorous twist. In short, the mystery offers something for every reader.

I enjoy not only writing mysteries but reading them as well. If I haven't solved the crime or discovered the murderer before the detective reveals his name, I feel that the author has done a great job. And I hope you'll think I've done a credible job with my new mystery, A Village Shattered. My Shattered blog tour starts tomorrow at My Friend, Amy's and the rest of the schedule is up at my blog site along with my virtual guestbook, which I hope you'll sign, and my new book trailer.


Mark said...

Thanks for the great post. I agree with MacDonald, the attraction of mysteries for me is that they correspond with life. Good luck with the blog tour.

Marilyn said...

I like mysteries because in most cases, the bad guys get in the end--unlike the real world.

Other Lisa said...

I love mysteries. I find that the writing is frequently of very high quality, the themes are important and interesting, and the genre lends a structure to the story that is often lacking in "literary" fiction.

Dana Fredsti said...

I have no idea why I like them so much, but I do. I've always loved scary movies and books and ones that leave me guessing till the end.