Monday, May 14, 2012

I-Spy: Writing the Gay Mystery (Plot)


Join the authors and friends of Not Your Usual Suspects for an occasional series of posts about their world of reading, writing and publishing.


Short and sweet, hopefully both informative and entertaining - join us at I-Spy to find out the how's and why's of what we do.


TODAY'S POST: I-Spy Writing the Gay Mystery…with Josh Lanyon



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Plot is always paramount in mainstream fiction, but it is probably more important in the mystery genre than any other. Whether the sub-genre is thriller, espionage, suspense or classic mystery, plot is paramount.

 That means that writing about gay cops or gay FBI agents or gay sheriffs or even gay criminals does not necessarily mean you’re writing a gay mystery. In order to qualify as a mystery, you must configure a mystery plot. And a mystery plot does indeed take some configuring. If you’re one of those writers who hates to outline, mystery might not be the genre for you.


The thing to keep in the forefront of your mind is that a random series of events, AKA having a bunch of stuff happen, does not equal having a plot. Not even if all that stuff happening is exciting and interesting stuff. A plot is a logical sequence of events. Meaning every action your character takes (or doesn’t take) brings about a result which requires reaction which will bring about another result which will require reaction…and all this action and reaction keeps the ball moving forward.


In a mystery or crime novel, that logical sequence of events is the investigation of the crime (usually, but not always, murder).  It is because the plot is an investigation that logic is required. Your sleuth -- and this includes sleuths with psychic powers, by the way -- cannot solve the crime through intuition, coincidence, acts of God, or visions from beyond the grave. Or at least not solely -- primarily -- through such happy strokes of fate. All sleuths must investigate. They may have their own wacky method of investigation, but investigate they must.


By the way, this remains true even if you are writing an inverted mystery or a thriller where the criminal’s identity is already known to the investigator.


Now, before you start to sweat, let me make your life a lot easier. Regardless of whether you are writing a cozy mystery or a police procedural, all investigations amount to the same thing: a series of “interviews” or interesting conversations with your other well-drawn characters. That’s pretty simple, right?


In the course of those conversations your sleuth will uncover one bit of information that leads him closer to solving the mystery (even if he doesn’t recognize it at the time) and several pieces of information that will lead him in the wrong direction.


Got it? All the rest of the stuff that fills your book -- lab reports, DNA results, the inquest, attempts on your hero’s life…that’s all it basically is: filler. Filler and subplots. Which is not to say that it isn’t excellent stuff -- sometimes a subplot (often your main character’s romance) is even the primary reason readers keep coming back to your books. And here you were thinking it was your locked door puzzles!


The second thing to remember is that there is no plot without conflict.


Now…by conflict, I don’t mean your main character spends 230 pages bickering with the guy he’s romantically interested in. The primary conflict in a mystery or crime novel is that while your protagonist is trying to solve a crime, his antagonist is trying to get away with murder. Usually literally.


In other words your protagonist and his antagonist want two separate things -- which puts them in conflict with each other.  While your protagonist is trying to unravel the mystery, the antagonist is trying to make sure there are no loose ends.


As you plot your mystery, focus on the two things that any investigator would focus on: motive and opportunity. Make sure that you have a couple of characters with both motive and opportunity. And make sure that nearly every character has good solid motive -- even if it is not immediately apparent to your sleuth. Crazy is not a good, solid motive, for the record. And while serial killers remain a fixture on crime fiction lists, the bar is pretty high on creating truly chilling and memorable ones.


You must have enough suspects to keep both the reader and the protagonist busy. Not so many that your reader can’t keep track of them, but enough so that she has fun wondering if her initial guess could be right.


You must play fair with the reader -- and we’ll talk more about that when we get to clues and red herrings in a few months.


Finally, do not make the mistake of confusing literary crime fiction with real life criminal investigations. In real life, most crime is not that interesting and a lot of it goes unsolved. You don’t have that luxury. All your crimes must be interesting -- as must all your criminal investigations -- and your sleuth will always figure out who dunnit. Usually either a little before or a little after but generally around the same time the reader figures it all out.


Questions? Thoughts? Opinions?

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A distinct voice in gay fiction, multi-award-winning author JOSH LANYON has been writing gay mystery, adventure and romance for over a decade. In addition to numerous short stories, novellas, and novels, Josh is the author of the critically acclaimed Adrien English series, including The Hell You Say, winner of the 2006 USABookNews awards for GLBT Fiction. Josh is an Eppie Award winner and a three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist


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FUTURE POSTS will cover:

Kindlegraph / the art of research / writing male/male romance / rejection and writer's block / building suspense / writing love scenes / anti-piracy strategies / audio books / interviews with editors and agents / using Calibre.

We welcome everyone's constructive comments and suggestions!


3 comments:

DHM said...

Hi Josh-- Just wanted you to know you're not posting in vain. Good comments about plotting. Whether its a mystery or mainstream effort, the events or situations the characters are in has to make sense. That just can't be flitting around like butterflies.
I'm enjoying your posts, though I seem to be in the habit of seeing them a day or too late. Keep 'em comin' :-)

Toni Anderson said...

I'm late to the party, but trust me, I've had a busy day :)
I agree on everything you wrote about constructing a good mystery plot. Especially playing fair with the reader. Which is why I'm always happy when one or two people guess the antagonist before the end. As long as most people don't get it, that's great :)

Jean Harrington said...

Josh, What a thorough analysis of the difference(s) between plotting a mystery from other genres. I agree with your finds and will try to retain them as I wade through my current WIP. Thanks so much for sharing your wealth of knowledge with us all. Terrific! Jean