How to Write a Mystery by Larry BeinhartHow to Write a Mystery by Larry Beinhart

How to Write a Mystery

byLarry Beinhart

Paperback | July 9, 1996

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So you want to write a mystery. There's more to it than just a detective, a dead body, and Colonel Mustard in the drawing room with the candlestick. Fortunately, Larry Beinhart--Edgar Award-winning author of You Get What You Pay For, Foreign Exchange, and American Hero--has taken a break from writing smart, suspenseful thrillers to act as your guide through all the twists and turns of creating the twists and turns of a good mystery.
Drawing on advice and examples from a host of the best names in mystery writing--from Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane to Scott Turow and Thomas Harris--plus some of his own prime plots, Larry Beinhart introduces you to your most indispensable partners in crime:
*Character, plot, and procedure
* The secrets to creating heroes, heroines, and villains ("All writers draw upon themselves and their experience. While the whole of yourself might not be capable of being either a serial killer or an FBI agent, there are parts in each of us that are capable of almost anything.")
* The fine art of scripting the sex scene
*The low-down on violence ("A crime novel without violence is like smoking pot without inhaling, sex without orgasm, or a hug without a squeeze." )
*And much more!
From the opening hook to the final denouement, Larry Beinhart takes the mystery out of being a mystery writer.
Larry Beinhart is the Edgar Award-winning author of No One Rides for Free, How to Write a Mystery, You Get What You Pay For, and Foreign Exchange. His book American Hero was adapted into the movie Wag the Dog.
Title:How to Write a MysteryFormat:PaperbackDimensions:240 pages, 8.5 × 5.5 × 0.5 inPublished:July 9, 1996Publisher:Random House Publishing Group

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0345397584

ISBN - 13:9780345397584

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Rated 4 out of 5 by from MYSTERY ANSWERED This "how to" is a refreshing change from the mainstream material on the subject. Beinhart uses numerous examples throughout to make his points. The only disappointment perhaps is that the topics are not delved into at greater length. It is written in a straightforward fashion; the author never taking himself or the topics too seriously. And if your interest is only to read mysteries, you'll find the book chock full of titles and authors of the genre, some of which may be pleasant discoveries.
Date published: 2001-04-03

Read from the Book

INTRODUCTION The Joy of Genre   Genre is a gaudy, tawdry Muse, but the favors she brings the writer are gifts of genuine gold.   The first and most important gift is—an Audience. It is from them that all the other gifts flow.   Like news, or for that matter, pornography, the audience is insatiable. Who could imagine that there could be more news programming? But there is. Or more skin magazines? But there are. Why are all those books in the mystery section and how come there are new ones every week? There are people who read a mystery a week, a day, or more. Personally, I never get on a plane, a train, a bus, or a subway without one.   That means that there is a Market.   Publishers need product, and quite a lot of it, to fill that market. If you can produce the material, almost regardless of quality—it does not have to be the great American novel—you can sell it.   This is a wonderful thing.   HOPE FOR THE WRITER   It’s really intimidating to sit down at the keyboard with aspirations of being Hemingway or Shakespeare. When I think about someone doing that, his head full of Literature 101 Dreams of Immortality, I get a cartoon vision of a floor littered with wads of crushed first pages—hundreds and hundreds of them, decades of litter, not one page one good enough to be the first page of a novel by the new James Joyce.   The average detective novel is probably no worse than the average novel, but you never see the average novel. It doesn’t get published. The average—or only slightly above average—detective story does. Not only is it published but it is sold … and it is read.…   Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder   The event that inspired me to become a working writer was reading two truly dreadful mysteries in one day. There and then I was convinced that if I wrote one, no matter how bad it was, I could sell it.   It wasn’t that I thought that I could do better. What was exciting, thrilling, illuminating, was that someone had published these meandering, illogical, poorly constructed, cliché-ridden manuscripts and—I presumed—actually paid the writers! This was attainable.   When I tell this story I am always asked: Which two books were they? I honestly don’t remember. But I have certainly read many since then that are just as bad or worse. If someone else feels a book inside them, but needs the same sort of perverse incitement to write it, there are lots of terrible books out there. In any case, that gave me the courage and the self-confidence to write a first page, keep it, get past it, write a second page, and on and on, until there was a complete manuscript. Which I duly brought to an agent who sold it to a publisher who printed it and put it in bookstores which sold it. To people rather like me.   This is not meant to imply, in any way, that I, or other authors, do less than their best, or that they write down, or that it’s easy. Like the other authors I know, I always try to write the best book I can. At times it’s very difficult. It is meant to say that the goal is in reach. If you can write a clear sentence, if you can organize your thoughts, if you know the field and love it, and if you will make the commitment, you can probably write a salable book.   WHAT IS GENRE?   The simplest, most effective, and laziest definition is that it’s whatever gets you placed on the mystery rack rather than with general fiction.   However, there are those novels that escape the ghetto and move over to the main shelves and even to the “hot” book table at the front of the store, that don’t seem any different than the ones in the crime section. Actually, at any given time, a minimum of half the books on the bestseller lists are mysteries or detective novels or thrillers or legal thrillers. For their sake, let us throw in a second simple definition: they are books that have, as their center, the commission of a crime or the discovery of who committed a crime.   AND WHY THERE IS A MARKET   The basic story of the mystery genre is “whodunit.” There are, of course, endless variations, alterations, and decorations, howdunit, whydunit, whatcha gonna do about it, but “whodunit” is the essence.   It is a matter of human nature that once a question is raised, people want the matter settled. In other words, if you kill someone on page one and pose the question “whodunit?” a fair number of people will stay with you long enough to find out the answer.   If we liken a book to a train, the “puzzle” is the engine. A nongenre writer has to invent an engine—create a question that people will want answered—and then convince a potential audience that it is a train, that it will take them on the sort of journey they like, and they therefore ought to give it a try. The genre writer gets this for free: the audience knows it’s a train, that it has an engine that will make it go, and that it is, more or less, the sort of journey they like.   Opening with a riddle frees the author from the frequently demanding task of drawing his readers into the narrative by other means.… Knowing that a book is a thriller guarantees a plot: it promises an element of entertainment so often lacking in the “serious” novel.   Piers Paul Read, the Times, September 16, 1995   It’s a train. People get on. The qualitative questions come afterward: Did you give them a good ride? How was the scenery and how were the companions?   The answer to the first—did you roar on through? keep on chugging? run out of steam? jump off the tracks?—separates the successful from the unsuccessful.   The answers to the last two—how vivid were the views? did your riders-readers make new friends? or did they have to endure shallow bores mouthing the old clichés they’d heard on previous journeys? was the dialogue lively and picaresque?—those are the things that separate the truly good from the merely mechanical.   When it’s a really good railroad, the passengers don’t care where the train goes. Most readers of Ian Fleming and John Le Carré have no independent interest in real-life espionage. Most readers of Dick Francis have no interest in horse racing, and even less in the esoteric variant which most of his books are about—steeple chasing.   So as long as you kill somebody in chapter one and tell ’em whodunit at the end, you get to pick the territory. In other words, your job is to explore and write about things that interest you until you get bored with them, and then you can find something new to work into a crime story. Tony Hillerman is obviously fascinated with Native American life and lore. In Daughter of Time it is absolutely clear that Josephine Tey was delighted by the deceptions of history. James Ellroy’s mother was murdered when he was young. The police didn’t solve the mystery. Ellroy, obsessed by it, found the time and the money to investigate it thirty years after the event, by turning it into a book proposal. Robert Parker likes to cook and he likes clothes, and these interests fill up a lot of the Spenser books. Eric Ambler filled his books with the politics of Mediterranean, Near Eastern, and Eastern European countries. Gerald Seymour, like a war reporter, goes wherever people are killing each other in the name of God and country. There are books set in suburban dental offices, on boats at sea, in late-twentieth-century Cleveland, in alternate realities in which Hitler won World War II, and in a future in which the uneasy buddy relationship is between a human cop from earth and an android cop from the outer worlds. I like to ski, so I set a novel in the Austrian resort of St. Anton and had to spend six solid weeks skiing there to research it.   A lot of readers want an informative, fact-filled tour. Infotainment. Recreation that is actually education. Who can feel that they’re wasting their time with a trashy detective novel while tracking the medieval arcana of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose?   Herbert Mitgang, who writes about all types of literature, not merely mysteries, for the New York Times, put it this way in a review of two books, Walter Mosley’s White Butterfly and Gillian Farrell’s Alibi for an Actress:   While taking the reader for a ride before solving the mystery, the best writers in the field have something to say about a city, a profession, a just cause, a moral climate. Of course, the detective story must abide by the rules of pursuit and solution. But it doesn’t violate the formula if, lurking between the lines, there’s a novel of manners, mostly bad.   In the article quoted earlier, Piers Paul Read, a serious writer, was actually being defensive about writing a thriller. This was in England, where they are actually still quite serious about the distinction between real writers and popular writers. Using the genre conventions, he went on to say:   …The reader, comfortably seated, is happy to enjoy the landscape as the story hurtles along.… [The author] can treat his loftier themes in passing: in this case … history, iconography, patriotism, consumerism, communism, feminism and love. [There, are these serious and correct enough for you?!]