E.L. Tettensor is the author of the Nicolas Lenoir series of fantasy mysteries. She lives with her husband in Burundi, Africa, where she spends her time working, writing, and defending her home and garden against the insidious, creeping onslaught of the jungle – which is possibly why she equates the colour green with evil. You can learn more at her website, www.eltettensor.com.
by E.L. Tettensor
“I couldn’t put it down.”
The five little words every author wants to hear. For mystery writers, especially, this is the Holy Grail of review language. The validation of every plot twist, every cleverly placed clue, every chapter left teetering on the edge of a cliff like a school bus in a Superman movie.
So, what makes it work? What turns a reasonably paced read into a ravenous, up-till-two-in-the-morning page burner?
If I had the answer to that, I’d be sipping pina coladas on the sandy shores of my own Pacific island right now.
That being said, I have some ideas. Mysteries are at their most compelling when they keep you slightly off balance. When they’re a little bit creepy. A little bit exotic. Strange and surprising enough that you can never quite figure out what’s going on. That’s why, for my money, some of the best mysteries out there have elements of speculative fiction in them. Take an ordinary mystery and sprinkle it with the paranormal, the otherworldly, the fantastic, and you’ve kicked it up a notch. Bam, as a certain celebrity chef would say.
That’s not to say it’s simple. Not by a long shot. Because like any good recipe, it’s all about the balance of flavours, and getting that balance right, as I’m learning, is tricky business.
Personally, I like just a dash of speculative fiction in my mystery. Enough to be fresh and surprising, but not so much that the whole story feels alien. Too many fantasy elements can be distracting. It’s the questions that drive a mystery: Whodunit? Why? What’s happening here? You want readers to obsess over these questions, but that’s hard to do if they’re too busy trying to figure out how the world works. If everything is mysterious, nothing is.
Another delicate balance is how tightly to weave the speculative elements with the mystery itself. As with any story, the plot and the setting should be organically linked. If the mystery could essentially take place anywhere, having a fantasy or sci-fi backdrop seems gratuitous. If, on the other hand, the answer to the riddle is too otherworldly, readers will feel cheated. A good mystery is a tease. It lets you think you might just have it all figured out, only to pull the rug out from under you. If the solution is fundamentally beyond the reader’s ken, there’s no tension. It’s the mystery equivalent of deus ex machina, and it’s boring.
Then there’s the question of Mortal Peril. This is a dilemma for any series, and especially a mystery. No matter how intriguing the riddle, if the character trying to solve it is never in any real danger, it’s tough to sustain the momentum. At the same time, you can’t have your hero dodging assassination attempts because he knows too much every other book. So how do you keep things spicy without resorting to the same old tricks over and over? Adding a fantasy element certainly helps with this problem, but it doesn’t solve it. Even if your imagined world is full of slavering werepoodles and giant slors, it’s not as though you can have them snarling out of the dark in a bunch of random encounters, like a bad game of D&D. But if you introduce, say, a green-eyed vengeance demon from your hero’s past… well, then you might just have something. Dangerous, unexpected, but still firmly rooted in the story.
These are subtle balances to strike, and they come on top of those already inherent to the mystery genre. You want to leave a trail of breadcrumbs, but not too many. A twist, but not so convoluted that the reader gets lost. Depending on when and how it’s dropped, a bit of information can be either a hint or a sledgehammer, and it’s not always easy for the author to tell the difference.
As far as I can tell, it doesn’t necessarily get easier with practice, either. As challenging as I found writing DARKWALKER, I found the sequel at least as tough. It makes me admire all the more the writers who do it well, especially those who’ve had long running series that never seem to get tired.
As for me, I’ll keep practicing. And if I don’t have a Pacific island in my immediate future, at least I know how to make my own piña coladas.