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Transcript for Episode 9.43

Writing Excuses 9.43: Writing Mysteries


Key Points: What’s the difference between mystery and thriller? Tone. Thriller is a subgenre of mystery, like a cozy. Two labels, exciting or cerebral. Pacing and revelation of clues. Thriller, the audience is one step ahead of the hero, knowing something is about to go wrong, while mystery, the audience is one step behind, wondering what will happen hext. The thriller often involves jeopardy of the hero. Does a mystery have to have a dead body, murder, in the beginning? Not always, sometimes you start with a smaller mystery. Other subgenres within mystery? Closed room mysteries, fair play mystery ( Mystery always involves a puzzle, and the differences in subgenres often reflect how the puzzle is presented. Mystery often plays with structure. You can’t remove the impossible from a supernatural mystery. YA needs a strong character arc, but mystery often resets the main character in each book.

[Unfortunately, between the echoing and the similarity in voices, there is a good chance that I may have misidentified one or more segments of this transcript. My apologies to Mette Ivie Harrison, J. R. Johannson, and Mary Robinette Kowal if I have given your words to someone else.]

[Mary] Season nine, episode 43.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, writing mysteries with Mette Ivie Harrison and J. R. Johannson.
[Mary] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Brandon] And we have two guest stars this time. We have Mette Ivie Harrison, who’s been on the cast many times. Say hi.
[Mette] Hello!
[Brandon] And we have J. R. Johannson joining us for the first time.
[Jenn] Hi.
[Brandon] So tell us what you guys write to give us a big… A quick recap of what you’ve been doing.
[Mette] I write mostly young adult fantasy romance, but I have a new adult mystery coming out end of December called The Bishop’s Wife.
[Brandon] Okay. And J. R. Johannson… Can I just call you Jenn?
[Jenn] You can.
[Brandon] I’m going to call you Jenn.
[Dan] You can call me Jenn. I write young adult thrillers. I have… My debut came out last year. It’s called Insomnia. My sequel just came out in June. It’s called Paranoia. I have a standalone thriller with McMillan coming out in June called Cut Me… Or it’s like January, called Cut Me Free.

[Brandon] All right. I’m going to start with this question. What is the difference between a mystery and a thriller? Because thrillers usually have a strong mystery component, and I never heard the term thriller when I was growing up. But suddenly it was the thing. It feels like it came out of mysteries, maybe? I don’t know.
[Mary] The way I’ve heard it described… Do you want to go first?
[Dan] Okay. My answer’s going to be different than your’s, though. Which is that I don’t think there is a substantive difference between a mystery and a thriller. I think there might be a difference in tone. You’re certainly not going to call like a cozy cottage mystery a thriller. But they’re shelved in the same part of almost every bookstore I’ve ever been in. They tend to be grouped together in online places. They appeal to the same audiences. They go to the same conventions. It’s just two labels, one of which sounds exciting and one of which sound cerebral, but they’re the same genre to me.
[Brandon] So do you think what happened is that mystery became associated with the kind of cozy, which is the subset of mystery… They call them cozies because you what, curl up by the fire and you read this mystery about a detective who’s… Because it became associated with the Agatha Christie style of mystery, that everyone thought that was a mystery?
[Dan] Exactly. Mystery kind of became associated with the Masterpiece Theatre kind of… BBC, Hercule Poirot kind of stuff.
[Mary] What I was told was that it had a lot to do with pacing and revelation of clues. In a thriller, you build suspense by letting the audience be one step ahead, just a fraction of a moment ahead of your hero, so that they know something is about to go wrong, and that a mystery is based on wondering what is going to happen next. So your audience needs to be a fraction of a step behind your hero.
[Dan] Well, okay, if you’re going to give us a brilliant answer, fine.
[Brandon] Jenn. You write these. What do you… How do you define a thriller for yourself?
[Jenn] I think I would agree with Mary. I think it has more to do with pacing and the tension, where you reveal things to your audience. Exactly like that.

[Brandon] Okay. Now… Often for mysteries, from my external perspective… I’ve read a few of them. I haven’t ever written an actual mystery that would be shelved there. A murder at the beginning is often a classic mystery start. What percentage… Or is this something you need to do for the mystery genre? Does a cozy have to have a murder at the beginning? How does this work?
[Mette] I had a long conversation with my editor about this precisely because she says that too many authors feel obliged to basically have a dead body, if not on the first page, then at least in the first chapter. If you’re writing a certain kind of mystery, that works. But if you want to do a lot of world building, which is something that mystery has in common with fantasy and science fiction, that world building takes time and so sometimes it’s useful to have a smaller mystery that’s not the murder. Which also often happens in fantasy, that you have like a smaller problem that is solved and allows your hero to build character.
[Brandon] It’s Jabba the Hutt’s palace, right?
[Mette] Yes. So in fact, in my book The Bishop’s Wife, there’s a disappearance first and people suspect it’s going to turn into a murder, but there’s no dead body until about three quarters of the way through the novel.
[Brandon] Okay. But the dead body is pretty important to the genre, then?

[Mette] Yes. Definitely. I think… I was going to say I think one of the differences between mystery and thriller is that thriller often involves the jeopardy of the detective. That’s one of the differences between cozies… In particular, cozies, you have a character, like the Agatha Christie characters, who are nosing around and figuring things out but they’re not necessarily in jeopardy. Especially not through the whole book.
[Brandon] That’s a great definition.
[Mette] That’s the thing about pacing… That’s part of the pacing issue is that you have a character who is just looking around in normal… In the normal world, but isn’t necessarily a spy or somebody who is constantly in danger.
[Brandon] Right. So if we look at the archetype of… One of the biggest thrillers recently is The Da Vinci Code, right? Da Vinci Code starts with a dead body, an investigator is brought in, and within like the first few scenes of being there to investigate the murder, someone starts trying to kill him and he has to go on the run from murderers, where he finds out he’s wrapped up in this whole thing. That’s kind of the quintessential thriller archetype. Then the mystery, the cozy, is the there’s been a baffling mystery and Hercule Poirot is called in to figure it out because no one else is smart enough to figure out who caused this… Who killed this person. Are there other genres… Sub genres within the mystery genre?

[Mette] There’s one called, I think, a closed room mystery, which is the story where you can’t figure out how somebody got in the room to do the murder. There’s another one where… I’m trying to remember the specific term for it, but it’s a mystery in which all of the clues that you would need to solve the crime are revealed on the page, rather than… Sometimes you will have a mystery where the detectives are either holding back information or doesn’t in fact have the information until the climactic moment. That’s different than a mystery where the audience is invited to participate in trying to solve the crime. Then you have an obligation as a writer to make sure that you give all of the information to the reader even… You can try to make it tricky for them to figure out what matters and what doesn’t, but… It’s… I think it may be called fair play, where you have to make sure that the audience has the information.
[Brandon] Great. So, the puzzle aspect is a very big deal. The idea that this is… In a mystery book, you’re presenting a puzzle to the reader to one extent or another. The fun of reading the book is figuring out how the puzzle comes together. Perhaps, kind of the definition between the different sub genres of the mystery genre is how is that puzzle presented. Like, as we said, with the thriller, the puzzle is this mortal danger element is keeping us kind of focused on that, snap, snap, snap, snap. Where the cozy, it’s here’s this mystery. Can you figure it out? Our detective is smart enough to have figured it out on page 1 sometimes, in some of these. Can you figure it out?

[Dan] I think it’s interesting to look at stuff like the modern Sherlock Holmes. Both series, BBC and America’s, which have kind of taken this classic mystery character and put him into much more thriller-oriented stories. Sherlock Holmes as modernly portrayed even in the movies is in constant danger. And there’s all of these other things. So I wonder if that’s just a sign that tastes are different or that studios assume tastes are different. In books, mysteries are still going strong.
[Brandon] In the original Sherlock Holmes, I will say, he was in danger a surprising amount of the time for the era that he was written. It’s not always, but once in a while, he’ll say, “You’d better bring your trusty gun along, Watson, because this one’s…” So even then, there was tension at the end for Sherlock Holmes a lot of the time.
[Dan] That’s true.
[Brandon] But the difference, I think, in a thriller is the sort of page probably three, you’re going to have your protagonist in danger.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Our book of the week, Mette’s going to tell us about The Ghosts of Belfast.
[Mette] The Ghosts of Belfast is right in between thriller and mystery. It’s by Stuart Neville, who is an Irish author. It’s an interesting story. It’s told from one character’s point of view, and he’s not the detective. He’s really the villain of the story, and you find out gradually, it’s unfolded, what he intends to do. It begins with something like number 12, that’s the chapter heading. It goes down from there and you realize they’re counting down the number of people he intends to kill.
[Brandon] Oh, wow.
[Mette] So, you see it from his perspective, but it also is a fascinating story about Ireland and what the legacy is after we have peace. What do you do with people who were involved in the wars beforehand? This is somebody who is taking revenge for things that have happened 20 or 30 years ago. So you get to find out… Again, this is… lots of world building is going on in this mystery. That’s one of the things I find most interesting about mystery, is being set in a world that’s not mine.
[Brandon] Wonderful. Well, you can try The Ghosts of Belfast, download it for free on audible, try a 30-day free trial by going to

[Brandon] This is actually an excellent segue into my next question, because my experience with mysteries and I’m… I’ve very much enjoyed the various different ones I’ve read, seems like the structure of the book is fundamental in creating a mystery. Whereas sometimes like a fantasy, the structure doesn’t need to be… Need to be quite in the forefront, as it does here where you’re talking about this thing, where it’s like the countdown. Or the structure of, for instance, I was thinking of… There are some mysteries where on page 1, they reveal how the criminal did it, and the rest of the book is the detective and the criminal playing cat-and-mouse as the detective tries to figure out what you already know. That’s a fascinating structure for a story. It seems like the mysteries often play with structure. Have you noticed any of this? Have you tried this with your books?
[Mette] I love to play with structure. I think mystery, like any genre, has rules and the funnest writers are the ones who like to break the rules. Like, I have a bet with myself about how late I can like have the dead body show up in each of the books in my series.
[Brandon] That’s clever.
[Mette] Because I feel like readers expect a dead body, and I think it’s interesting… It’s an interesting challenge as a writer to get readers to keep turning pages, like in a book that supposedly a mystery, and still not have a dead body. I hope in their heads, they’re saying, “Wow, this is such an interesting mystery, but there’s still no dead body. When is the dead body going to come?” Eventually, I’m going to write one where the dead body’s on the last page.

[Mary] How do you handle it, Jenn?
[Jenn] I think, as with anything with writing, you have to know the rules and then break them. I think structure, as far as mystery, it is as important as any other genre. I think where the dead body is… Like with Insomnia, there is a dead body in the first chapter, but it’s in a dream, so it’s kind of a… It’s a memory, and he’s witnessing somebody else’s memory of killing someone. So we know someone killed someone, and there is really nothing he can do about it. It really doesn’t play into the plot a whole lot other than that. So it’s just kind of more revelatory of his situation than anything else. So there’s a lot of different ways that you can play with it. To use the dead body in different ways, to reveal different mysteries than what you might normally expect a dead body to reveal. That’s a different path than you might normally expect your main character to be on.

[Dan] Okay. So, Jenn. I’m really excited to have you on this podcast, because I have read your book and loved it. You, like me, write supernatural mysteries, which changes things. The classic Sherlock Holmes line, once you’ve removed the impossible, anything left, however improbable, must be the truth… You can’t remove the impossible.
[Dan] I mean, it’s supernatural mystery. So how did you go about dealing with that problem in your story?
[Jenn] It was a really interesting problem in my story, because in Insomnia, he sees the last… The dreams of the last person he made eye contact with before he goes to sleep. So he’s dying of sleep deprivation. There is a situation in which he’s losing time, and he’s not entirely sure if he is the person who is stalking this girl and he’s… It really comes to the point where he’s eliminated almost everyone else, and he pretty much has to decide that it must be him. That’s a kind of difficult conclusion for your main character…
[Brandon] Wow. That’s a fascinating way to do it. Really interesting.
[Jenn] It’s a hard thing for your main character to come to come and still make your audience like the character. Because they don’t want him to be the bad guy. But at the same time, like… Logically, it’s the only conclusion he can come to at that point, so…
[Mette] That’s really playing with the structure of mystery also, where you’re toying with here’s my detective, my hero character, and then also my hero character turns into the villain. I think that’s a really fun thing to play with.
[Jenn] It is. It is.

[Mary] One other thing that occurs to me is that you’re also writing YA and not always, but frequently, mysteries don’t have a strong character arc. Often, in a long-running mystery series, the main character resets back to zero. But in YA, you always have a strong character arc. That’s frequently what is driving the book. So I’m wondering, how you were playing with blending those two things? Mette, I think you do that as well in yours. So I’d love to hear how you both play with that sort of…
[Mette] I think character arc is one of the… Not only the most crucial parts in a YA book, but it’s also one of the funnest for me personally to develop. For this character, he is such a… He’s an antihero in a lot of ways, and he has such a kind of downward spiral in a lot of ways in this book that it’s really important that we’re in his head. There is no other scenario in which this would work. He has a lot of the typical ways that you would make your character… Audience relate to your character. He has the best friend that the audience’s always love and that absolutely loves him, and sees the best in him. It’s really important with the character arc. It changes… It’s a series, so it changes… Every book, he has a different story and he evolves in a different way through his character. So he doesn’t reset to zero like you normally would in a mystery. Just kind of evolves in a different way through the series. So it does kind of change because it’s a YA, but I think that is a common thing with mysteries, that they kind of start over.

[Brandon] Now, we’re running out of time. I want to give you each a chance to pitch the book that you have. When it comes out, if it’s out, and that sort of thing. Will go ahead and start with you, Jenn. What should they buy, when should they buy it?
[Jenn] Okay. I’ll pitch the next book I have coming out. It’s called Cut Me Free and it comes out in January. January 27, 2015. It is my first contemporary urban thriller, set in Philadelphia. It’s about a girl who grows up in an abusive household and she escapes when her parents kill her little brother. She’s starting over in a new city with a new identity, and she starts receiving packages that have her old name on them and has to figure out who has followed her and who knows about her past.
[Brandon] Cool. Mette?
[Mette] Okay. The Bishop’s Wife is about a Mormon Bishop’s wife, sort of an ordinary woman. All of her children have grown up, and she has time on her hands. So when a young woman in her ward disappears under mysterious circumstances, sort of in the middle of the night in December, she ends up deciding that the husband, this young woman’s husband, has killed her. She’s determined to investigate. So she brings cinnamon rolls and brownies over to the husband’s house, offers to babysit his daughter, and then while he’s gone, she rummages through their entire house to find out clues about where this woman is. It’s loosely inspired by the Josh and Susan Powell story. If you’re in Utah and were around during that, this came out of some of the questions I asked in my head about ways in which our community helps conspire to protect people, and maybe should be exposing them more.

[Brandon] There we are. Well, I have our writing prompt. Our writing prompt is for you to solve a mystery. Where is Howard? Howard is not on this podcast. Why, where, what happened to Howard? Write that story. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.