Writing a mystery: what I discovered with “The Case of the Purloined Pocketwatch”

purloined-1Today I’m publishing the final episode of my long (longer than I thought it would be) Watusi storyline, “The Case of the Purloined Pocketwatch”, and I wanted to give interested readers a little behind-the-scenes peek at my working method on this story. [WARNING: STORY SPOILERS ABOUND IN THIS POST. FYI.] Unlike most of my previous storylines, this one hadn’t kicked around my sketchbook much before I dived in. In fact, it first appeared less than six months before the first strips were published, with this notation:

Story idea– following ‘Sourpuss’? Done as an actual mystery (robbery, not murder) story, using clues, red herrings, suspects, etc. … if not too hard to write for that genre. May need some research into how to write for it; will probably need more planning than the seat-of-your-pants style that worked so well in ‘Isla Esmerelda’…

And of course, I did need to do research into how to write a mystery. While I’ve read a fair share of them, I’d never thought about how to construct one! By far the biggest help as I delved into this genre was Gillian Roberts’ book You Can Write a Mystery (Writer’s Digest Books, ©1999). This book was especially helpful in clarifying my thinking about red herrings (they are misdirection, not false clues), how many suspects to use, and how to play fair with the reader: present all the clues to the reader that Watusi has, but downplay them in such a way that their significance is not noticed at the time. She also had great tips that had me start the story with all the suspects in the room when Watusi first brought in the watch, and keep my dénouement as short as possible (Roberts quoted the King of Hearts advice to Alice on telling stories: “Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end. Then stop.”)

Unfortunately, I found it harder to heed her advice to keep scenes as lean as possible. While I thought each scene either added a bit of levity to a serious story or worked toward explaining the theft &/or eliminating a suspect, the story did turn out to take a good bit longer to resolve than I initially thought. About midway in I realized I wasn’t writing a Christie-esque mystery (more on that later), but an episode of “Psych”. Like watching Sean and Gus clown their way to the solution in their cases, I feel I pretty much just took readers along for the ride as Watusi poked his nose into the business of a variety of characters in Wonder Valley. In that regard, fleshing out his environs and his supporting cast, those scenes were certainly worthwhile in my mind, and are a foundation to build upon in future stories. Keeping a laser focus on clues leading to a solution? Not so much…

Still, if you ever find yourself itching to write a mystery, Roberts’ book is a great starting point!


I also knew I would have to figure out the ending, the characters and their motivations (and alibis) pretty well before I really even started with that first strip. This was quite the opposite of how I did my first long storyline, “Watusi in Isla Esmerelda”, where I had a vague sense of where it was going, but added characters and scenes as needed, some of which in the end took on a larger role than I had initially imagined. While I was still able to make changes along the way in this story (enhancing Vivian’s backstory and the darker history of the pocketwatch, for instance), I needed a better way to organize my story elements. To that end, I employed a tool that I once read Spike Lee used in writing his screenplays: index cards! He used index cards to write down ideas and scenes as they came to him; that way he could rearrange them as needed to get things in order when he began writing his final script. That method worked really well for me, too: I could jot down scenes or lines from any part of the story (even if not fully formed at the time), and fill in as needed with scenes or dialogue to lead up to that point. Or add or develop things that came up mid-story that I hadn’t thought of during its original conception. In a lot of ways that was even more flexible than writing scenes in my sketchbook, and I’m likely to employ it again in the future for longer storylines.

At the same time, inspired by Jaime Hernandez‘s rigidly simple grid in God and Science: Return of the Ti-Girls, I wanted to use a more rigid visual grid in this storyline. For the most part I liked how it worked. (And how it will work as I reformat these strips for print; I feel this story could use more tweaks than most of my previous webcomic serials.) Unfortunately, there were times where my visual clues got squeezed out to make room for the dialog-based ones. Or scenes that I could have clarified better at the time, such as more clearly linking Carl with the car used to throw the note at Watusi’s house:

purloined-2Not to mention something as basic as showing the pocketwatch in more detail!

But there are times where the art isn’t to blame for the lack of reinforced clues, things that I should have caught if I was working on the storyline in bigger chunks, but that slipped through the cracks of meeting my weekly deadline. A prime example of this was the scent clue that Roscoe shared with Watusi: I missed clearly using it to add suspicion to Mr. Amis, and have it reoccur on the note in the rock-throwing strip. I also felt like I didn’t have enough for Emma or Mr. Amis to do for much of the final act, but maybe it was good enough to have them around for the final revelations…

On the other hand, I didn’t feel so bad about the obscurity of the clues I presented once I watched David Suchet’s “Murder on the Orient Express” again– so many of the “clues” that connected the suspects were from knowledge Poirot gained offscreen that his solution seemed like magic! And that was still an entertaining story. So at least my clues were there, even if they were needlessly obscure. Or perhaps I just masterfully misdirected readers away from them…

So, will I write another whodunnit? Probably not. While I feel like I understand the way to make a mystery work better than when I started writing this story over two years ago, I don’t feel that’s where my joy lies. I enjoy building tension by showing the villain and his schemes, forces that are conspiring against Watusi. And that’s something that just can’t be done when I play fair by only showing the reader things that Watusi has seen, even if he was oblivious to the fact that it was a clue.

I hope you enjoyed the story, though! Feel free to share your thoughts on the storyline as a whole with me.

4 thoughts on “Writing a mystery: what I discovered with “The Case of the Purloined Pocketwatch”

    1. I could tell from your comments that you had him figured out by his reaction to Watusi and Emma’s arrival. Thanks for playing it cool while the story wound down!


  1. Thanks for sharing, Dale! I’m a sucker for all things behind the scenes so this was another rewarding read for me! Congratulations on another fabulous storyline! I look forward to seeing what comes next!


    1. Me, too! There are definitely some things I learned in putting this storyline together that I think will be useful in the next one I tackle!


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