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