HOW TO CRAFT A “CHOOSE YOUR SUSPECT” HISTORICAL OR OTHER MYSTERY With Four Steps

Remember those “choose your own adventure” books? Actually, they still have them online in digital, hypertext format. There are also some developed, supposedly, for adults, although what you’ll be learning here is much more sophisticated, and more of a fully developed novel, not mostly illustrated books as those are. Finally, you can even craft your own simple and interactive CYOA here and sell it online at the same place, although I don’t know what the market is for them.

Big publishing has also created a few titles that could be termed “interactive,” but they are not as fully developed as what I will be teaching you. There are similarly formatted digital games that are interactively crafted as mysteries but are certainly not novels.

The Dancing Murders digital cover

I will be showing you a way to turn your mystery (any type, including historical) into an adult and very sophisticated novel that allows you to put suspects into your readers’ consciousness using first-person point-of-view. I developed this method for the sixth mystery in my Portia of the Pacific Historical Mystery series, The Dancing Murders, and it has given me a way to publish across the publishing gamut, which includes hardcover, paperback, and both regularly-formatted eBooks and so-called “enhanced” ePub3 formatted books. I will explain this distribution method at the end of my four lessons.

Of course, this presentation presupposes you have already written at least one published or self-published mystery. In other words, you know the general “formula” for telling a mystery, of whatever genre. Some folks say 12 categories, some 13, but when it comes down to it, mystery plots are very similar in nature. My strategy will be referencing the usual formula that has the murder taking place at the start of your story, and then you might include one or more murders, accordingly, dependent upon the coherence of your plot and the outlines of your plot, which vary from author-to-author. For the final two steps, you craft your “climax and resolution” scenes.

Step 1: Choose Your Suspects

This brings me to step one: Choose your suspects. I am assuming (makes an “ass of u and me”) you already know what your mystery is about, and you’ve already chosen most of the major characters. This, of course, must include the key suspects.

In my strategy, I found that having four key suspects worked best for what I wanted to accomplish. In fact, because of the nature of plotting this out, having more suspects would have tasked my sanity and (most likely) that of my reader. You will see why in a moment.

I also want to point out that you may “convert” any present mystery you’ve already crafted and convert it into the strategy I am going to teach you. The only hardship, on your part, will be how effectively you can create your first-person point-of-view suspect narratives from which the reader will “choose.”

Since I’ve already crafted my work, I will (I almost used “shall,” as I write in the Nineteenth Century) use my own four suspects in The Dancing Murders. I list them by name below. Here is the format presented as shown inside the text of my work that the reader sees:

list of suspects in The Dancing Murders
Hypertext Links of Suspects

Notice there are hypertext links below the photo of each one. These links go to the separate narratives for each one that I’ve already crafted. In the print versions, I simply tell them which page to go to in order to read the narrative to its completion:

print book list of suspects
Print Book Listing of Suspects

As I stated, I chose to create my suspects’ narratives using first-person, active voice. As most writers understand, the limitations of this point-of-view are that you must describe the action as it occurs through only this character’s lens of reality. This suited my purpose, as I wanted to give my reader a much more psychologically personal perspective into my suspect’s mind, since he/she was “chosen” as the character the reader believes is the guiltiest of the four presented.

Notice that I have not included as a step the crafting of your formulaic “first part” of the mystery. In my case, it is the first five chapters. This is written in a fairly conventional manner, except for the fact that I decided to use second-person p.o.v. for the first two chapters, which introduced the first two suspects, Josephine Marcus Earp and Ida Bailey. My attorney detective, Clara Shortridge Foltz, is “implied” in the dialogue that takes place and is the “you” being addressed by my character. Naturally, you don’t have to use such a rhetorical device. You can stay with the traditional third person or first person p.o.v. (for hard-boiled) to show your opening and inciting murder, with its presentation of your suspects and the setting details.

Therefore, my first step was to use the first five chapters as sort of a “prologue” to the actual “mystery phase” of my work, in which I present to the reader all of the four suspects (the other two are Wyatt Earp and Heaven Riendeau), as well as the murder(s) that need to be solved. This time, however, I have handed this “choice” of solving to the reader. I explain to the reader this fact just before I show them their choices, as shown here:

In this unique novel, the reader will first read five chapters in the conventional format. Then, the narrative becomes a journey into the mind of each of the four suspects. You choose which one to explore, as the action takes place during the same chronology. It will be like a Groundhog Day mystery, where the only difference is the unique perspective and psyche of the suspect you choose. You should be forewarned, however. Unless and until you read all four suspects and their unique perspectives, you won’t understand the complete ramifications of the plot and it movement into the next mystery. Even if you choose the correct suspect, the “macrocosm” of the overall mystery may surprise you. Happy reading!

 

As you can see, the reader is made fully aware of the task at hand. You can also see why I chose to craft my four chronologically organized suspect narratives in the first person, active voice. However, depending upon your mystery’s category and its purpose, you may decide to use another p.o.v. for your suspect narratives, or even experiment with other methods.

Step 2: Organize Your Plot

Shakespeare said “The play is the thing,” and boy, was he right! Plot in mystery, I have found over 25 years of writing, is the way to your reader’s heart and mind. If they don’t enjoy your plot, you can almost throw all of your carefully developed characters in the East River. Some of my worst criticisms from readers have been about the plot and its unsatisfactory resolution. This was one of the main reasons I chose to use this “choose your suspect” method of framing my mystery and its plot.

However, as I discovered, you still must use the same “tricks of the trade” to keep your reader in suspense, involved with the plot, and guessing on each page. I found, through trial and error, that I could best develop my twists and developments in what each suspect does by using the first person, active voice. Also, because I only use a very sparse, scene outline, it gave me enough flexibility to allow my suspects to create surprising twists in the plot and fascinating reactions to developments in my plot that could be crafted into a very “personalized” experience for the reader. After all, they “chose” this suspect, so they would foreseeably want to be shown they were correct in choosing him/her.

I used the chronological organization for my mystery’s action and resolution phases. I was always fascinated by movies like Kurosawa’s Rashomon, and even Groundhog Day, with Bill Murray and Andie McDowell. The filmmaker and screenwriter chose to show the same chronology, over and over, as in Groundhog Day, showing the different activities of the trapped protagonist (in Rashomon it’s from each suspect’s p.o.v. told by the narrator). Of course, the Rashomon technique was what I was after, in the long run, so I used the same chronology order. Except, even then, by using my first person, active voice, I could craft interesting mental insights by my suspect and (depending upon if they were present) different activities in which they participate.

Therefore, for step two, you would use your main plot and show it from the points-of-view of your four (or fewer, or more) suspects. The only difference in this method from your originally crafted mystery would be how you get your “detective” involved. This was an important decision for me. It may be for you as well.

Step 3: Plan Your Climax

In my historical mystery, which takes place in 1888 San Diego, a boomtown full of corrupt politicians, I knew I wanted to shine a light on this corruption in an interesting way. It is my philosophical outlook for this series that people, in a moral sense, remain just as corrupt or good, and it’s only our “toys” and settings that change.

I always love mysteries that twist you, as you read, into pretzel knots of different ideas, motivations and insights. Therefore, I wanted my mystery to conclude in the reader’s mind only after he/she reads all four of the suspects’ narratives. Therefore, even if the reader did choose the “correct” suspect, and this suspect turns out to be the character most responsible for the evils happening in my plot, there would be an additional, what I like to call “macrocosmic viewpoint,” the reader can see that points to the plot of my next mystery in the series. The reader can only see this bigger “pay-off” of the climax by reading all four of the suspects’ narratives and their scenes.

In this case, my mystery’s climax happens during the wedding of my detective attorney’s son, which takes place at the Bay Cliff House Restaurant, overlooking Ocean Beach, in San Francisco. Therefore, I have twisted the ploy of a comedy ending with a wedding, into a mystery exploding into a “higher stakes” murder that leads the reader into my next mystery in the series (#7).

Therefore, what I needed to do was craft my clues and twists into the different suspect characters and their narratives, so they all end up at this final scene at the Bay Cliff House. You must do this also. In other words, if you’ve already written your mystery, you must place the clues and developments (twists) inside each suspect character and point it all toward your climactic moment when the reader is given the “solution” to your mystery. This is, of course, also called the “turning point,” so it doesn’t need to take place at the exact end of your novel.

Of course, I know who my guilty party is, so I crafted most of the important clues for this suspect’s narrative and scenes. The other three suspects were given different kinds of clues and the “red herring” label for the other suspect who most readers might choose. The more “craftily” you select what your suspect knows and reports to the reader, the more successful you can be at this step.

In my case, after the reader peruses all four suspects and their narratives, he/she will (hopefully) be fully engaged with the overall macrocosm I wanted to give them.

Step 4: Plan Your Resolution

In the instance of my mystery, The Dancing Murders, I wanted the reader to be the only “character” who knows the full extent and complexity of my plot. In other words, if one were to read only one suspect’s narrative, even if that suspect proves to be the guiltiest, this reader would not know the full impact of the resolution of this case. Only by reading all four suspect narratives can the reader accomplish this, and I tell them this fact, up-front.

Therefore, my planning of this resolution must be done by intricately and carefully writing my different narratives to proceed, step-by-step, toward the climax and the resolution I want to create. As we all know, the more we leave a reader with that sense of “I should have known that all along,” or “Boy, I wasn’t expecting that to happen,” the better our resolution will be in their mind.

Conclusion: Enhanced eBook Possibilities

Several years ago, I developed an ePub3 development and distribution platform I call “Embellisher Stream.” Inside the creator-side of the platform, the eBook developer can craft an interactive and enhanced eBook, which can include such things as:

  • A full audiobook of the mystery.
  • Relevant videos to explain the history or setting of your mystery.
  • Interviews with characters in audio format.
  • Graphics of the historical places and scenes.
  • Interactive suspect narratives (see above) that can “pop-up” when the reader selects the specific suspect.
  • A SoundCloud Playlist of chosen music the reader can enjoy to enhance their reading and/or listening experience.

In my mystery’s publication, I plan to create a hard cover version (Amazon just began this at Kindle Direct Publishing), a soft cover version (again, at Kindle Direct Publishing), and the conventional .mobi digital version. Plus, I’m producing the ePub3 “enhanced” version of the mystery, which will be sold exclusively through my platform.

If you’re interested in this extra method of distribution, by creating an ePub3 version, which can then be downloaded and sold through Amazon Direct Publishing and other online distribution retailers, then please contact me. I will show you how to craft your mystery in this format for ePub3 additions, or I can do it for you for a price to be negotiated. You can see samples at my online platform (free registration with email and password).

Thanks for reading my little lesson, and I hope you can give it a shot. You know your mystery best, so converting it shouldn’t be that much of a chore—especially if it improves your sales bottom line!

Speaking of bottom line, how about moseying on over to my books to take a gander at all the mysteries in my Portia of the Pacific series? There are links to the Amazon paperbacks and digital versions, as well as the ePub3 “enhanced” versions of the first two mysteries. The Dancing Murders will be sold in this exclusive ePub3 format, which includes a full audiobook, an appropriate (for the era) SoundCloud playlist of music, and a variety of historical videos and graphics.