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September 23, 2016

The Mystery of Writing Mysteries --- Guest Post by John Wilson, Author of The Missing Skull

Posted by Catherine

In the original Seven series, the seven grandsons of David McLean are tasked with completing seven unusual adventures, taking them from the top of Kilimanjaro to the bottom of the Mediterranean. Their stories are now continued with the Seven Prequels --- seven action-packed stories by seven different authors. To celebrate, we're taking part in a blog tour with author John Wilson. Read below to learn more and click here to follow the blog tour and see the rest of the posts.

Have you ever tried writing a mystery novel with twists and turns that cohesively must come together in a dramatic and thrilling ending? It is definitely not an easy task. With THE MISSING SKULL, author John Wilson decided to see how he would handle the mystery of writing a mystery novel. Wilson jumped into his writing without an outline and faced some trouble in creating a cohesive and consistent story. However, he prevailed in his struggles and was rewarded with an unpredictable and complex novel. Read below to find out what Wilson learned about the mystery writing process and even himself!

I have always enjoyed a good mystery novel. Not one where I can work out what’s happening halfway through or one that is so complex that the author’s explanation at the end is full of plot holes, but one that keeps me guessing and then delivers an unexpected and satisfying conclusion. They are a relatively rare treat and I always wonder, as I close the book, how did the author do it? Did he or she know the ending and plan each complex step to get there before a finger hit a keyboard, or did the story grow organically through the writing process? With THE MISSING SKULL I decided to find out how this author would handle that question.

When the seven authors of the 7Series and 7Sequels books decided to write prequels, I was faced with certain restrictions. Since THE MISSING SKULL was going to take place several years before LOST CAUSE (7Series) and BROKEN ARROW (7Sequels), I couldn’t use any backstory I had created for either of those novels. Most significantly, I couldn’t have Laia, who is a major character in both the other books, appear in THE MISSING SKULL, since Steve isn’t going to meet her for four years. I also couldn’t place Steve in an exotic locale since he complains in LOST CAUSE that he’s never been anywhere interesting --- so I send him to northern Ontario.

Steve and his grandfather go for a trip to Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park, where the famous Canadian artist Tom Thomson died in 1917. There is some doubt about the circumstances surrounding Thomson’s death, and that gave me the idea for trying my hand at a mystery.

Most of what I write is historical fiction, and the ideas for my books tend to arise from the history I read about. This means that my research often provides an historical framework within which I can place my characters and weave my story. This is one of the reasons I don’t spend much time doing detailed outlines before I begin a novel. So, I leaped in and began writing my first mystery novel --- and that’s when the difficulties began.

I introduced mysterious threatening characters, clues for Steve and the reader to work out, a disastrous canoe trip and a possible bear. I was happy with how things were going until it began to dawn on me that I would have to tie all these diverse elements together into a well-rounded, satisfying ending. That’s when I did my first rewrite.

I stopped writing and thought long and hard about the ending. Then I went back and began changing things to fit with my ending. I dropped a character who seemed unnecessary, I split another character into two and I reduced the bear’s role dramatically. All well and good, except that, when you change one thing in a story, it doesn’t necessarily fit with something else, so you have to change that, and that, and that… Eventually, I had a fairly consistent story that didn’t lead to the ending I had thought of. So I decided to work backwards.

I wrote the climax to the story. I used some of the ending I had previously thought of and much that I had added and changed, but I put in what I needed to make the conclusion tight and satisfying. Then I went back through the story to fit it to my ending. I did this several times, each time picking out finer and finer inconsistent details, such as confusing characters’ names because I had changed them or split the character.

This process was helped immensely by reading the novel out loud to myself. Reading aloud forces a writer to see and hear what they have written differently, and inconsistencies and clunky dialogue stand out like sore thumbs.

Writing THE MISSING SKULL was a challenge, as is trying anything new, and, because of all the back and forth and changes, I was nervous that I had missed a huge plot hole somewhere. However the reviewer in Canadian Materials said that I had created “…a series of layered mysteries each more compelling than the last” and that the ending was “…not predictable” --- exactly what I had been trying to do.

So, I’ve written a mystery novel, although I’m no closer to knowing how other authors do it, or even the best way for me to do it. I may never write another mystery, but if I do, I think I’ll try crafting an outline first.