Looking at life like a mystery
Updated: Sep 29
Originally featured in "Your Secret Library Mystery Magazine" https://issuu.com/booksgosocial/docs/mystery_issue_16_11
Only when I began writing novels, did I realize that I had been looking at my life as a puzzle. I never set out with a plan, but took delight in following unknown paths. I was excited about being challenged to find answers to new problems, expanding my knowledge with new locations, ideas and situations.
Early in my career in public relations I learned that there were two kinds of employers. One wanted you to have done the same thing for five years. They wanted you to bring that expertise to their company. Something like writing a mystery series. Both in life and writing, working with the familiar is comforting and enables you to focus on building upon known particulars and experiences.
Then there were those employers seeking talented people with a variety of skills to round out the experience of their staff. By thinking outside your comfort zone you experience a flexibility of thinking. For a manuscript it may require research into unknown subjects. In a career it can spark an entirely new approach to a business situation.
I fell into the latter group. The positions were always breaking new ground. You weren’t asked if you could do a task, you were expected to find a way to implement it. Whether it was working with a drug being developed to cure cancer, or a new technological advancement, it would be my job to explain the unknown to others.
This is a roundabout way of explaining the way I look at the start of a new novel. After I ask myself what if, I set about building a plot with individual pieces. Depicting the background of my main characters, envisioning locations and of course, the all-important elements of method-means-opportunity of the malcontent set on causing the protagonist harm.
The first piece of the puzzle is to build a life for each of my characters that sets them apart from one another. In writing a character, I try to illustrate the influences behind their actions. Those elements developed long before the person appears on the page. Complications of birth, or family dynamics, or self-imposed limitations.
Because I write mysteries, I must weigh good versus evil influencing each twist and turn in the plot. Since no one is inherently all good or evil the drama is depicted in the battle between the two, sometimes in the same person.
And when did you ever see a jigsaw puzzle without a setting? A master scene into which the myriad of pieces must all fit. In a mystery the location narrows the field of possibilities for introducing characters and elements to the plot. In life, settings will influence day-to-day activities. Is it a community, business, family? As in life, each frames the tale.
But writing is also about creating emotional chemistry for each character. Are they acidic, explosive, passive or a combination that adds to the volatile mix? In a jig saw puzzle this would be done with color and graphics. In a novel it is created in word pictures. In a career it is done by the person’s visible mode of dress, response to specific situations, behavior and personality.
And lastly gather all puzzle components into an integrated whole. In a mystery you build suspense. In a career you are adding to your skills and expertise.
So do you live and write like a mystery puzzling out life as you go? Or, are you gifted with knowing your path and build along that road? Neither is better. Both may even be instinctive. That’s life.