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How To Write Killer Fiction author Carolyn Wheat talkls books

Sometimes it seems like the biggest mystery about mystery and suspense novels is how the plot was constructed. Writing mystery novels (like Agatha Christie whodunnits) and suspense novels (like John Grisham's) seems like precision watch-making. How do you make the whole thing work with all those twists and turns, all adding up to something at the end? Carolyn Wheat's book, How to Write Killer Fiction: the Funhouse of Mystery and the Roller Coaster of Suspense, shows you how to construct plots for these genres in a simple format.Carolyn Wheat has won the Anthony, Agatha, Macavity and Shamus awards for her writing. Her books include The Cass Jameson Series, with titles like Fresh Kills, Mean Streak, Troubled Waters, and Sworn to Defend. Plus Ms Wheat has written books of short fiction and edited anthologies such as Women Before the Bench, a book of courtroom stories.So if you want to learn about mystery and suspense novels, and get some good reading tips, then read on.

Interview by Esther Rockett.
READERSVOICE: What makes people want to read mystery and suspense as opposed to other genres?
CAROLYN WHEAT: One theory is that the use of reason to solve crimes that seem inexplicable is a way of demonstrating that the rational mind can understand and therefore in some way control death itself. On a much more mundane level, we enjoy the puzzle aspect of solving the crime, which also means that we know the ending of a mystery will bring closure and the satisfaction of knowing why the characters behaved as they did. We don’t always get our loose ends tied up in real life or in high literature, but in the mystery, everything makes sense once you understand certain things.
Suspense is a different pleasure. Here we’ve walked through the fire along with the main character and come to grips with evil. We’ve been on the Hero’s Journey, and that’s something mankind has been doing since Beowulf.

Other genres present their own satisfactions. Like mystery, science fiction can make commentary on the social practices of the day. Westerns deal in the conflict between good and evil, civilization and lawlessness.
RV: Which genres are popular among your creative writing students? Which is the most popular genre for them to attempt? Have these currents changed at all in the time you have been teaching?
CW: In my “Beginning the Novel” classes at the University of California at San Diego, I always get a couple of science fiction writers, at least one fantasy writer (yes, they’re different forms), some mystery people, and quite a few who want to write big fat lucrative thrillers. A smaller number are literary in their ambitions. This has stayed pretty much the same over the years, but the ratio of real, honest to God mystery writers in the old tradition has dwindled a bit in favor of Big Suspense. I tend to deplore this, but that’s where the money is, and writers who have been successful at mystery have made the switch to suspense, so how can I fault the newcomers for seeing that gold-not-brass ring and going for it?

RV: How To Write Killer Fiction details the structure and elements of g ood mystery and suspense stories. Can these principles be applied to any kind of story telling?
CW: I think what I call “the four-arc system” is in some ways a natural way to tell a story. I swear I can apply it to Jane Austen’s Emma and I don’t think she ever took a class in screenwriting.
The ups and downs, twists and turns of plot are part of storytelling through the ages, so they do apply to novels that are linear and deal in cause and effect. You can find echoes of them in more avant-garde novels, but there the writers have deliberately chosen to play with the older form and mix things up to where the plot points are buried and obscure.
Another aspect of How To Write Killer Fiction is the concept of the “straight-line narrative” which is the murder as seen from the murderer’s point of view. This is another way of explaining working through the back-story before telling the front-story, so to speak. I think this applies to all books, although many writers seem to do a first draft and then look for structure and meaning instead of the other way around.