"Writing Adult Mystery Fiction" with Helen Chappell

Thursday, January 25, 2001

MODERATOR is Kristi Holl, author of 24 books and l50+ articles for adults and children. A former writing teacher for fifteen years, she is also the web editor for this site.

Helen is Helen Chappell, a columnist, award-winning reporter, and writer of books. Helen is the creator of the critically acclaimed Sam and Hollis mysteries. She's published over thirty-five books, including Giving Up the Ghost (Dell) and A Frightened Ghost. Her newest book is A Whole World of Trouble.

Names color coded in blue are viewers who had questions.

Interviews begin in the Professional Connection Room at 9 p.m. Atlantic/Canada, 8 Eastern, 7 Central, 6 Mountain, and 5 Pacific.

Moderator: Good evening, everybody! We're here tonight to hear Helen Chappell talk on the subject of "Writing Adult Mystery Fiction." Helen is the creator of the critically acclaimed Sam and Hollis mysteries and has published over thirty-five books, including Giving Up the Ghost and A Frightened Ghost. Welcome, Helen!

Helen: Hi, Kristi! Thanks for having me. And hello everyone! I'm happy to be here!

Moderator: Helen, did you always want to be a writer?

Helen: Actually, I wanted to be an artist. Even went to art school, but I started working for a literary agent and found my true calling, for better or worse!

Moderator: What is a typical writing day like for you? How many writing projects do you work on at a time?

Helen: Right now, I'm working on a single mainstream novel, A Whole World of Trouble, but for many years, I worked on multiple projects all at once, just to keep the pot boiling.

Moderator: Can you tell us about any future publishing plans?

Helen: A Whole World of Trouble should be completed by September, and published by Simon and Schuster in 2002, all things going smoothly. Then I'd like to try another Sam and Hollis mystery and a nonfiction book.

Moderator: Do you read mysteries yourself?

Helen: Yes, I love them! Joan Hess, Margaret Maron, Jan Burke, Dianne Day, Susan McBride, Sujata Massey . . . the list goes on and on. I love mysteries. And nonfiction. I think a writer should read enormous amounts of nonfiction. It never hurts to have the odd fact at your fingertips.

SaraJ: Did you also read mysteries as a child, like Nancy Drew? Does reading mysteries help you write them, do you think?

Helen: I loved Nancy Drew, and Trixie Belden and Judy Bolton, which dates me, doesn't it? And yes, reading mysteries is very inspirational to me. Getting to meet some of my favorite authors has been great too. I almost fainted from fandom when I met Joan and Margaret at Malice.

Moderator: Who are your favorite adult mystery writers (or were those your favorites just listed?)

Helen: I think Joan and Margaret and Sujata are my favorites, but the all-time great writer is Raymond Chandler.

Moderator: Why is reading mysteries for pleasure important if you also want to write mysteries?

Helen: Because you are what you read. I think anyone who wants to write, and I really browbeat my students about this, MUST be a voracious and eclectic reader. You read for pleasure and you read to learn. You read to learn how to write.

Moderator: What about mystery writing on the Internet? What about sites like at Can you learn there?

Helen: Yes, read them too! I love thecase/solveit! But I rarely solve a case. What does that say about me?

Moderator: I know in the romance genre, women read most of those books. What about mysteries? What group enjoys mysteries?

Helen: I find women make up the majority of mystery readers. They seem to enjoy mysteries written by both men and women. Whereas, I've noted that a lot of male readers have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to read women mystery writers.

Moderator: Generally speaking, how long are adult mysteries? (How many words per chapter or pages per chapter do you strive for in your mysteries?)

Helen: How long? Hmm. I'd say aim for 225-250 pages. And I try to craft chapters that are between 10 and 15 pages long. But again, this is a matter of where the story is taking you as a writer, and what's happening. Sometimes a chapter can only be a page, because that page sets one scene to move the story forward. Sometimes you might need 25 pages to move the story. So much of this is a matter of personal preference. You can have a novel as short as 180 pages, or as long as 350. A great deal depends on the complexity of the story. And I often find that a novel tells you, as you work on it, just how long or how short it needs to be. A good rule of thumb in a first draft is stick in too much rather than too little, because it's easier to cut than add.

Moderator: What about magazine story lengths for mysteries?

Helen: I'd say no more than 2500 words, and try like mad to keep it closer to 1500. Magazines, much more than books, concern themselves with word length, simply because of the physical demands of the form.

SaraJ: So you look for what seems like a natural break in the plot to end a chapter?

Helen: Yes. Well expressed. A natural break in the narrative, a change of scene, a change of Point of View, or my personal favorite: the cliffhanger!

MBVoelker: Can a person who loves reading mysteries, but has never solved a mystery before the detective announced the solution, learn to write them? I always agree with Hastings.

Helen: I don't see why not! For many years I thought plotting was one of my worst weaknesses (and unkind people might say it still is) but I wanted to write a mystery because I had a set of characters, a situation, and an idea. So I sat down and started it. Basically, I had no plot, and no idea what was going to happen, so every day when I sat down to work on the book, the events that unfolded were as much a surprise to me as to the reader. And when I finished, I had a story. My point is, you don't know until you try, what you can do.

seabeewife: How exactly do you begin writing a mystery? What do you do 1st, 2nd, etc.?

Helen: Good question. First, I start with the characters. I envision them in my mind. Second, I think of a scene to place them in. Third, I start throwing conflicts at them, until each time they think they know the killer, or they think they're clear about it. Fourth, I throw more trouble and confusion on them. And finally, fifth, I hope I can figure out a way to extricate them from the mess. Normally, I've always worked from very detailed outlines, but in the Sam and Hollises I try for as much improvisation as I can, so I never know what will happen before it does. This is not a good way to work, and it means you often end up doing a lot of nitpicky revision work. But it's a lot of fun for me to keep the action moving as fast as I can, and I never know what's next!

Moderator: Let's talk about characters some more. In your opinion, what qualities does a good hero or heroine have? (And are men or women protagonists more popular?)

Helen: Hmm. A good protagonist should be a man or a woman or even, in some cases, dogs and cats with whom the reader can feel sympathy and a sense of friendship. No one wants to read about someone they don't feel any emotion about. Even Hannibal Lector is entertaining, if not especially someone you'd want around in real life. As to men vs. women in the pop sweepstakes, the sales departments who track the trends say woman protagonists have been more popular lately: Stephanie Plum, Kinsey Milhone, Kay Scarpetta, you name her. But I don't see men reading about women protagonists in the same way a woman would read either gender, if she thought the book at least sounded interesting. To sum: I think if a book is good, and the characters are good, people will buy it. Everyone wants a good story to read!

james55clinton: In a series, must you re-describe the sleuth in each new book?

Helen: Hi James. I think you need to sketch in a little background in each new book. The trick is to give enough back story for a new reader, but not such much that an old hand will be bored plowing through page after page. The great trick is weaving the back story into the new book. And the best way to do that, I think, is "show, don't tell." Tricky, but it can be done.

Moderator: In a similar vein, Helen, what makes a good villain?

Helen: Vincent Price. Timothy Roth. Sydney Greenstreet. Anyway, sigh, a good villain in a mystery probably shouldn't be too obvious, since you want to hide the Bad Person in among The Usual Suspects. But myself, I love a good scene-stealing, scenery-chewing baddie, someone you love to hate.

Moderator: Sometimes villains are more memorable than the heroes. How do you keep your villain from taking over the book in importance?

Helen: Two words: Hannibal Lector. As I said before, I try to make all my villains blend in with the others. But even within the conventions of the genre I have a lot of fun creating somewhat weirder-than-life characters. But even a villain can change his spots. A continuing character in my series, Hollis' father-in-law, who is sort of this caricature of Big Daddy in some bad Williams play, stuck around long enough to develop into a more sympathetic person and less of a stereotyped greedy capitalist pig, which even surprised me. In a mystery, I think the ultimate "fool the reader" would be to make the perp this really nice person everyone likes who turns out to be a total sleaze.

Moderator: You want your reader to intensely dislike your villain and sympathize with your heroine, but how do you make that happen if the villain is unknown until the end?

Helen: Maybe if you're writing old fashioned melodramas, which works for John Grisham or Stephen King or Kay Scarpetta, you want a nasty villain, but in the sort of social comedies I write, I want you to laugh at the bad guys. In a traditional cozy, the murderer should and could be anyone, so you certainly don't want say, Auric Goldfinger hanging around the library when they find the handsome young aviator dead on the floor. Now, if I were writing a thriller, I'd want that villain to be triflin' nasty, because I wouldn't want you to like him.

Moderator: Why (or why not) is it important to know WHY the villain does what he does?

Helen: Good question. I think those long denouements at the end of mysteries, and I do this too where the Bad Guys explain it all to the protagonist, as if he or she were the prison analyst, can get very dreary. But we're human. We need to know why and how so it's believable.

james55clinton: At what point do you decide WHO DONE IT?

Helen: James, you the man! Sometimes, I know from the get go, but often I don't know until we're right up on the denouement. In one book, I cast three different characters as the murderer, and did a lot of work with each one before I finally had a draft where exactly the right (and least suspected) murderer was revealed. Not that I suggest anyone else try this. Everyone has a different way of working, and you should try a lot of things to find the method that suits your special madness. That's just how I do it.

AnneKelly: What is the difference between a mystery and a thriller?

Helen: Hi, Anne, that's a tough one for me to define, since I'm neither an editor or in the marketing department. I'd say a mystery is a plot that revolves around finding out whodunit, while a thriller revolves around stopping them from doing it again. Too easy, I know. Thriller writers to me are John Grishman, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark. Mystery writers would be more like Agatha Christie (goddess!) Cornwell, you know, the usual suspects. It's a good question. One way to tell is whether or not a novel is marketed as a MYSTERY or a THRILLER, since some mystery writers think they're too good to be called genre writers anymore.

KKB: Do you try to make the investigative side of your story as true to life as you can? If so, how do you research this?

Helen: Well, I was a reporter for a small town paper for years, on the crime and court beat, and I spent a lot of time talking to ladies and gentleman on both sides of the law, and on the street and in court. When I decided to write mysteries, I asked a retired homicide investigator from the state police and a circuit court judge to read my mss. for mistakes and errors. I read all the forensic books I could find and talked to yet more people, including a natural resources policewoman with a corpse sniffing dog (my favorite!) I generally draw from my own and others' experiences to make my police, legal and tech details as accurate as I can.

Christine Collier: Helen, what do you think of the writing books that give you murder plots and different ways to murder a victim, find missing people, etc.?

Helen: Christine, I love them and own a large collection of them. Some were actually given to me by law enforcement people and lawyers. And my macabre interest in forensic pathology keeps me clipping stuff from various journals. Right now, I gruesomely fascinated by using insects to detect TOD (time of death).

Herbert: Any advice on how to follow two or three venues of plot line or investigation from different perspectives, and maintain continuity?

Helen: Oooooh, multiple point of view! That's a tough one for any writer. I have a hard time keeping one plot straight in my head, so I admire people like Carl Hiiassen who are masters at the multi-POV/multi-story thread. If I could figure out how it's done (maps? index cards? a big chart?) I'd share the secret in a NY minute. But all I can advise is to read and learn from the masters before trying it at home.

Moderator: How do you decide on a victim for your story? What things do you consider before deciding on your victim?

Helen: Draw near, friends. I'm going to tell you a little secret. Sometimes I pick out real life unpleasant people (and we all know there's no shortage of those) and I change them around enough to avoid a lawsuit, and then I wipe them off the face of the earth. It's very cathartic and totally legal, as long as you change, change, change those crucial details!

Moderator: I choose villains the same way! (And they never recognize themselves either!) Helen, is it important that the hero knows the victim, or does it matter if it's a random crime?

Helen: I'm glad our moderator admits to that device too. Makes me feel less, well, nasty. I don't think it's important whether the hero knows the victim or not, but I do think, to keep the plot believable and logical, there should be some connection, however tenuous. Note how many times the protagonist is wrongfully accused, for instance! Cheap 'n' easy plot device!

Moderator: Let's talk about suspects next. What are their purpose in a mystery? How many do you need?

Helen: The purpose of the suspect in the mystery is to . . . Suddenly, a shot rang out, the lights went out and Helen fell! Suspects add pieces to the puzzle. In my opinion, they should also add to the fun. If you can create a few interesting folks with a motive for mayhem, you can really have fun working them through their paces, trying out the role of killer on each one. As to how many, learn from my mistakes; if you have so many suspects that you can't tell Colonel Mustard from Professor Peacock, your reader will be in more trouble than you are. So, I'd choose a reasonable number, and make them all as different from each other as possible. Again, this is a matter of personal preference, but how many books have you thrown across the room because there were more suspects than the combined defense of Baltimore and New York?

Moderator: True! Helen, how do you "hide" the real villain among several suspects and still play fair with the reader?

Helen: Clues, clues, clues! I've been rereading Agatha Christie lately and I've noticed that every clue is right there in plain sight. Nothing is hidden from the reader. Of course, the red herrings are all there too!

bernie: Do you know all your clues and red herrings before your first draft, or do you put them in more during your revisions?

Helen: A little of both. As I've said tonight, I've discovered what works best for me is to freestyle. To improvise. So sometimes, I'll have a clue or two in mind. Other times, I'll sit here for days waiting for inspiration to strike. And worst of all for me, in the final revisions, after I knew (finally) who did it, I have to go back and fill in the gaps and missing links and herrings and red flags.

Moderator: Since mysteries are "plot driven," are the characters really that important as long as they do their job?

Helen: I just finished reading a mystery by a well known author wherein the characters were so cardboard you could have advertised a yard sale on them. And it was a great disappointment. I think creating interesting, memorable, colorful characters and a weak plot is better than vague stereotypes and the best plot in the world.

Moderator: I have to agree. On to plotting now . . . Helen, how hard IS it to plot a mystery?

Helen: For me, it's like getting my teeth pulled at its worst. And at its best, it's like skiing downhill. I think once again, it's different for everyone. Some of you may have wonderful plots stashed away everywhere in your desks. Others may spend a year staring out the window, like me, waiting for inspiration to strike. It's such an individual thing. But take heart! Even the great Raymond Chandler had trouble with plots. All around you, real life provides daily inspiration!

janp: Do you have any favorite ways to find a plot for your stories?

Helen: I live in a small, rural area, and I read the local paper, which is a total schmatta (rag) but it keeps me posted on the local mayhem. But since this is a small rural area and I have to live here, I would never draw a plot from a genuine tragedy where innocent people were damaged. I may have a mean streak, but it's not that mean. Besides, I have a very good imagination!

Moderator: For new writers, is there some simple formula for plotting a mystery?

Helen: Boy meets girl, boy kills girl, boy gets caught. The formulas are as hackneyed as you want or as original as you like. If you read enough, you'll soon discover what the formulas are and how to write to the genre. And if you're good and lucky--luck and timing mean so much in the arts--you'll be original and talented enough to put your own special spin on your story that will make it unique and special. Don't be afraid of hard work, don't be afraid of original ideas and don't be afraid to try!

SaraJ: For a "formula," do the hero and villain have to be introduced right away in the first chapter? How soon do all the suspects have to appear? How close to the end should the villain be revealed?

Helen: Here's a Master Plot Formula 101: First chapter should start with some action. The murder will do nicely here. Next chapter, switch to the POV of the protagonist, who gets the bad news and the details of the kill. Third: round up the suspects, which can include the killer. Push the middle of the novel with a combination of action scenes, confusions, revelations about the suspects' motives, threats, obstacles, near misses, etc. Then the protagonist figures out whodunit. But that's not whodunit! But the "not the real killer" drops the ultimate clue that leads the protagonist to the confrontation with who actually dunnit. And there's a big action scene where the killer threatens the protagonist with doom and mayhem, all the while explaining how it was done (evil laughter optional). But, at the last minute, before all is lost, the protagonist somehow rescues him/herself. Quash (there is no other word for it) the baddie. And in the last chapter, you tie up all the loose ends. The End. Whew!

Moderator: Excellent "formula" here! Do you outline each story before you start? In how much detail?

Helen: As I explained before, I pretty much improvise from the opening scene on. Unfortunately, editors like to have some kind of synopsis they can show their bosses, so I type out a loose synopsis that I rarely stick to because as you write, you always get better ideas.

MBVoelker: Do readers like an unusual setting such as a convention of enthusiasts pursuing an uncommon hobby? Or do they like murder in the course of the daily routine better?

Helen: Speaking for myself, I rather enjoy murder in scenes or places I would ordinarily not experience otherwise. Like Sujata Massey's Rei Shimora books set in modern Japan. Wonderful! Anything that's not home is interesting to me!

Moderator: After final revisions, how would our viewers SELL their mysteries? What's the process? And do you need an agent?

Helen: I really suggest an agent. Getting one isn't easy. Another route is to e-publish. If you can get some short stories published, an agent is much more likely to look at your novel.

Moderator: I'm really sorry to interrupt right now, but we're out of time. I want to thank Helen so much for coming tonight and talking about my favorite genre! I know there are many avid mystery readers here tonight. I'm sure you've inspired them to start mysteries of their own, Helen!

Helen: Thank you so much for having me, Kristi! As always, it's been a real pleasure to be here. You've asked some great questions, and I've learned something myself. I'd really like to thank Kristi Holl for her patience and kindness, especially with all the techo stuff. She has to baby-sit me through every time!

Moderator: You're really welcome, Helen. I'm technically challenged most days myself! And now, do come back in two weeks on February 8, 2001, to hear Sydell Voeller talk about "Electronic Book Publishing." Sydell Voeller has published both traditional and electronic novels in both the young adult romance and women's fiction genres. Her three most recent electronic books are The Fisherman's Daughter, a romantic suspense novel, Sandcastles of Love, a teen romance, and Skateboard Blues, also a teen romance. Sydell will be discussing the pros and cons of e-publishing (books), how to know if it's right for you, and how it compares to traditional publishing. She will also look at the latest electronic reading devices. Come back in two weeks with your questions about this new direction in publishing! Until then, have a great time with your writing!


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