Every Sunday, the feature SHANNON MUIR’S MYSTERY OF CHARACTER on SHANNON MUIR’S THE PULP AND MYSTERY SHELF focuses on the art and craft of writing from Shannon’s perspective, or gives you insight on her process as an author.
This week features Shannon looking into what defines a mystery story.
This is an updated and combined version of two columns that Shannon Muir did for a sister site.
Earlier on featured a column defining character. Although many of the topics being discussed can apply to any genre, this site focuses mainly on mystery and crime writing.
Therefore, before we discuss much more, it also feels appropriate to focus on the definition of “mystery” as it pertains to fiction.
So what defines a mystery story? It shouldn’t be a puzzle to solve as to what the definition is.
Merriam-Webster comes up with the definition, “a piece of fiction dealing usually with the solution of a mysterious crime,” but this seems strange to me. In a sense, isn’t mystery being used to define itself by using the adjective versus a noun?
Mysterious, in turn, is described by Merriam-Webster as “exciting wonder, curiosity, or surprise while baffling efforts to comprehend or identify” – which seems to lean on the idea of something not being able to be explained.
Some mysteries do remain unsolved… but most are deduced. So, is this definition accurate?
If you want to learn more about the genre, or are trying to get started and you’re stuck on developing your character, I suggest taking a look at what has come before. Pick up some of the early masters like Edgar Allen Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Agatha Christie.
It’s true their stories are set in a different time and place today. However, note what aspects of characters that you see in those classic mysteries could easy hold true in someone today, even with a little tweaks. Also, pay attention to the elements of what makes the stories that famous fictional characters such as Dupin, Holmes, Poirot, and Miss Marple to be mystery stories and see how they fit the proposed definition.
I’ve been doing this a lot of late. You might find it interesting that I’ve only read Agatha Christie for the first time recently. Poe and Doyle I’d read some of in my teen years, but now I am revisiting those with a critical eye.
The masters have much to teach us.
Until next time!