I decided to start writing a mystery during this year’s National Novel Writing Month. For one thing, it’s time to live up to the name of my blog.

But the real reason – I think – is this: I need to try using an outline or formula for writing a long narrative, and it makes more sense to me in a mystery than in the other types of fiction that I’ve written. For last year’s NaNo (my first), I pretty much sat down on November 1 and just started writing. I had maybe two pages of notes by the end of October. My novel was going to be a coming-of-middle-age road trip story, and a free form approach made sense to me at the time.

It still does, but almost a year later, Tap Dancing at the County Fair is still an unfinished manuscript. It’s much like any decent road trip – filled with unexpected twists and turns and detours down unpaved country lanes. Some flat tires, some breathtaking scenic overlooks. Nonetheless, I’m not There yet, and I don’t know what There looks like. I haven’t given up, but it’s time to take a hike and try a different approach.

Something with an actual plan. I figure I can’t write a murder mystery without knowing, before beginning, who gets offed, who did it, and why. With an appealing main character who holds the whole shebang together for the reader. And some red herrings. I’m trying to figure all that out now so that November 1 I can start blasting out a decent whodunit.

I’m using Plotting the Mystery Novel: The Classic 12-Chapter Mystery Formula as my starting point. I have no idea who came up with this formula; I don’t think I’ve ever read a mystery with only 12 chapters, nor one with only 65,000 words as the author suggests is “typical”. But the formula, with its narrative approach, seems accessible and sensible to me, so why not.

Once I start plowing through this formula, I’ll probably go through my notes from Steve Alcorn’s ed2go Mystery Writing course that I sorta took several years ago to see how and where his greater level of detail may enrich or obliterate the approach I’ve taken so far.

At that point, I’ll either give up or start writing. Let’s root for #2, shall we?

Alcorn says something like plot is what happens, story is whether the reader cares or not because the characters have come alive – or not – for the reader. And a mystery ain’t nuthin’ without story, according to him. I think.


Right now I’m focusing on coming up with a cast of characters. Since my handwriting is illegible, even to me, I focus on getting my scribbles into Word as soon as possible. I have a folder in Documents devoted to the WIP, and a sub-folder for Characters. There’s a document that lists each character – name and a sentence or two identifying him/her – so I can keep everyone all in one place for overall organization. There’s a separate document for each character that lists everything I can think of about the character – personality traits, looks, what they like for breakfast, back-story, how they relate to other characters, and their overall involvement with the plot and story-line.

If I think of lines of dialogue they might use at some point, I throw that in. If I think of a possible scene, I throw that in. At this point, it’s free form and stream of consciousness. But I figure as the characters come alive for me, they will be able to tell me what they are doing to move the plot along in a believable or compelling way. At least, I hope so.

Plot Ideas

I have another sub-folder for Plot Ideas. Right now it’s empty. Some of the stuff in my character sketches should (I hope!) wend its way over to Plot eventually – hopefully before November 1. Some of my character sketches already indicate events/revelations like: Hey, I did it! The SOB made me do it. Or, hey, I’ve finally figured out who did it – but uh, oh, I’m trapped with him on the island in a hurricane and he knows I know! So I hope Plot Ideas will fill up from the character sketches themselves.


I also will have a calendar so that I can have a reasonable sequence of events – who does what when. This seems like a good segue into my sub-folder called Synopsis, which is also empty. It will probably have one document only, a 3 to 4 page narrative that gives a précis of the entire work. I read somewhere that at least some publishers of mysteries want to see this synopsis even more than a partial manuscript. Is that true? I really have no idea.

But I want this synopsis, and I want it before November 1. And this is my rough plan for getting there.


Will it work? Who knows. Will I change direction or approach along the way? Probably. Maybe. I don’t know. Not a chance. Pick one.

Thoughts, comments, suggestions, I-don’t-think-so: all are welcome. Thanks!


  1. Kathanink

    Good for you! Seriously. Because I think you and I both had no plan whatsoever before NaNo last year and it was a struggle. And both of us have pretty much walked away from our manuscripts (at least for now).

    I think a plan sounds like a terrific idea and a mystery even better. 🙂 And I am rooting for #2!

    Go, Natasha!

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  2. Darksculptures

    Good luck to you! I hope your efforts take the “mystery” out of writing a novel.

    I could go into a dissertation on this subject, but it’s Saturday. The coffee is hot and for the moment it is not raining. You can find me in the garden.

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  3. Shaddy

    I like the padding that October provides before NaNoWriMo begins. Unfortunately, September is wearing thin.

    You’ll undoubtedly be ready and very prepared. Me? I’ll just jump in and flail for thirty days. That’s not all bad. At least I won’t be stagnating.

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      Well, let’s see how this all pans out. (ugh – Freudian slip: I typed ‘pains’ instead of ‘pans’ — hope that doesn’t mean anything!

  4. Parrot Writes

    I did a comparison of the 12 step plan and Steve Alcorns plans and his are more detailed, but the 12 step plan looks easier to follow. I have my outline from SA’s Mystery Class already done, so I plan to use it for NaNo. I think especially for a mystery you need some sort of an outline. DS’s outline in Step 3 of her series is the same as the one we learned in the Mystery Writing class. We can compare notes to see how we are doing along the way.

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