Writing books help solve mysteries of fiction

A friend asked me what books I would recommend to get started writing fiction. Two recent reads immediately came to mind, Hallie Ephron’s  Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel and Patricia Highsmith’s Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. 

While I tend to be a “pantser” when it comes to writing fiction, I’m not opposed to at least working up background for characters, and Ephron provides this and more. Her tips and advice prove useful for any genre, not just mystery.

Her section on plotting and the three-act structure is one of the clearest I’ve read to understand that particular approach to structure. And while it might sound like I’m advocating a formulaic approach, all great fiction, all great writing needs some foundation to build on.

Ephron has written several best-selling novels, including the Dr. Peter Zak series. She comes from a family of great storytellers that includes the late director and screenwriter Nora Ephron.

Highsmith was born in Fort Worth, Texas, but spent most of her life in Europe. She is the creator of conman and killer Tom Ripley.

In Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, Highsmith, who died in 1995, discusses basics like plotting and generating ideas common in most writing books. But it’s her last section that stands out, as she leads you through the processes she talks about by describing how she applied them to writing her novel The Glass Cell.

She also recommends naps as a way to restore the creative juices. That, in and of itself, is good advice. Who doesn’t like a good nap?

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The Glue of Truthiness

Doing some self-directed training at work made me think about our current controversy over alternative facts. And that, in turn, made me think about an insight from fictional detective Harry Bosch in the novel The Black Ice by Michael Connelly. As Bosch pieces together the clues to a cop’s murder, he recalls something he was told early in his career: you can have all the facts you want, but facts mean nothing without figuring out the glue holding them together.

That’s a great insight on Bosch/Connelly’s part (Connelly was an L.A. Times crime reporter before turning to fiction). What is the glue that holds the facts together? If you investigate deeper, you piece together the meaning, the truth.

Of course, we all have deep convictions we often hold onto no matter the contrary evidence. We are all also guilty of reacting to contrary evidence by clinging even stronger to our convictions. Or we cherry-pick stuff that supports our convictions.

But, what if we dig deeper? Will we find the facts and their truths are as flimsily held together by edible Elmer’s paste as a kindergartener’s art project? Or will we discover a solid bond held together with Krazy Glue?

I love questions like this. It’s one of the reasons I love fiction and believe fiction is truthier than nonfiction. Of course, it’s usually also much more entertaining. And that’s a fact!

— Todd