To Know Or Not To Know Whodunit?
I have author friends who write mysteries, thrillers or suspense, who claim that if they knew ahead who the bad guy or gal in their work in progress was, they would be too bored to write the book. On the other hand, I know writers who could not navigate their way through such a complicated plot unless they knew who the perp was from page one.
I’m a fence-sitter on this, so I’ve written my historical mystery series (nine books with Queen Elizabeth I as amateur sleuth) and my contemporary romantic suspense novels, fifteen so far, using both techniques.
In my earlier works, I always tended to plot everything out, afraid I would never get the clues, red herrings, etc. to mesh otherwise. As a matter of fact, I used to always know my beginnings and ending and just hoped the middle of the book (my bane—the ‘muddle of the book’—see tomorrow’s mini-essay) would work out. But as I became more adept at juggling characters and a sub-plot or two and as I came to trust my characters to be themselves, good or evil, I began to change the way I worked.
I was once honored to sit next to famed British mystery author P.D. James at a banquet in Florida where we were both presenters at a conference. She told me that she had learned if she put 3 - 4 (no more, she said!) possible suspects in her book and let them interact with the protagonist and each other, they would let her know ‘whodunit.’ I found that worked well for me, at least in my contemporary books where all the characters are fictional and, therefore, indeed could have done the evil deed that gets the story rolling.
In my Queen Elizabeth I Mystery Series, where I was peopling my plots with many real characters, I could not pin a murder on someone real who had not been a murderer, though there were enough shifty characters loose in Tudor England that I never had to look far for villains.
Now I find that the perp reveals himself or herself to me (hopefully, not to the reader) about three-fourths of the way through. Sometimes I have to go back to rewrite a bit, but the motives and moves are usually there already. Actually, I think the whydunits of my books are almost as interesting as the whodunits, whether I’m writing stories set in the here and now or the days of yore.