I’ve never been much of a mystery writer: mysterious occurrences happen in my stories, but I’m not the best at coming up with things that aren’t easy to solve right away. The closest thing I’ve ever come to is in the book I’m trying to start sending queries out for this summer, when the reader spends most of the book trying to figure out where Sidney is and why Nikki is writing letters to her.
Because my current project is a frustrating YA/sci-fi/mystery hybrid (I don’t know) I have to play around with bigger mysteries to keep it interesting. Which is challenging in the best and worst way for me, because I don’t want potential readers to be able to solve them. And I’m not sure I’m practiced enough in this area to achieve that yet.
But trying my hardest to do it anyway, that’s the fun part.
You start off with an eight-year-old version of the narrator asking her dad questions about someone named Kathyrine. What does she look like? What does she like to do? Dad answers (as is his communicative nature) by handing her a 900+ page book, which he doesn’t expect her to read from start to finish. But of course she does—or she would have, if the last page of the book hadn’t been missing.
Dun dun dunnnn.
So there’s two: who the heck is Kathyrine, why isn’t she around and what happens in the last page of the story? Is the last page really missing?
Okay, I’ll give you an excerpt. I wasn’t going to, but I think you deserve it.
A week after that we were both reading in our respective chairs in the study when I stopped in the middle of the sentence I was reading and asked, “What did she like to do?”
“Kathyrine. What did she like to do?”
He flipped the page of his book, a memoir I had not read yet. “She liked reading.”
“Is that why we have our own library?” He answered with a bored sounding “Mm” and continued reading his book, which certainly did not calm my curious stance. “What was her favorite book?”
He sat in that same position long enough that I was sure he would ignore me completely, but as soon as I had made the decision to retreat and formulate a new strategy, he pushed up his glasses, closed his book, stood and crossed the room to search for a book on the other side of it. He didn’t look for long, pulling one from the shelf and crossing the room again to hand it to me. It was big and heavy and beautiful.
“Come back with more questions when you’ve finished that,” he said, returning to his own book. He either thought I never would, or that it would take me a long time to get through. Both of his hypotheses were generously disproven.
The book was a collection of short stories, but each one began where the one before it ended. Not like chapters so much: each story featured different characters, all working toward the same common goal, all coming close to getting there, all falling just a little short.
It was nothing like I had ever been allowed to read before.
I was addicted.
I carried the book with me everywhere I went for the remainder of that week. Its edges poked my back after stuffing it into my backpack, after I’d taken out my notebook and biology textbook to make room for it, but it stopped bothering me the moment I read the first words of the story. After that, I couldn’t stop.
I read it at lunch, between classes, on the monorail rides to and from the Academy. I read it at breakfast and at dinner, knowing my father’s eyes were on me the whole time, which made me even more determined to progress. I wanted to know how the story ended. I wanted to know why my mother liked the book so much.
It was my first real-life glimpse of what it meant to chase after something that needed finding. It would not be my last.
“There’s a page missing,” I said on a cloudy Wednesday as I burst through the door after school. “Correction: the last page. It doesn’t exist. Dad, drop everything. This is a crisis.”
He looked up from his laptop. “We bought it used. There’s never been a last page.”
I let my bag fall to the floor. “Why didn’t you tell me? I’ll never know how it ends!”
“There are more pressing mysteries in this world to be solved, Ollia,” he said dryly, and turned back to his work.
“But I have to know,” I said, sinking into the chair across from him at the kitchen table. “Caddie and Dr. Carigan were about to open the box. The box, dad! I waited nine hundred and forty one pages to find out what was in the box. This is the worst day of my life.”
“Too much drama, Lia,” he said as I crawled toward my room, and I felt the emotion suddenly drain from inside me as I rose to my feet.
“Is that what happened to Kathyrine?” I asked, my voice flat, my face expressionless. He was still. “She was too good at feeling, so you sent her away?”
He said nothing in response. Not then, not ever.
Every time I opened my mouth to repeat the question after that, the words died in my throat. Eventually, the urge to ask decayed, the kind of giving up only silence can coax into existence.
I stopped asking. But I never stopped wondering.
After the prologue, fast-forward nine years. In walks Traviss, the new professor who’s only two years older than our MC/narrator yet almost has his doctorate already. She’s never heard of him before, and that’s not typical in a city where everyone knows everyone and usually all their business, too.
A little while later, add to the mess a competition between students, who now have to fight (maybe literally, no one knows—except me, muaha) to earn a spot on a top-secret research team. The winner gets out of having to turn in an honors project before graduating. Nice perk. But of course details are minimal and you’ll eventually find out that, surprise, grown-ups lie. About everything.
I think the best crafted mysteries are solved backwards (from the writer’s point of view). I’ve known the answers to some of these (and more I don’t have the time or space to mention) from the beginning. The real trick is how to dissect those answers and deliver them in small segments throughout a story.
A few times I’ve gone the other way, created a mystery for myself and my characters to solve and, the moment I’ve walked away from my desk, done or seen something that led to accidentally figuring out the answer.
I think that’s my favorite part. Figuring it out. Even when you don’t know how all the pieces will come together, you know what it needs to add up to in the end.
Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.
A recent graduate with a B.A. in English and a completed major in nutrition, currently seeking a graduate degree in health communication, Meg is a twenty-something workaholic with a passion for writing, coffee and dietetics. In addition to her status as an aspiring novelist and Grammar Nazi (and the mastermind behind this site), Meg is an editor for College Lifestyles magazine and a guest blogger for Food & Nutrition Magazine’s Stone Soup. She is a seven-time NaNoWriMo winner and has written several creative pieces for Teen Ink magazine. Follow Meg on Twitter.