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If you want to write a ‘fairplay’ mystery – where your reader has all the clues to solve the mystery- the earlier you plant the clue that will give away the solution the better. Below is a case in point. Good old Sherlock!

Sherlock StarsSherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson went on a camping trip. After a good meal and a bottle of wine, they were exhausted and went to sleep.
Some hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend.
“Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.”
Watson replied, “I see millions and millions of stars.”
“What does that tell you?” Holmes said Watson pondered for a minute.
“Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Timewise, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, I can see that The lord is all powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have, a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you?”
Holmes was silent for a minute, then spoke. “Watson, you idiot, Some ——- has stolen our tent.”

The very first piece of information you were given is that they were camping. But after the good meal, the bottle of wine and the lengthy discussion about the meaning of the universe, you forgot that. Ta Da.

Mysteries are incredibly flexible. They can bend and twist to fit any circumstances or situation. If you are writing an interactive question cube4mystery event, you just have to know what you have to work with in the beginning to save yourself the work of adjusting elements later on. If you are writing a book, you have much more freedom – but you still need to know where you are going to end up. One of the great joys of being a writer is being able to lay the infrastructure so that it supports all the twists and turns you are going to pull your reader through on their way to solving the crime.

This does not mean you are married to a rigid outline or structure. Yes, you do have to make one, but if along the way a better idea pops up, follow it as far as you reasonable can. If this bright new idea is asking you to rearrange just about everything – it’s probably a different book. If you can easily tweak existing ideas to support the new twist – by all means follow it if it improves the story.

code wheel complete3One of the simplest ways to run a code at a children’s detective or spy party is with the use of a code wheel. Even if children can’t read yet, they can match numbers to letters and copy them out to solve the secret message. They can get someone else to read it to them and still have a great sense of accomplishment. For younger children simply tell them to make sure that the number One – or a number of your choosing – and the letter A are matched up on the code wheel.

For older kids the letter A will not necessarily correspond to the number one. The tricky part can come with how cleverly you hide the clue that reveals which letter to match with the number one to begin the players mission to decipher the code. Unless you start with the correct match, the message will remain a mystery. It could be as easy as “Number 1 matches with the second letter of the birthday boy’s last name” or as complex as “Number 5 matches with the fifth letter of the tenth word of the third paragraph on page 67 of the book about vampires.” And have a selection of books on a shelf or coffee table for the gang to thumb through; but only one book on vampires.

You can also make a code wheel that replaces the numbers with symbols and write the message out in symbols.

x Bleeding2It was 1629, Hertfordshire, UK when Joan Norkot had died in her bed with her babe in her arms and her throat slashed. On that tragic morning, when the family went to rouse Joan, they found her neck sliced open and a bloody knife protruding from the floorboards. It must have been suicide, they reasoned, since no one had entered the cottage that evening. It was small and they would have noticed. Beside, there was no sign of a struggle.

Crowded around the decomposing, recently exhumed corpse were Judge Harvey, the jury, two clergymen and several neighbors and friends of the deceased. Four family members were prodded to go forward and touch the dead woman. It was considered legally binding evidence if a corpse reacted to the touch of its killer and wounds would bleed anew.

An eyewitness account states that as three of the four murder suspects touched the body its face turned to a ‘lively and fresh color’ while one of its eyes opened and shut again. At the same time her ring finger ‘thrust out …and pulled in, again’. Blood dripped onto the grass below. This happened three times then the body resumed its lifeless state.

The Grave Truth – To have a plot you need to dig up some dirt.

  grave dig female2 We have all been betrayed by something or someone. At least we think we have – close enough. Then that betrayal is buried … or forgotten about … covered over by time and other troubles. Dirty deeds lie all around us, drifting up dark corners, lurking inside a locked drawer and hidden behind hollow eyes and false intentions … just waiting to be revealed.

Capture your readers’ attention by digging up dirt that gets under your nails, coats your hair and clogs your skin. Sift through rumours and search the debris for those gold nuggets of murderous motivation that will make your story unforgettable.

Grab your tools, roll up your shirt sleeves and start shovelling some dirt around. This is where your plot begins. You need something to write about.

ImageOriginally the Baker Street Irregulars were a gang of street urchins whom Holmes often employs to aid his cases. Now BSI also stands for an elite sleuthing club dedicated to the study of Sherlock Holmes. It began on May 19, 1934,  when a unique crossword puzzle appeared in The Saturday Review of Literature. The society claims many famous people among its members. Here are its by-laws.

BY-LAWS OF THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS

(1) An annual meeting shall be held on January 6th, at which those toasts shall be drunk which were published in the Saturday Review of January 27th, 1934; after which the members shall drink at will.

(2) The current round shall be bought by any member who fails to identify, by title of story and context, any quotation from the Sacred Writings submitted by any other member.

Qualification A.–If two or more members fail so to identify, a round shall be bought by each of those so failing.

Qualification B.–If the submitter of the quotation, upon challenge, fails to identify it correctly, he shall buy the round.

(3) Special meetings may be called at any time or any place by any one of three members, two of whom shall constitute a quorum.

Qualification A.–If said two are of opposite sexes, they shall use care in selecting the place of meeting, to avoid misinterpretation (or interpretation, either, for that matter).

Qualification B.–If such two persons of opposite sexes be clients of the Personal Column of the Saturday Review, the foregoing does not apply; such persons being presumed to let their consciences be their guides.

(4) All other business shall be left for the monthly meeting.

(5) There shall be no monthly meeting.

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Some things have changed since S.S. Van Dine gave us his 20 rules for detective fiction writing. Some things have not. The rational behind many of these rules still hold true while some are hilariously dated and reveal the bias from the time they were written.

“Twenty rules for writing detective stories” (1928)

(Originally published in the American Magazine (1928-sep),
and included in the Philo Vance investigates omnibus (1936).

by S.S. Van Dine
(pseud. for Willard Huntington Wright)

THE DETECTIVE story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more — it is a sporting event. And for the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws — unwritten, perhaps, but none the less binding; and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them. Herewith, then, is a sort Credo, based partly on the practice of all the great writers of detective stories, and partly on the promptings of the honest author’s inner conscience. To wit:

1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.

2. No willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.

3. There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.

4. The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It’s false pretenses.

5. The culprit must be determined by logical deductions — not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.

6. The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.

7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader’s trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded.

8. The problem of the crime must he solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic seances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.

9. There must be but one detective — that is, but one protagonist of deduction — one deus ex machina. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem, is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn’t know who his codeductor is. It’s like making the reader run a race with a relay team.

10. The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story — that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest.

11. A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion.

12. There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire onus must rest on one pair of shoulders: the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.

13. Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance; but it is going too far to grant him a secret society to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds.

14. The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier. Once an author soars into the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner, he is outside the bounds of detective fiction, cavorting in the uncharted reaches of adventure.

15. The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent — provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face-that all the clues really pointed to the culprit — and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying.

16. A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no “atmospheric” preoccupations. such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.

17. A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by housebreakers and bandits are the province of the police departments — not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives. A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.

18. A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to hoodwink the trusting and kind-hearted reader.

19. The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction — in secret-service tales, for instance. But a murder story must be kept gemütlich, so to speak. It must reflect the reader’s everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.

20. And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author’s ineptitude and lack of originality. (a) Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect. (b) The bogus spiritualistic seance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away. (c) Forged fingerprints. (d) The dummy-figure alibi. (e) The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar. (f)The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person. (g) The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops. (h) The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in. (i) The word association test for guilt. (j) The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unraveled by the sleuth.

ImageBlogging … what to do? what to do?  Over the past year I have been recreating my Mystery Factory website and fooling myself into thinking that the best thing to do would be to have my blog attached to that. Nope. It hasn’t been happening. So I’ve decided to revive Mystery Trivia. This bluck is just a way of starting to re-grease my wheels after a year of not doing much.

ImageThis is Fern’s Basket. The carousel goes round and the horses go up and down and it lights up. Fern’s basket was the most popular as far as prize baskets go but then many of the entrants pre-teen. Her fingerprints and a few other clues were found at the crime scene.
Nearly 100 people joined Mystery Factory for a clue hunt at our booth at the Shop Local Canmore Trade Fair in Canmore AB last weekend. We won 1st place for the Most Fun booth, 2nd place for the Friendliest Booth and 3rd place for the People’s Choice Best Overall Booth! Thank you Canmore!
At the end of the day we had four happy winners of our awesome prize baskets. Putting them together was just as much fun as planning the mystery. A basket was themed after each of the suspects and it was a pretty equal match as to which basket was the most popular.

Old McDonald’s Basket is filled with an assortment of stuffies and other animals types. Old McDonald is the villian who stole the precious gems from the carousel horse and replaced them with candy. Farming isn’t cheap you know.

Patsy Produce’s Basket is pretty exciting too. It includes a teapot in the shape of a head of lettuce with a radish on top of the lid. You can just barely make it out at the back of the basket. There is also a flower garden snow globe filled with glitter instead of snow. Patsy has a pet monkey, an appalling pet for a produce person to have.

 

Finally there is Zoltar the Fortune Teller. It’s hard to make out the blue crystal star hanging from the handle of the basket but hang there it does.
All in all, it was a wonderful weekend my fabulous husband tells me. He was generous to go and look after things for me as I was unable to get away.

 

The Case of the Candy Carousel – A ‘Crack the Case’ Mystery Contest

One day left for the Mystery Factory Booth at the Shop Local Canmore Trade Fair. Stop by and check us out. Solve the Case of the Candy Carousel and enter to win some really great prizes! Our man on the spot, Tony Berryman, says the hardest thing people have to do is figure out which basket they want to win.

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