Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Dark and Stormy Night: 10 Tips for Writing a Paranormal Mystery

I was recently asked to teach a class at a mystery writers’ conference at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. The topic? The art of writing a paranormal mystery. Since I write these types of tales for a living, I readily accepted, thinking: “Hey, how hard can it be to teach others how to do this?” Turns out, it was more difficult than I imagined. I had never before sat down and thought about how to write these books.

Were there hard and fast rules I followed when writing? Not likely. I’m lazier than that. Was there a formula for a succesful novel? If there were, we’d all be bestselling authors. What was I going to tell this room full of people who had paid money to glean knowledge from me?

I do this for a living, I told myself. I have to know something. So I sat down came up with my top 10 tips for writing a paranormal mystery.

1. Real world or new world?
The first thing you need to decide is, how paranormal do you want it to be? You can create a real-world type of story, like my books, or like The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters http://www.sarahwaters.com or Seduction by M. J. Rose http://www.mjrose.com or The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe http://www.katherinehowe.com. By “real world,” I mean your characters live in the real world and simply might have a hint of eeriness swirling around. Your hero or heroine might be psychic. Or a witch. Or she might remember past lives. Or he might see ghosts. But all of the action takes place in our real, flawed world in which something eerie and strange might be lurking around any ordinary corner.

Or you can create an entirely new world. Great examples of this are the Harry Potter series or even the Twilight series. Those are worlds in which wizards go to special boarding schools and Death Eaters are real dangers, and teenaged vampires drive cars in bright daylight and hunky werewolves carry torches for sullen humans.

Either choice works for your narrative, but if you create a new world, you’ll have to do a lot of legwork before you start writing. You need to create the rules, the mythology, the laws, everything about this world, before you put one letter on the page. You need to know your new world just as well as you know your own before you start writing, because one slip up, one instance in which your characters are caught doing something inconsistent with the laws in your new world, and you’ll lose your readers. Imagine if Captain Kirk all of a sudden started casting spells on his crewmen.

2. Once you’ve created your world, make your readers want to live there. And then pull the rug out from under them.
The books I love the best are the ones in which I want to live where the characters are living, or where I’m enticed to go where the characters are going. One of my favorite books is The Ghost Orchid by Carol Goodman http://www.carolgoodman.com/Content/The_Ghost_Orchid.asp, in which a group of artists and writers travel to an artists’ retreat in upstate New York. I’d love to go to a retreat like that! But no, no, no. As it turns out, I wouldn’t. If you make your readers want to live there, they’ll put themselves in the middle of the action and it will be all the more terrifying when things start to go wrong.

3. Even implausible situations must be plausible.
If your reader is questioning something about a character’s behavior in any given scene — Wait, why would she go down into the cellar when she heard the scream instead of just calling the police? — it pulls them out of the narrative. You need to answer those questions before they occur to your reader. She fished her cell phone out of her purse and tried to turn it on. Dead. She was on her own.

4.The “dark and stormy night” cliché isn’t a cliché for nothing.
Not being able to see two feet in front of you while you’re hearing strange moaning on the other side of the room is scary. Not being able to leave because it’s storming outside is scary. If it’s eerie in broad daylight, it’s going to be downright terrifying in the middle of a dark and stormy night.

5. Adapt The Hero’s Journey.
The Hero’s Journey is a concept put forth by the great Joseph Cambell in The Power of Myth, in which he talks about a common narrative in myths from around the world. The hero lives an ordinary life. Something happens that causes an upheaval from this life. He receives a call to adventure, which he initially does not wish to accept. But then he does, and his adventure begins. One classic example of this is Luke Skywalker in the first Star Wars movie. Or Harry Potter in the first of those books. I adapt this concept into something happening in the beginning of my books to cause my heroine to enter a new life. A parent dies. A strange letter arrives in the mail and turns the world upside down. A job offer materializes just as one’s life is in ruins. My heroines must accept these calls to adventure, and when they do, their stories begin. They’re the reason my characters can’t simply walk away from the strange things happening around them.

6. Create vulnerability or danger that the lead character doesn’t see for awhile, but the reader does.
One of the most engrossing, addicting and frightening books I’ve read recently is The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian http://www.chrisbohjalian.com/the-night-strangers. In it, a family moves to a new house, and the reader knows that the daughters are targeted by an odd group of women in the town. Are these women witches? Maybe. Are the girls in danger? Yup. We as readers suspect it, but the lead character doesn’t. When done right, this type of situation will have readers screaming warnings to the narrator. Or maybe that was just me, reading this book. Either way, it will keep your readers turning the pages.

7. Give your readers breaks in the suspense.
Unless you’re writing a thriller, it’s always good to break up the suspense and tension with humor or a little romance. It gives the reader a breather, brings down their guard, and it takes your narrative back to the real world. Think of the Weasley brothers in Harry Potter, or the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Indiana Jones has been chased through the streets by a saber-wielding assassin, and after a dramatic display of swordplay, Indie simply takes out a gun a shoots him. We all had a good laugh, caught our breath, and dove into the narrative again.

8. You’ve got to believe.
I write ghost stories and I travel extensively for readings to promote my books. During almost every reading I’ve had, someone asks me if I believe in ghosts. Yes, is the short answer. But even if you don’t believe in your paranormal phenomenon in the real world — I highly doubt Anne Rice really believes vampires are prowling around New Orleans… or maybe she does — you must believe they exist in the world you’re creating. It has to be absolutely real, plausible and undeniable to you while you’re writing it, or your readers are going to have doubts, too.

9. Was it just my imagination?
What if, right now, you looked up from this article and saw a headless specter floating in the room before you? And then, just as quickly as that, it faded from view. What would you think? Would you immediately conclude that your house or office was haunted, you were in danger and it was time to gather up your things and leave? Or might you think it was just your imagination, brought on by reading about this topic? Or maybe it was just an undigested bit of beef, as Scrooge thought. Here in the real world, we like real-world, sensible explanations for things. We look to explain away eerie or strange happenings as completely normal. So, don’t make your characters jump to otherworldly conclusions too quickly.

10. To outline, or not to outline?
Some writers swear by their outlines. I don’t. I don’t want to know exactly where my story it going, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I don’t trust myself. If I know the answer to the mystery too early, I’m afraid I’d be giving it away too easily. Also, if I’m surprised while writing it, I know the reader will be surprised, too. And if I can’t wait to see what’s waiting on the next page, I hope the reader will feel the same way.

If any of these tips resonate with you, start writing! And if they don’t, throw them away and make up your own. My opinions are just that, my opinions. The great thing about writing fiction, folks, is that we get to make this stuff up.


  1. Thank you for your advices. It was a true pleasure to read that post

  2. Wendy, what an amazingly useful post! I'm smiling as I type this, because you nailed every last thing I wonder and worry and fret about. And number 5, where you suggest adapting "The Hero's Journey?" Brilliant. Thank you for posting this!