Writing a mystery novel

Here’s a fun question (for writers, anyway): how do you write a mystery novel?

Mysteries are a genre, which means they have conventions from which, if you want general acclaim, you can’t really deviate. There’s a crime and a sleuth and suspects and clues, and if it’s a modern mystery then the sleuth solves their own personal problems along with the crime–and if it isn’t then the mystery had better be “real”, by which I mean the reader has a snowball’s chance in hell of solving it themselves before the sleuth reveals the solution (I really hate murder mysteries that aren’t like that, don’t you?)

So not only do you have the usual conventions of story to adhere to–three acts, probably some character growth although the success of Knives Out proves that isn’t necessary even these days–but you have to figure out the moving parts of the mystery, and if you’re really a straight-A student, how to feed them to the reader to create an airtight conclusion.

I’m sure it helps to know that in order to commit a crime a person has to have means, motive and opportunity. It’s nice to know that your readers, if they’re savvy regular readers of mysteries, won’t believe any information they hear secondhand, ie, your sleuth has to confirm things at the source. It’s also good to have a generally cynical view of humanity. Murders happen for sex, money, and loyalty. In other words, power. Your reader will thus be paying special attention to suspects with those motives, and you, who live to serve, will jerk them around because of it.

That still leaves the writer fairly out at sea in how to get going, though. One thing that’s clear is that a mystery novel can’t be pantsed. While you might not have to outline it scene by scene, you absolutely have to know every detail about the crime before you get going, and it’s probably good to have a running list of which clues will eliminate every innocent suspect, so you can check them off as you drop them in.

But you need more, and this is where I’m moving away from what I’ve read in other articles about how to write a mystery and entering the realm of my own conjecture.

To write a mystery, you first have to outline a novel that isn’t the novel you’re going to write.

The protagonist of this novel is the killer.

The killer wants something. Something is standing in the killer’s way of getting it. The killer does something (a crime) to remove that obstacle, and enters what structural writers call the “False Victory” part of the narrative. They think they’ve gotten away with it.

It’s around this point that your actual novel starts. The one starring the sleuth, whose problem is that someone has done a crime, whose desire is to solve it, and whose roadblock to solving the crime is the killer’s sense of self-preservation. The sleuth gathers clues and eliminates suspects in what is the second act of their novel, but the third act–the Enemies Closing In–part of the killer’s story. Then, in the Grand Finale of the sleuth’s story, they reveal who the killer is.

And that triggers the Grand Finale of the killer’s story, in which they make a last-ditch effort to escape. But no one cares about the drama of the killer’s Grand Finale, because the real novel, the one they’re reading, has already entered its denouement. The story is over.

And that is how literature punishes the killer.

I hope this has given you something to chew on if you’re writing a mystery of your own. If you have more or better advice about structuring a mystery novel, PLEASE drop it in the comments. I am always looking for good advice.

Designing a fictional language: part 1

Hello all!

I’ve been thinking lately about scifi and fantasy, and worldbuilding, and how one of the earliest things a writer (or this writer, anyway) does when designing a character is to come up with a name for that character.

Are you a worldbuilding nerd? Do you have characters and places to name? Would you like the names you choose to feel like they really belong together, like they all come from a particular place with a particular culture and feel to it? And would you like to lay the foundation for making up a whole fictional language for them while you’re doing it?

Lucky you, because I have a doctorate in linguistics, and I can tell you how.

What we need to do is to come up with a set of rules to describe how your culture’s language sounds (or, since we’re writing fiction here, how it looks on the page). To do this you’ll need to decide what its people’s vocal tracts are like, which will tell you what sounds they can make. Next you’ll decide which of those sounds they actually use. Then you’ll design the structure of their language’s syllables. At this point, you will know enough to go ahead and begin constructing names…or, if you want extra credit, you can go on to make up some phonological transformations first. That would be Tolkien-level stuff though, and do you want to be doing Tolkien-level stuff?

Yeah, I thought you probably did.

So without further ado, here is installment 1 in designing your scifi/fantasy language, with the specific goal of creating names.


Vocal Tracts


Vocal tracts are what birds and mammals use to make noises. They include everything that can be manipulated to make sounds using air that flows from the outside into the animal’s lungs and back out again.

Different kinds of animals can have different vocal tracts. Birds, for example, have a vocal tract that consists basically of a trachea, a syrinx, an oral cavity, an upper esophagus, and a beak. Mammals on the other hand have a laryngeal cavity or glottis, a pharynx, an oral cavity, and a nasal cavity. Humans specifically can also manipulate their tongue and lips to change the sounds their oral cavities make.

Are your characters humanoids? Are they actually humans? Are they not humanoid at all? That will affect their vocal tracts, which will affect what sounds they can make.

Before you get too excited, let me take you aside for a moment and have a serious talk about that. If your creatures aren’t even humanoids, they’ll still have to communicate to your readers somehow, using symbols for sounds that your readers understand. Your hero might be a gelatinous blob incapable of any noise but low-frequency humming, and that’s all very well, but you’ll have a hell of a time conveying it on the page.

You’ll encounter similar questions if your characters are birds, or if they have a syrinx like a bird…or even if they are mammalian but non-humanoid, like horses. Jonathan Swift did a bang-up job giving names to his intelligent horses, the Houyhnhnms, in Gulliver’s Travels, by the way. Just looking at “houyhnhnm” you see that it’s a sound a horse could make.

But it will be easiest and most straightforward to say that your characters are humanoid, or at least that they articulate like humans. Just saying.



If your characters are humanoid then they can make consonant sounds at a few basic points of articulation. They have flexible tongues and lips that can touch those places of articulation in different ways, too.

The basic kinds of consonants that humans make, broken down by what parts of the vocal tract are making them, are:

Glottal sounds, made with the glottis. That’s down near your vocal cords, the farthest down in your throat that you can manipulate sound, and the most familiar English glottal sound is H.

Pharyngeal sounds, made with the pharynx. English doesn’t have these! If you’d like to make a pharyngeal sound yourself, try making an H, but make it hiss. Our glottal H is by necessity pronounced without much turbulence of air, but the pharynx can be tightened, and a hissing H will do that. Some people make this sound when they’ve just taken a bite of really spicy food.

Uvular sounds, made against your uvula, that fleshy blob at the back of your mouth. A few English dialects from specific parts of the British Isles use a uvular sound at the end of the word “loch.” Standard American English doesn’t use uvular sounds.

Velar sounds, created by putting the back of the tongue against the soft palate, which is the soft part at the back of your mouth. Familiar English sounds here include K and G.

Palatal sounds, made with the middle part of the tongue against the hard palate, which is a fancy way of saying the top of your mouth. The English Y sound happens here.

Retroflex sounds, made with the tip of the tongue rolled backward to touch the hard palate. The usual English R is pronounced here, and some dialects pronounce L here too.

Postalveolar sounds are made with the tip of the tongue behind the alveolar ridge, which is the downward slope as you move from your hard palate toward your teeth. Many English speakers pronounce L here, as well as N.

Alveolar sounds are the tip of the tongue on the alveolar ridge. D, T, S, and Sh are here.

Dental sounds are created with the tip of the tongue against the back of the teeth. Think Th.

Labiodental sounds are created with the lips and teeth together. F, V.

Finally, bilabial sounds are made with the two lips together. Thing B, P, and M.

In addition to places of articulation, consonants have a manner of articulation. This describes how the sound is made, versus where it’s made.

Plosives are made by completely closing the vocal tract at the point of articulation, building up air pressure behind it, then releasing the pressure. Plosives include B, P, D, T, G, and K. They can be made with the vocal cords humming (in which case they’re called voiced) or still (unvoiced).

Nasals are made by closing the vocal tract at the point of articulation and letting air flow out the nose instead of out the mouth. English nasals include M, N, and Ng.

Trills are exactly how they sound: air is rapidly passed over the point of articulation, allowing brief puffs of sound to escape.

Taps or flaps are sort of like light plosives. The vocal tract is closed lightly so air escapes with relatively little force.

Fricatives are formed by narrowing the vocal tract just enough so that the escaping air becomes turbulent; think of rapids in a river. English fricatives include F, V, Th, S, Sh, Z and Zh.

Lateral fricatives (and lateral approximants too) are the same, but the air flow is diverted around either side of the tongue.

Lastly, approximants are sounds in which the vocal tract narrows at the point of articulation, but even less so than with fricatives. They are almost vowels, and in many cases serve the same purpose as vowels (like in the next lesson, when we’ll talk about what’s at the heart of a syllable). In English these include R, Y, and L, which is a lateral approximant.

If you, like me, prefer your information in chart form, then jump over here to see a chart of all the sounds that are made in known natural languages, then here to see the sounds in English specifically. Keep those tabs open, by the way. We’re going to be referring to them.

But what about the vowels, you say? Vowels are wild, that’s what. They don’t depend on hard points of articulation—they’re squishy-wishy slippy-slidey timey-wimey…uh…you get the idea. Suffice it to say they can happen anywhere inside the oral cavity. They can be tense or lax, which means you either tense or relax your vocal tract while you pronounce them, and they can be rounded, which means you make a circle with your lips when you pronounce them, like in the sound “oo”. In addition to this, a vowel can be a monophthong, meaning it is pronounced at just one place in the mouth, or it can be a diphthong, meaning it slides from one place to another, or it can be—wait for it—a triphthong, meaning it moves between three places. All English dialects have several diphthongs: the vowels in face, choice, goat, price, and mouth are all diphthongs. The Wikipedia article on English phonology claims that Received Pronunciation (which is a prescribed “proper” English accent, now falling out of favor but still common on BBC broadcasting) includes triphthongs, but it hasn’t given us any examples of them in use (phooey.)

Go back to the chart I sent you to earlier. This chart is fantastic because if you turn the sound up on your device, it will pronounce the sounds for you. You’ll notice besides the runs of consonants that English has there are series of consonants pronounced as a pop or click, while sucking air in instead of blowing it out, with an extra puff of air…there are lots of fun possibilities.

You’ll also notice that the letters English uses to represent familiar sounds aren’t always the same as the symbols used on this chart. An American R, for example, is ɻ on this chart. Our th- is represented as either θ (unvoiced) or ð (voiced). This system of symbols is called IPA, which stands for International Phonetic Alphabet. These symbols are used because people make more sounds than any alphabet has letters to represent them with. If you really want to keep your head straight as we move forward with constructing your culture’s names, get familiar with those symbols. You can do it. I’ve taught them to a gazillion undergraduate students. You can learn them too.

Spend some time with the IPA chart. Learn about all the wonderful noises humans can make. Try to make them yourself. Get excited about it. Take time with this step, because the next step is to use this chart to construct your language’s phonological inventory.

What’s that?

You’ll notice that English doesn’t use all the possible sounds. No language does. All languages use only a subset of all the noises the human vocal tract can produce. So the first thing you need to do to figure out how your language sounds is…you guessed it. Decide what your language’s subset is, and make a list.

Pick some or a lot of consonants—somewhere between ten and thirty.

Pick some or a lot of vowels—somewhere between three and twelve, say. Also decide if your language has diphthongs and triphthongs, and what they are.

Make your list using IPA symbols, if you can hack it. If you really hate all those little symbols and would rather use the familiar alphabet to write your sounds down, that’s fine too (this is all just fun and games anyway, right?)

You might want to look at the phonological inventories of languages other than English while you’re doing this. Look up Arabic’s. And Mandarin’s. Look up Navajo and Hawaiian. Just google “X phonology” where X is whatever language you’re interested in, and charts will be easy to find.

If you look at enough languages, you’ll notice that languages tend to have “trends” in their phonological inventories. Hawaiian doesn’t have any voiced stops, for example. Arabic has lots of sounds in the velar, uvular, and pharyngeal positions, a part of the vocal tract that English practically ignores. Navajo differentiates unaspirated, aspirated, and ejective stops. Mandarin differentiates tones—sounds spoken using rising, falling, and flat tones of voice. Isn’t that amazing?

So. As you are picking out your language’s phonological inventory, keep in mind that languages tend to have trends in their consonants. You can add consonants that have tones, that are clicks, that are aspirated…whatever makes you happy. Just keep in mind that at the end, you’ll have to figure out how to write it in the standard alphabet for your readers (because you might be willing to learn IPA for your craft, but your readers won’t be.)

At this point, if you are still writing characters who aren’t human, you can impose some broad logic about their phonological inventories based on what you decide about their vocal tracts. Are they cat-people with cleft upper lips, who can’t pronounce bilabial sounds? Do they have teeth like ours that allow dental sounds? Flexible tongues like ours? Do they have an extra point of articulation?

Enjoy yourself, and settle your choices. In the next article we’re going to build syllables.


Working Along

Each article in this series will end with a Working Along section, where I’ll make up a naming system at the same time you do, so you can see how I work.

For the sake of simplicity, my characters are human. Say they live on a colonized planet, a couple thousand years after colonization, when the parent cultures have been forgotten.

Below is an inventory of sounds I chose. When choosing yours, I recommend that you start with a word or handful of words that “sound” like your culture, for whatever reason, and use the sounds in those words as the seeds of your phonological inventory. If you already have a character name that you’re attached to then use those.

I started out by thinking of lovely mellifluous words without a lot of hard sounds, like “Wampanoag” and “Momoa.” I picked out the sounds used in them. Then, because I like them, I expanded the series of nasals, added some more velar/uvular/glottal sounds because I guess this language likes that part of the vocal tract, and finally added a trill because they’re fun.

Then I filled out my vowel inventory with mostly mid and back vowels, because that’s where so many of the consonants are happening. I finished off with four diphthongs.



Fürchte dich nicht

That’s German for “don’t be afraid,” as sung by the inimitable Mary Margaret O’Hara right here.

It’s also, in my opinion, one of the most valuable pieces of advice for writers. And I mean in regards to what you’re doing to your characters; the way you describe it; the stakes you introduce.

Don’t be afraid to go ape. Be disgusting. Be heartrending. Be repellant. Be difficult. In short: be original.

I do some beta reading from time to time, to see what other budding writers are coming up with and to coax them into beta reading for me. More than once, in these readings, I have thought something fabulously interesting had just happened … and turned out to be wrong.

Frexample: a man is trudging through the snow and comes across an unconscious girl, her wrists and ankles all bloody.

I think: ye Gods! She’s had her hands and feet cut off!

I keep reading: no, she’s just been tied up and had her wrists and ankles scratched by the rope.


Or again: a young woman is coerced into being adopted by a pair of rich muckety-mucks. I mistakenly think the muckety-mucks are her True Love’s parents, which will create a problem for their budding romance.

I re-read: no, I got my names mixed up. She’s being adopted by different muckety-mucks and her romance is still full speed ahead.


Here’s one more: a Water Elemental who hasn’t learned to control her powers is on the run. Under cover of night she slips into a village and sits by … the village well. It’s a large well. There’s a lot of water in it. It must sit on a big aquifer. -AND THEN- the evil emperor’s soldiers show up to drag her away!

I think: I cannot WAIT to see what sort of water monster she inadvertently summons from that well!

I keep reading: nope. She runs away.

Double drat.

Now listen: all these authors had other places their stories needed to go. The woman in the snow needed her hands. The young woman’s romance wasn’t her only fish to fry, not by a long shot, and the romance is the touch of human relief in the story. The Water Elemental’s story couldn’t afford for her to attract attention at that point (so the well was removed from the scene). All the outcomes I imagined are only things I wanted to see, and it’s no skin off the writers’ noses that they had other visions for their stories.

But you understand that all those awful, incredible, dramatic things would have made damn good reading? That’s because they would have Upped Stakes, and Upping Stakes is what you have to do. You have to stop being afraid of being TOO exciting, TOO problematic. You have to suck it up, buttercup, and make the bad thing happen, and deal with the fallout. That’s how great stories are written. I’ve written five books at this point, and I can promise you, pinky promise you, that the best ones are the ones that, when I realized what had to happen, made me say “oh, no. OH no,” and make a special trip to the liquor store.

Whereas some of the least interesting stories I’ve read are the ones where the author said, “but I don’t want to hurt my characters” or “I really don’t want to go there.” WHY NOT?!?!?!?! Why are we here?

My daughter is five years old. Just at the age when picture books are losing their charm, but finding a chapter book to hold her attention is a dicey proposition. I tried lots of old favorites–I won’t go through the list–but which book has finally enchanted her?

The Witches by Roald Dahl.

It’s a children’s book, of course. But it opens with an exhortation to children to BE CAREFUL, because the world is full of REAL WITCHES who will SQUELCH CHILDREN. This isn’t made up! This is real!

It goes on to describe bizarre disappearances, open sores on scalps, the smell of dog’s droppings, and missing thumbs. As I read, I wondered if I wasn’t setting myself up for a long night of comforting a distressed child.

But I wasn’t. She was rapt the whole time, and when I put the book down, she squealed for more. I told her we could read more tomorrow–so she’d better go to sleep to make tomorrow come faster.

And she did.

Up stakes, people. Help a parent get her kid to sleep. And strengthen your story in the process.

Burning season


The Pacific Northwest has a reputation for rain, so it may surprise you to hear that we were under a Burn Ban until last Sunday, due to excessive dryness in the area. My husband has been gnashing teeth and tearing hair about it ever since we arrived. Our property was (is) severely overgrown, and there are … I don’t know how many pounds/tons of brush, brambles, and leftover parts of trees to get rid of.


The ban was finally lifted, and on Monday morning he went out to get a burn permit and machete. His parents are visiting, and the three of them ran a bonfire for three days. My father-in-law saved our barn and compost heap by slaying the blackberry-sauruses overtaking them (and found a claw-footed tub hidden in the brambles). There’s a lot left to do, but our property already looks better.


Poor little critters. They shall have to dig new holes. Buh-bye.


Also, and: look what arrived in the mail yesterday.


Stop messing around

Labor Day has come and gone. My daughter and I go to her preschool to meet her teacher and find her coat hook, this afternoon. I have my house more or less set up. Sure there’s the odd box to unpack, but all the IKEA furniture is assembled. Bedrooms. Pantry. TV room. Library. My study. I have a great big desk and all my favorite things around me. Starting tomorrow I have some quiet time in the afternoons while my daughter is at school, in addition to my quiet time late at night, when everyone else is in bed.


So there are no more excuses. I must begin to write again.

I haven’t been completely fallow since The Bear’s Wife began to publish. I have four beginnings: one that is an opening scene only, two that are nice starting chunks of novels (both over 5K words), and one that is a nice starting chunk of a novella. I can work on any of them. I’ve been contemplating one of those well-begun novels. It’s set in the same world as The Settlement and The Bear’s Wife. That’s easy for me to do. I also have the cover done, and if I may say … it’s bitchin’.

So wish me luck, and luck to you in your autumn endeavors. Be sure to store away plenty of nuts. Winter is coming.

Characters who are easy to live with

With two series under my belt, I have learned a thing or two about what makes a character ride easy on his or her writer’s mind. It’s not that you can’t break these guidelines, but you should be aware of the problems inherent in them. These guidelines refer to your major character: for first person, the narrator, and the protagonist if that is a different character. For third person, the POV character and the protagonist, if different.

1. Write a character who can travel
Without fail my stories “get interesting” when the characters begin to travel new places. Writing a character who is stuck at home is a prescription for … well, you’d better be toned up to do some heavy emotional lifting. It isn’t that you can’t write a great story that happens in a very small setting–some of the best stories ever written are like that–but it makes infinitely more work for you, the writer. I learned this in the Settlement trilogy after Anna had a baby, which severely hampered her ability to move around. Ditto for Alex at the end of the third Settlement book, and that’s why I have reservations about writing a fourth one.

2. Write a character who is independent
A character who either relies on someone else to get them through life, or a character who has to take care of someone else, is a character with a millstone around her neck. Derring-do of all sorts has to be carefully orchestrated for this character, so think really hard before you attach your main character to another. Of course this can be the basis for a delightful story: the “handcuffed together” trope is always fun, as is the “guiding a stranger in a strange land” story. But once again, think real hard about how it will affect the story before you do it.

3. Write a character from your own background
This recommendation is motivated by sheer laziness. If a character comes from your background in terms of time frame, nationality, socioeconomic class, race, gender, and orientation, you’re pretty much in clover. You know exactly what idioms and metaphors that character is going to use. Every point on which that character deviates from you is a point you need to think over, carefully. Anna Woods was an easy narrator for me: my own age, nationality, gender, and orientation. Perry Drinkwater was a whole different can of worms. She comes from a society that has never seen the ocean, so maritime idioms were out. Sports idioms were out. Firearm idioms were out. Her world doesn’t have clocks, so references to seconds and minutes were out (though I kept “hour” as a general indicator of “a long time, but not a whole morning or afternoon”). It’s just a lot of work–specifically, a lot of editing–to write a character like this. The ultimate result can be much more interesting for the reader, and the writer can learn a lot along the way, but it’s another thing to be aware of.

4. Write a character with a fun personality
This applies more specifically to a first-person narrator than to any other major character. The voice of your narrator sets the tone of the whole book. A fun, warm, intelligent, humorous voice makes a book more appealing, and gives readers warm fuzzies even if terrible things are happening in the story. Think of Claire in the Outlander books. Really awful things happen, but you have your can-do jolly adventure buddy along for the ride, so you still want to read. Ditto The Bear’s Wife. Ditto–and this is 100% my personal opinion–the 50 Shades books. The Settlement series is overshadowed by Anna Woods’ withdrawing, slightly odd personality. It gives the books a savor that I like, and that plenty of readers like, but Anna quite definitely colors everything that happens.

Hope this helps!

Gems of dialogue

Hey… my prequel The Thin Line and the first Settlement novel Dark and Deep are still free through tonight. Get ’em while they’re free! Go! I’ll wait.


Something that keeps happening in my writing is that I think of a line of dialogue looooong before I’m ready to write the scene it caps off, and I’m so excited about finally working that line in that it acts as a carrot for me, as a writer, to keep pumping out the verbiage so I can get to it. What lines have done that for me? Some of these are published and some aren’t, so see which ones you recognize. I’ve removed non-dialogue from around them, so they aren’t spoilers.

“This is mine… and this, ye craven arsehole, is yours.”

“They think I’m a scary son of a bitch.”

“You think you know me? You know nothing about me.”

“I been gettin’ aff at Paisley.”

“Oh God, please be gentle with me.”

“You tell them I’m the man.”

Can you think of lines of dialogue that your favorite author was obviously working toward? One really brilliant bit from The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover jumps out at me: “You know where it’s been.” Any more?