Friday, December 9, 2016

Mystery Fiction: The Long and the Short of It by Jacqueline Seewald

I enjoy writing fiction. I’ve written a number of mystery stories which have been published by a variety of magazines and anthologies. I’ve also written mystery novels which are also published traditionally. The question often arises: which length will best suit a particular story?

Generally speaking, if you are planning something long and expansive with numerous characters and several intertwining plots that could ingeniously connect at the denouement, a mystery novel would be a preferable choice.

However, if you are planning a focused tour de force, think in terms of a short story. You should make the effort to decide on your intent in advance. Poe has told us that every scene in a short story needs to move the action forward. In a mystery story this is particularly true.

In a mystery novel, it’s typical to build well-rounded main characters who have a backstory. Even murder suspects usually get the full treatment. The short story writer of mystery doesn’t have the same luxury. The details must be swift and telling strokes. Each sentence and word needs to be purposeful. In a real sense, the mystery story is more of a challenge for writers and readers. It demands greater discipline. In the mystery short story endings are often clever twists that surprise the reader. The mystery novel is more of a puzzle with clues sprinkled along the way. The readers will pit their intellect against that of the author.

Descriptions of setting are of necessity more detailed in novels. In THE INHERITANCE, my new novel from Intrigue Publishing, the Midwest town of Bloomingvale serves as the setting or backdrop with a unique character all its own. This is typical of the cozy mystery where setting is well-established and details important in the story’s plotline. THE INHERITANCE is a stand alone traditional mystery with romantic element.

In my short stories, even in my longer novella “Letter of the Law” published by SHERLOCK HOLMES MYSTERY MAGAZINE, details of setting are somewhat limited. The plot is straightforward and the murder suspects also by necessity limited in number. This novella was initially much longer, but since it was to be published in a magazine, I needed to shorten it considerably and cut some of the detail and secondary character development.

SHERLOCK HOLMES MYSTERY MAGAZINE recently followed up with another story “Spirit of the Law” that continues to follow the young attorney sleuth and his graduate student assistant in solving yet another murder case:

If you’re a pantser rather than a plotter, my advice is still to write a short plot summary. This works well for both short stories and novels. A short plot summary allows you to be flexible and make changes as you write. It also helps in lending focus to your plot line. Sometimes short stories can develop into novellas or novels. Other times you believe you have the makings of a novel but discover that there isn’t enough material for one. Doing some advance planning helps with such decisions and saves frustrations when writing scenes.

Also it helps to make a list of characters by name and provide a brief description for each, known as a character bible. For THE INHERITANCE, in addition to the main characters, there are a number of local residents who are possible suspects, and each character needed some backstory. This also helps avoid contradictions.

In my crime story “Our Neighbors Ourselves” for the new anthology BREWED AWAKENINGS, there are four main characters, each has a backstory, most of which remained in the character bible but nevertheless influenced how the characters behaved in the story’s development. It’s important that the writer know the characters well so that each detail of description, dialogue and action is meaningful.

Whichever type of mystery writing you choose, I wish you much success!

Comments and/or questions welcome.


Susan Oleksiw said...

Very nice summary of the different aspects and considerations of short and long fiction. You're certainly prolific, and I enjoy hearing your perspectives on aspects of writing. Good luck with your new novel.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Susan,

Thanks for commenting. I know you're just as prolific if not more so.

Pamela S Thibodeaux said...

Great insights and advice Jacquie!
Thanks for sharing.
Good luck and God's blessings

Sati Chock said...

Well done! Good tips. I'm a total pantser and agree that having the short plot summary can be so helpful. The key for me is not putting in so many details so that the excitement gets lost--I tend to get bored otherwise, and that's the end of the story. :-)

Jacqueline Seewald said...


Thank you for your support and good wishes.

Jacqueline Seewald said...


Thanks for stopping by Author Expressions and commenting. I hope you'll return again.

I do think having a rough outline to work from is important. It saves much frustration because you have a sense of where the story is headed. This really is necessary with mystery fiction. Of course, you can make major changes after your first or second draft, but it helps to have a sense of where your story is going. Saves time and effort.

Susan Coryell said...

Thanks, Jacquie. This would help explain why I write mystery NOVELS rather than short stories. Interesting post!

Brenda Hill said...

Good info, Jacquie. Thanks!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Thanks for stopping by, Susan. Keep writing those great mysteries!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Thank you, Brenda.

Maris said...

Good comparison of the two lengths. I've definitely learned I need a "bible" for my novels. My problem is I start off thinking a book is a stand alone and it's only when I decide to write a second book in the series do I realize I should have put something together with the first book. One of these days (I hope), I'll learn.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

My biggest problem with my Kim Reynolds mysteries series has been keeping names and descriptions straight from one novel to the next. That's why a character bible and plot outline become so important.

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