This month’s topic for the #inkripples is world building. As a mystery writer and not a fantasy or sci-fi writer, my job as a “world builder” is quite different. But, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. As writers we are all, regardless of genre, building a world around our characters. In mystery that world is unique. In this post I’ll explore world building for mystery writers. You might also want to take a peek at my colleagues’s posts on this topic. Several write fantasy, YA, and other genres in which world building is a big factor.Kai Strand, Katie Carroll, and Mary Waibel
I remember when I first heard the term world building used. I was on a Writer’s Digest webinar with an agent. She said one of the critical factors she looked for in a submission was world building. I thought, what is that? And, immediately wondered if I’d done it. In that webinar we were looking at query letters. Even in the query the author’s ability to create a “realistic” world must be present. That webinar led me to think about world building for the mystery writer.
- A world in which murder happens. You might say murder can happen anywhere, and that’s true. Agatha Christie taught us that. She wrote about murder in the least obvious places–on beautiful cruises, on the Orient Express, on an exotic island, in lovely English country homes. Indeed, the place doesn’t constitute the world for murder. It’s the people.
- A world in which murder is solved. This is where world-building gets complicated. Whether writing a cozy mystery in which an amateur sleuth solves the crime or a police procedural in which police do so, the world must be believable. I find doing this most difficult in cozy misters (I know because I wrote three).
Once we have the world in which murder can happen and the world in which the murder can be solved, we have the basic foundation for world building in a mystery. Now we must look at ways to create those worlds.
World in Which Murder Happens
- People in conflict. Married couples arguing, children bickering, competitive athletes vying . The list is endless, but you can’t show happy people getting along if you want to create a world in which mystery happens. The conflict can be subtle as in the e-Murderer or more obvious as in Murder on Moonshine Hill.
- People with murderous capability. In other words you must create someone or several people with the ability to kill. Nice, kind people, who wouldn’t hurt a fly, are not your villains. Of course, you can set up conditions that would force a nice person to kill. But, usually you want to create a clear villain who has murderous thoughts and a clear intention to kill, usually for self-gain.
- Opportunity to kill. Your world must have means for the murder. In other words, you cannot create a situation where no one has a gun or a knife or an explosive device. There must be a weapon available to commit the murder. If your characters are playing beach volleyball, where would the killer hide a weapon? You’d need to build a scenario in which the villain has a gun or a bow and arrow or a poisonous dart and is stationed behind a dune. Boom. Murder happens. That’s world building.
World When Murder is Solved
- Clues exist. You can’t write a mystery and have no clues. As a mystery-writer, however, we like to disguise the clues. If they’re too obvious, there’s no mystery. You must create a world full of clues. Some of the clues are designed to mislead the reader–we call those red herrings. But other clues help lead the investigators (and the readers) to solve the crime.
- Questions are asked. In the world of mystery someone is always asking questions. Cozy mysteries usually have a nosy amateur sleuth trying to unravel what happened. Nosy is another word for someone who asks lots of questions. In other crime fiction there’s a detective or a policeman asking the questions.
- Unanswered questions. The world created in mystery is from either a single point-of-view or from a few select points-of-view. It must leave unanswered questions. Even if you set the point-of-view in the mind of the killer (and I’ve read some great mysteries that do this), you must leave questions unanswered. In most cases the reader is only privy to the point of view of the investigator. That leaves a lot of the world undiscovered.
- In crime fiction where there are police investigating, writers must create the police world. We must research what is done in that world and what is not. Who is in charge and what are his/her responsibilities. What about the ancillary people like the medical examiner and the CSI scientist? How do these characters play into your police world.
- In cozy mysteries the life of the amateur sleuth takes precedence. Who is this person and why would he be “investigating” a murder? Who are her friends or family members? This world is equally important to the story as is the police world. Often writers include a friend or relative who has access to information that might help the amateur sleuth solve the crime.
These are a few of my thoughts about world building when writing a mystery. What are yours? Please add some. I’m sure I left out some important tips!
If you want to see a peek of an award-winning cozy mystery, take a look at this book trailer featuring the e-Murderer.
Katie L. Carroll says
Interesting take on world-building from a genre that doesn’t get a lot world-building attention. I totally agree that even stories that take place in a real-world setting require it.
Joan Curtis says
Hi Katie, Yeah, sometimes we forget when writing in the present time and the real-world the importance of “world building.” Glad you stopped by!
Kai Strand says
Wow. Fantastic information on world building in mystery. I can barely read a mystery, let alone write one. My mind just doesn’t work that way, but you make it seem so much more logical (from the author’s view point at least) when you structure it within a world that supports it! Thanks, Joan.