Mystery Mondays: Mark Lisac on How to Write a Good Mystery

This week I have the pleasure of hosting Mark Lisac, author of WHERE the BODIES LIE. Mark is a Canadian writer published by a Canadian publisher (NeWest Press), so of course I like that.

Mark Lisac on How to Write a Good Mystery

After turning from a career writing non-fiction to trying a novel I quickly realized there are many ways to write fiction and no fixed rule will work for everyone.

Even giving away the ending at the beginning of a mystery story is not necessarily bad. It worked for Billy Wilder when he filmed Sunset Boulevard.

About the closest I can come to a general principle is to say that clarity is of utmost importance. It’s important not only for itself, but because it leads to other virtues such as conciseness and distinctive style.

A good illustration of clarity popped up at my expense a few months after I finished Where the Bodies Lie. The first page of the story presents a court scene. I wanted to describe the onlookers who regularly show up at trials for entertainment. I wrote a couple of sentences that seemed to get the idea across, although the finished product was never completely satisfying.

A few months later, I read Ross MacDonald’s The Chill, which also happens to feature a court scene on the opening page. Here’s how he described what I’d been trying to get at, offhandedly in a sentence that begins with a reference to a major character in the story: “He wasn’t one of the regular trial-watchers, housewives and pensioners filling an empty morning with other people’s troubles.”

Eleven words tacked onto a short sentence nail the scene and speak volumes about the narrator’s attitudes and experience at the same time. That’s why MacDonald was a master of detective fiction: he was a master of writing, because he was very often able to understand exactly what he wanted to say and present the essential elements, and those elements alone.

One can aspire to that. Other aspects of telling a good mystery story may be a little more within reach.

You can read good books and absorb what the authors have done (I think that’s the only real school for writing).

But I also find models of taste and structure in music and in film. The reference above to Sunset Boulevard is only one of many.

It’s an older movie, released in 1950. That’s no accident. Some current films are useful for writers to watch. Too many feature computerized effects, routine dialogue and intercut shots consisting of two seconds of actors mugging. Older films were by story.

And the better ones saw directors and actors put a real effort into everything.

That particularly goes for characters. How many times have you seen a recent movie and had secondary characters leave your memory a few hours later? (Some lead characters too, for that matter.)

Movies from Hollywood’s “Golden Age” consistently featured top-notch character actors in small parts lending interest and nuance even to short scenes.

A good mystery novel does the same. Everything that happens should count. All the characters should count. In short, never mail it in, not even for a paragraph.

Weakly written books can sell big (see Dan Brown’s novels) but that just means a writer has a choice of doing good work or not. Most of us aren’t going to see sales anywhere approaching those of The Da Vinci Code. If it can’t be a blockbuster, why not at least make it good?

Where the Bodies Lie, published in April by NeWest Press.

wherebodieslieA provincial cabinet minister murders someone in his constituency organization in a rather gruesome way, and the premier is worried about the implications. He hires a friend named Harry Asher to look into what happened. But whose friend is Asher really? And what will he do when he turns up information that threatens the founding myths of an unnamed province that looks a lot like Alberta? This mystery/thriller also a novel about a place and the people who live there.

Praise for Where the Bodies Lie

“What’s remarkable about this novel is how brilliantly Lisac moves from political writing to fiction. His smooth prose and fine pacing make it a pleasure to read.” — Globe and Mail

“An elegant and efficient writer  … sets lovely scenes” — Vue Weekly

“Seems to carve it own genre” — Fort McMurray Today

Who is Mark Lisac?

Version 3Mark Lisac, originally from Hamilton, worked as a journalist in Saskatchewan for five years. He began writing about Alberta politics in 1979 as a reporter for The Canadian Press and then as a columnist for The Edmonton Journal. From 2005 to 2013, he was publisher and editor of the independent political newsletter Insight into Government.  He published The Klein Revolution in 1995 and Alberta Politics Uncovered in 2004. He also contributed a chapter to Alberta Premiers of the Twentieth Century and edited Lois Hole SpeaksWhere the Bodies Lie is his first novel.

You can find WHERE the BODIES LIE on Amazon.

You can find out more about Mark on his website



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