I am currently working on a murder mystery. I started with an interesting central character (a wizard detective),a setting that excites me (a magical steampunk version of nineteenth century Russia) and a strong idea (our hero has to investigate the murder of a rival he hated, one suspect being the woman he once loved). I was happily writing my outline until I came to the point where the body was discovered. At that point a red flag went up.
I had no idea who committed the crime.
This sort of thing happens to me a lot. I start with an image, or a character or an idea that excites me and I build on it. I assume I will fill in the details as I go along.
Now I needed to know more than who committed the crime and why. I needed to have lots of plausible suspects too. The nature of the suspects would allow me to explore elements of the world.
In a mystery novel there needs to be a web of relationships between victim and suspects. It needs to be complex enough to obscure the nature of the murderer. It’s not the sort of thing my usual linear outline process lends itself to. It usually leads to lots of false trails, redundancies and even large sections dropped from the finished book.
I had recently been reading Storyteller Tools, M Harold Page’s excellent book about plotting. He uses mind maps for his plots. It struck me that this time it might be an good time to do the same.
I’ve owned Scapple for quite some time. It’s by the same people as do Scrivener. I’ve never used it much but figured that if I was going to do a mind map, this was the software to do it with. It’s simple, I owned it already and it integrates well with Scrivener.
So I sat down nervously and drew my first box in the middle of the screen. I put the victim’s name and what had happened to him in the box. I then drew a line between him and the box representing the detective. This was to show that there was a relationship there of some sort.
I already knew this to tell the truth. The detective had gone to the same magical Academy as the victim and they hated each other. There was rivalry there between them over a woman. I wrote this in the detective’s box.
As it happened this woman was also a student at the same school for magic. She was now one of the primary suspects for the murder. In went another box with the woman’s name and lines linking a both the detective and the victim. So far so good.
That was the three basic relationships that I already knew about. Now I needed some more suspects. One by one more boxes appeared. More links sprang up between the different characters. A large number of different people started to take shape.
Here was the anarchist syndicate and it’s surprisingly suave leader. There was the corrupt secret police chief and his brutish minion. Oh look, there are the socialist revolutionaries stirring trouble in the massive armaments factories.
I put in more lines that indicated connections between the people and the factions.
Soon I had a large intricate diagram showing the relationships between all the characters. They were colour-coded. Green represented the hero and the characters connected to him. Red represented the suspects. Blue represented the various political factions that might or might not be involved. All the human players in the story got a box with rounded edges. Factions got boxes with jagged edges.
In the space of a couple of hours I added an enormous amount of detail to the world. I also found that the large number of connections suggested elements of the plot that I had not thought about myself.
The leader of the revolutionaries turned out to be a childhood friend of the detective. The wife of the millionaire industrialist had also been having an affair with the murdered man. There were links between the Lovecraftian Other God cult and the Nihilists– who knew?
The story began to grow in depth and richness because I had done this mind map. I was impressed by how clear it made everything.
Of course, this merely gave me an intricate web of relationships that the detective would need to investigate. I knew roughly who the detective needed to talk to and from that I could work out an order which would be both dramatic and interesting.
For this I decided to use another tool, Aeon Timeline, I’ll talk about that in a future post.
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