It was three a.m. in Laugarvatn, Iceland, and I couldn’t sleep. Now partly that was because it’s still light in Iceland in June, and my circadian rhythms were bouncing all over the place. But there was a much deeper problem. Here I was, two thirds of the way through the first draft of my mystery thriller Killer Story, and doubt held me in its iron grip. Had I chosen the wrong murderer?
That seemed impossible. This was my sixth mystery novel, and I’ve written lots of mystery episodes for Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Medium, and other shows. When I start writing a mystery, there are things I’m not sure of: who all the red herrings are, and what all the plot twists will be. But two things I’ve always known, absolutely: who gets killed, and who does the killing. The beginning of the novel/TV show, and the end.
But now here I was, on my skinny little bed at the Gullkistan Artist Colony (great place, BTW; highly recommend), retracing the entire book in my head. I was finally facing up to the cold hard truth that my murderer didn’t really appear until page 80 of the book. I mean, he kind of showed up in the second chapter, but barely. And if there’s one thing about mysteries that I’ve always believed, it’s this: the audience has to meet the killer early. Otherwise the solution to the murder at the end of the book won’t be satisfying.
So I tried to think of ways to introduce the killer earlier. Maybe I could give him more to do in chapter 2. But it didn’t really make sense. Could I bring him in again at page 40? No, not really, it would kill the book’s flow.
Well, maybe page 80 is soon enough…
No, I’m kidding myself.
Panic set in, along with that old feeling I think all writers have: I’m a fraud.
And that’s when the thought hit me, born of desperation: if I have the wrong murderer, who’s the right one?
Well, it can’t be character X (avoiding spoilers here). It can’t be character Y. It can’t be character Z…
Or can it?
No, there’s no way it can be Z. For several important reasons.
Although, if it could be Z, wouldn’t that be cool?
But it can’t.
But what if…?
I lay in bed for another five hours, and by the time I got up for breakfast, or dinner or whatever it was, I had decided: the killer is Z!
First time I’ve ever changed that horse in midstream, and you know what? It worked out great! The end of the book, where the hero figures out who done it, is my favorite part.
I took away a couple of lessons from that. One is, if you have a voice inside you telling you that something isn’t quite right, listen to it. Honor it. (Unless it’s the voice telling you you’re a fraud. You can ignore that one.)
The other thing I learned, or relearned, is: it’s really valuable when you’re writing to take some time to reflect. Whether you’re in bed, out walking, swimming, or biking, try to get a little distance from your book and take the long view.
Maybe you’ll learn that your character Z is the killer!