ELLSWORTH — Monica Moeller (pen name Moe Claire) wants to teach you to write a mystery. The avid gardener and former computer scientist recently published her first whodunit, “A Fickle Tide: A Pyke Island Mystery in Downeast Maine.” It’s the first book in a series of contemporary mysteries that center around the fictional Pyke Island.
“These are my learnings and other writers might disagree,” said the newly published Lamoine author. “In fact, I expect that. One published mystery doesn’t make me an expert, but I’m happy to share what I’ve learned.”
Here are Monica’s 10 tips for prospective mystery writers:
1) Read a lot of award-winners and popular works but be a critical reader. If you liked a work, what did the author do to win you over?
2) If you’re not very computer literate, take courses. Learn to use Microsoft Word like a pro. “Learn how to use the styles,” said Moeller, “learn how to use the formatting, particularly if you’re going to self-publish.”
3) Create the setting (or use one that you know well): the landscape, timeframe and season. You can’t make it believable to the reader if you’re ambivalent or vague about it.
“To me it was natural to start writing about Downeast Maine,” said Moeller. “This place speaks to me, it’s in my DNA. I like a setting that’s almost a character in the story.”
4) Pick a crime or source of the mystery. Research how that is investigated or uncovered. There are lots of resources on the web, or there’s nonfiction of the “true crime” genre. But it doesn’t have to be a murder:
“There are people who assume that every mystery has to start chapter 1 with a dead body being found,” said Moeller. “That’s not true. Be creative. There’s no rule that says it has to be organized a certain way.”
5) Create the main characters and develop a brief biography or backstory on each. What drives each of them? The backstories, said Moeller, are one of the first parts she writes.
“I can keep it in the back of my head so that as the story develops I happen to have a little tidbit I might drop into the background.”
But be careful not to include too much background: “My very first, best reader said get rid of all that stuff,” laughed Moeller. “I need to know all that stuff but the reader of the mystery only needs to know the things that are relevant to what happens.”
6) Start with a brief plot outline or chronology. Jot ideas about where the story is going but don’t be surprised if your characters start changing the story flow. Let them, fix the outline, and go from there. “Particularly in a mystery, how you reveal things is important. You want to keep that tension.”
7) Throw in conflict at every turn between characters and even between characters and the setting. “Create conflict. And more conflict.” Even between characters who may be very close.
8) Revise. Revise. Revise.
9) Find good “alpha” readers that you can share early drafts with, people who are critical readers, are familiar with your chosen genre, and are willing to tell you what they did or did not like. Revise.
10) Once you think you’re done, go back over it one more time, sharpen the narration, whittle away excess, up the pacing. You got it, revise!
To read more about Moe Claire or order copies of “A Fickle Tide,” visit moeclairemystery.com or email [email protected] You also can catch Monica in real life at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 12, at the Ellsworth Public Library, where she will speak about the novel.