…keeps everyone away!
I thought it might be fun to write up a description of a little writing challenge I set to myself this year. I’ve been thinking a lot about my writing habits, which have gotten pretty spotty as my day job has gotten more stressful, and also about the nature of creativity: it’s so easy to reach for the first idea that comes to mind when solving a story problem, and as a result it’s easy to let cliches creep into your work. What I’ll sometimes do to avoid that is just sit and list as many solutions as I can. The first few are usually cliches or boring; after more than a few things can get weird as I get desperate.
I’ve never done more than a handful of those at a time, though, and as I work on a mystery novel it occurred to me that it might be fun to go all-out. So, I’m challenging myself to write one murder mystery plot every day in 2022.
Because I’ve been enjoying it so far, I thought I’d share the rules I came up with so that others might join in if they care to. Here’s what I’m doing:
- Every day in 2022, write a one-paragraph murder mystery plot. It should describe the victim, the method, the motive, the murderer. If the murder is solved, it should sketch out who solves it and how.
- Each entry should be novel both within my list and with mysteries I’ve read. It doesn’t have to be brand new in all respects, but should at least mix things up – basically, if these were turned into books, they should be different books.
- Genre/sub-genre doesn’t matter. Cozy, noir, serial killer are all good. Fantasy, science fiction, historical, whatever. It can be a whodunnit or howcatchem. As long as I can point to it and say “that’s a murder mystery” it counts.
- They don’t need to be good, they just need to satisfy the criteria. Just like when I’m brainstorming, I don’t have to show them to anyone. If that means that one of the days is little better than, “So-and-so gets shot in broad daylight in front of twenty reliable witnesses, who readily and accurately identify the killer” then so be it; at least I’ll have checked that box.
- If I miss a day, I can backfill: I just need to have 365 of them by the end of the year. But I can’t write in advance. If I come up with two ideas on a day where I’m not backfilling, I need to pick the best one and hope I remember the other one later.
- No editing previous days’ entries.
Just as important as what I “have” to do is what I don’t have to do:
- I don’t have to show them to anyone, so I’m free to write something that sucks, or something good enough I might want to turn into a story.
- I don’t have to avoid cliches, only repetition. Eventually I’ll run out of cliches…
- I don’t have to do anything with them once written; it’s not a to-do list, just something fun to get the creative juices flowing.
Here are a couple examples so far:
Herbert North’s tea is poisoned. This unpopular banker was suspected to have been murdered by any number of his unpleasant relations, but in fact he was offed by his housekeeper, who had given notice already and wanted to practice for murdering her rich uncle. She had no particular motive other than dislike of the man, and is caught by a shrewd reporter who notices that the kitchen garden has a bare spot (where a poisonous plant was grown and removed days ago)
Chad Codysson is killed by his former frat buddy in the process of faking his own death to get out of a criminal prosecution for fraud related to a company he founded. He either did not realize or did not care that his buddy had been an early investor who lost a lot of money (so hard to keep track), and so the buddy let him do all the legwork of faking his own death in a boating accident, and then when he swam to his buddy’s boat, said buddy hit him on the head with a rock, tied him to the anchor and dumped him overboard. Unknown to the buddy, Chad had a date lined up that night who knew about the scheme and who herself was planning to kill him. She gets annoyed at being stood up, tips off his wife anonymously in a huff, and the scheme unravels from there. Probably takes place in Florida, because LOL Florida.
Alexander “Chungus” Haysmith, a hedge fund manager on vacation in Maine, is apparently stabbed by a famous local hermit who lives in the mountains and invades empty AirBNBs. Actually he was killed by a coworker, the owner of the rental house who had created a secret apartment in the house in order to listen to his phone calls and snoop on his computer, but who sneezed at the wrong time and had to kill to avoid discovery. This is Maine, so the crime is solved by a local mystery writer, convinced that the hermit is being framed.
Nothing ground-breaking, and I doubt they’re original. (I just don’t remember reading them elsewhere, is the only criteria) Some of the others are a little more grim or grisly, and a few are downright silly. They’re not fully fleshed out, but I can see how I would take the story if I wrote it. That first one would go the psychological thriller route maybe, with lots of red herrings. The second one has a distinct Carl Hiaasen vibe to it; I’m thinking the wife’s the protagonist and the terrible people around her drop like flies in entertaining ways. The third, maybe a Murder She Wrote send-up would be fun?
What am I hoping to get out of this? First and foremost: I’m entertaining myself. Second, I think this will be a valuable creative exercise and a way to get back into a daily writing habit (so far when I’ve finished my daily murder I’ve always gone on to put in some words on my novel WIP).
The third thing I’m hoping to get out of this is a little more academic. I read Alex Pavesi’s The Eighth Detective a while back, and it’s had me thinking about the structure and theory behind murder mysteries specifically. He does some fascinating things varying the basic themes in different combinations, and that in turn got me thinking about procedural generation. There are several projects and academic papers on the subject of automatically generating mystery plots, mostly centered on producing what amount to logic puzzle games. Exploring the space a bit feels like a worthwhile exercise.
Anyway, if you do decide to give it a try, let me know! Or if murder isn’t your cup of tea, a couple related challenges you might consider:
- Describe a new alien culture every day (or a particular cultural aspect — maybe burial customs every day in January, and writing systems every day in February)
- A Chosen One A Day – pig boy, student magician, whatever – where do they come from, what’s their quest, and what’s the big twist?
- Sketch out the design of a new magic system every day
- Write a review every day for a book that doesn’t exist
I think you want something vague enough that you can come up with a couple hundred variations, but constrained enough to make you have to really work for them after a while.
All right, I need to go work on today’s. Maybe I can do something with that “shot in broad daylight” one…