How I Plot a Mystery

How I Plot a MysteryHow I plot a mystery is, indeed, a mystery, but it’s one of the fun bits of writing. The Manx Connection series of books has required some research at times and I’ve had fun integrating my research into my mystery writing. What I’ve discovered when doing my research is that it often gives me some new or diverse plot ideas. But what happens when you have half a plot in your mind? It’s the equivalent of having the blurb for your book cover, but not quite knowing where the story will take you. You still got to come up with the actual story. You have to figure out the murders, the clues, the characters and, oh yes, the detailed storyline.

How I Plot a Mystery – Setting the scene.

You may find this hard to believe, but often the hardest part of writing is sitting around, staring into space, and thinking. It might not sound like you’re writing, but you are, even if you aren’t physically hitting your keyboard. Most non-writers have a hard time understanding this. But sitting in a chair doing nothing is a crucial part of writing. Once all the thinking is over, every writer has his or her own method but the one I’ve developed is that I will work out a rough outline – just one or two lines on each “scene” containing the vital clues or story line. It’s not written in stone because it can (and does) change often as I write the book. As I write, I may choose to change the storyline slightly so I keep revising the outline right up to the end of the novel.

But back to the research. In most of my novels, a certain action is planned or undertaken or happens due to an external influence. Maybe it’s a medical condition, maybe it’s a chemical reaction, maybe it’s a a little known law of physics. Whatever it is, it requiresresearch to be sure to get it right. I’m no doctor (my wife is!), I’m no chemist and I’m no scientist. I’m just a simple writer and I tell stories. So what I don’t know, I have to find out elswhere.

Wikipedia, ofcourse, is an excellent source of research. Everything on there may not be 100% accurate, but it’s close enough not to matter when writing a mystery thriller. Writing mysteries is, by far, the hardest writing of all. With mysteries, a good story isn’t enough; you also need a challenging puzzle. It’s twice as much work for the same money.

How I Plot a Mystery – Developing the story.

I develop all my stories the same way. First I decide my “pysical arena”, the world in which the story will take place. Out of the ten ‘Manx Connection’ books that I have written to date, all but two have been based on The Isle of Man. The other two (Walking on Water and The Vicar’s Lot) are physically located elsewhere but have a strong cast of Manx characters.

I then work on the “non-physical arena”, the stimuli that drive the plot. Maybe it’s revenge, maybe it’s power-seeking, maybe it’s religion or politics.

Once I have decided both my arenas, I think about the characters. Who are the people the story revolve around? What makes them interesting? What goals do they have, and how do they conflict with the other characters? And, the first big one, who get’s murdered? And the second big one, by whom? and the third big one, by whom?

And that just leaves the decision whether the murder is “open”, meaning the reader knows whodunit from the start, or whether it is “closed”, meaning that the reader find out who the killer is the same time that the hero does. In open mystery you, the reader, know who did it as soon as it happens. The pleasure comes in watching the intrpid detective solve the crime. A closed mystery works when the murder seems impossible to solve, and the clues that are found don’t seem to point to any one person. And, of course, it’s necessary to throw in a few red-herrings!

Of course, all this is academic in some respects. ‘Out of the Window‘ was written by the characters themselves. I played no part in it other than allowing my fingers to be used to hit the keyboard. On the other hand my first book, Chasing Paper required a lot of detailed planning.

Book Cover Choices

A Book Cover can make all the difference. They say a picture paints a thousand words. Well it’s certainly true that, in book publishing, your cover will immediately help your target audience to delve further and make a buying decision.

I am very, very lucky to have a friend called Bruno Cavallec. He’s French (from Brittany) and is a self-taught artist and illustrator. Bruno is unique in that he moves freely from one medium to another to create a wide range of images. Atmosphere, mood and colour are his key ingredients in oil paintings. However, his interest in black and white book illustrations led him to take up printmaking, focusing mainly on the techniques of drypoint and linocut. A few years later, he was finally ready to delve into the fascinating and limitless world of illustration.

A Book Cover can create an identity

For my own books, he chose (with my full agreement) to use his skills in Photoshop to create covers that simply ‘suggest’ what is inside the book.

Chasing Paper book cover

Walking on Water book cover

Under the Rock book cover

Out of The Window book cover

On whom the axe falls book cover

China in her hand book cover

Devil's Helmet book cover

As you can see, they are not only eye-catching, but also create an ‘identity’ for The Manx Connection series. So the next time you are browsing online or in a bookstore, see how the cover of the book draws you in to take a closer look. And don’t forget that the spine of the book is just as important. On a bookshelf, your spines will separate you from all other authors.

Cover Choices - Book Spines

Ideas for Novels

Ideas for Novels

I’m often asked how I come up with ideas for new novels. It’s more often phrased “Where do you get your ideas from?”. In fact, it’s probably the most asked question of all. And I admit that, at first, it could be tough sometimes coming up with a good idea. However, as time has gone on, I’ve found that it becomes easier and easier. I’ve tried to analyse how I get ideas for novels and here’s my best guess…

Trust your curiosity

This is probably the most important key to writing fiction. You have to take noticeof those things that you’re curious about and then lean towards those aspects of your life. Curiosity is about what catches and holds your attention. Think of it like this; if you’re in a bookstore, which areas do you naturally go to before others? If you’re on holiday and have time on your hands, what do you want to do with that time? If you’re in a train, why do you notice some people more than others?

If both you and I were sat on a beach and looked around, I might notice a small cave and wonder if it lead anywhere and if so, where. You might be more inclined to notice the big fat man with Speedos who really shouldn’t let his belly hang out like that. That’s fine because we are surrounded daily by thousands of different stimuli; smells, sounds, sights, and things happening. But you will perceive different things than I would, and different things would interest you. So the first secret to getting ideas for novels is to noticing those things. Be curious

Fill your mind first in order to produce

You can’t create anything if your mind is empty, so you need to fill it with creative thoughts and ideas before you can get ideas for novels. If you try to create from a mind that’s devoid of sights, sounds or memories, you will find yourself ‘blocked’ pretty fast because there’s nothing for your imagination to work with.

Take time out go somewhere that will fill your mind with something new. An art gallery, a museum, a seminar, or even just time to read a book on a new topic. Take a notebook and write down anything you notice that interests or stimulates you.

Use real people and places to trigger your creative thoughts

From time to time, try and put yourself in situations where you’re out of your comfort zone. When you visit somewhere new, notice what you’re feeling and remember what you are seeing. Take your notebook and write down what you see. Little notes and impressions are fine at this stage.

Create a MacGuffin if you can

In thrillers and mysteries, the MacGuffin is the object that the characters are searching for, and it’s intriguing enough to become the center of the book. (think the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail). A MacGuffin isn’t essential, but it helps concentrate the reader’s mind.

What draws you to certain people?

You will always need characters for your books. Think of the people you know. Which of them (maybe with some added characteristics) would make a great character for you book? Likewise, which of them repel you. What is it about them that repels you? (But never portray a character as exactly like the real person). For the moment, you are just filling the creative well. The story will emerge soon!

Use real places and events

In your life, you have seen and experienced many things. How many of them could be knitted into a novel? Probably more than you think.

What if?

Ideas for Novels - Under the Rock“What if” questions are often the basis for a good book. As an example, Under the Rock came about by me doing what I said earlier – sitting on a beach and noticing a small cave and wondering if it lead anywhere and if so, where. And once I had decided that I might go under Peel Castle, I wondered what I could do with that information. Obviously, if the entrance could somehow be kept secret, something or somebody could be hidden there. And the rest, as they say, is history!

Use themes and issues you care about

If you’re writing a novel, remember that it’s a story, not a lecture, so you have to be careful not to preach. On Amazon, one of the reviews for Under the Rock says, “…I do sense he stretches his characters to voice his opinions on religion and politics. It gets very tiresome after a while; just get on with the tale.”. What is strange to me is that I voice opinions on religion a heck of a lot more in On whom the axe falls. I felt (and still do feel) that I was quite restrained in Under the Rock. Which I guess goes to show that you can’t please all of the people all of the time!

So now you have filled your head (and notepad) with lots of thoughts, you’ll find that ideas will start to spring out at you. Follow them through and start writing!

The Manx Connection – why?

Manx ConnectionThe Manx Connection series is based on The Isle of Man for the very simple reason that it’s an island that I know well (I was born there) and it’s an island I love. So far (at the time of writing this) the locations for two books in The Manx Connection series have been outside of the island. Walking on Water takes place in The Netherlands and The Vicar’s Lot takes place in the Dordogne area of France. Why The Netherlands and The Dordogne? It’s simply because, again, I know them both well so I am able to create descriptions that are realistic and give the reader a real feel of the location.

Manx Connection means The Isle of Man

The Isle of Man also known simply as Mann, is a self-governing Crown dependency in the Irish Sea between England and Northern Ireland. Not to bore you with the semantics but The Isle of Man is NOT part of the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Northern Ireland and, sometimes, Scotland). It is, however part of Great Britain. In 1266, the island became part of Scotland by the Treaty of Perth, after being a part of Norway. After a period of alternating rule by the kings of Scotland and England, the island came under the feudal lordship of the English Crown in 1399. The lordship revested into the British Crown in 1765, but the island never became part of the Kingdom of Great Britain or its successor the United Kingdom. It has always retained its status as an internally self-governing Crown dependency. In fact the island has the longest continuous parliament in the world (1038 years and counting!)

Apart from being a very beautiful island, the self-governing aspect allows me to create situations that could never be envisaged in any other Western country. For example, in Under the Rock, the Chief Minister (equivalent to a Prime Minister) is kidnapped bay Jihadists. If that happened in Uk or France or USA, there would be aglobal outcry. On the Isle of Man, it raises only a few eyebrows! I’m not sure how much longer I will be able to find situations that suit The Manx Connection, but I still have some new ideas that I’ve not yet used!

When Paperchase became Chasing Paper

Paperchase became Chasing PpaperPaperchase was the original name for Chasing Paper. The book came into existence because, way back in the early 1980’s I was running a building company in Norfolk, England. I won’t bore you with the details but, not to put too fine a point on it, my partner screwed me over for more than £25,000 ($40,000), which is about £75,000 ($120,000) in today’s money. Looking back, I have nobody to blame but myself: I trusted him and he grabbed the opportunity to save his own business at my expense. It left a nasty, bitter taste in the mouth, but my lesson was learned and I never again placed that amount of trust in any business partner!

Paperchase uses real life to create a plot

What I did do, though, was to write Paperchase twenty years later because it was both catharcic and also it had the makings of a good plot. Naturally, I had to embellish the story and then take the main character much further than anything I had ever experienced myself, but I guess that’s what lots of writers do. Eventually, Paperchase morphed into Chasing Paper, but the story is unchanged. I read an article the other day that suggested that you take your character, put him/her in a bad situation, make it worse, add some personal problems, chase them up a tree and then throw stones at them! That’s about what my life felt like that year back in 1980. Things have been a lot smoother since but if I wrote about that, it would bore the pants off you, so my bad experience became my first book and something positive came out of something negative. Way to go!

You can read an excerpt from Chasing Paper here

Purchasing links are below

Amazon Kindle (£UK) Printed Paperback (£UK)
Amazon Kindle ($USA) Printed Paperback ($USA)

A personal story

Personal StoryLet’s be honest – you are boring. Me too! Nobody, except you and people very close to you, are really interested in your personal story. Unless, of course, you were the first person to walk to the moon – without shoes – in winter! Things that matter to you will not necessarily strike a chord with others, unless, of course, you can use your experience to tell your personal story in an interesting way. The best way to do this is to write a novel with invented characters and weave your story into the novel. This is exactly what I did with Chasing Paper – or at least one part of it.

My own personal story

Way back in the early 1980’s I was running a building company in Norfolk, England. I won’t bore you with the details but, not to put too fine a point on it, my partner screwed me over for more than £25,000 ($40,000) – about £75,000 ($120,000) in today’s money. Looking back, I have nobody to blame but myself: I trusted him and he grabbed the opportunity to save his own business at my expense. It left a nasty, bitter taste in the mouth, but my lesson was learned and I never again placed that amount of trust in any business partner!

What I did do, though, was to write Chasing Paper twenty years later because it was both catharcic and also it had the makings of a good plot. Naturally, I had to embellish the story and then take the main character much further than anything I had ever experienced myself, but I guess that’s what lots of writers do. SO don’t ever think that you can’t tell your personal story. Simply wrap it up in a good novel and let others think that you invented it 🙂

Characterisation is fun

It was that wonderful writer Terry Pratchett who said, “Writing is the most fun you can have by yourself”, yet I hear many writers say that it’s a lonely occupation. How can you be lonely when you are surrounded by your characters? In all my books I have people who I get on with just fine, and people who I really don’t like. It’s just like the real world, except that I can control what the characters do and say. Mind you, there have been many times when the characters take over and decide for themselves what they are going to do, and that’s when it really gets to be fun. You must allow your characters to act in a way that is consistent with the characterisation that you have created for them, and there are times when that characterisation will take you down a different route to the one you might have planned.

Make strong characterisation work for you

characterisationIn Manx Connection #3 – ‘Under the Rock‘ two young girls are instrumental in resolving the story. Yet when I first created them, they were planned to be no more than minor characters. However, the ease at which they slotted into the storyline was due entirely to the early strong characterisation with which I had bestowed them, and they developed themselves into two great characters. So good, in fact, that Manx Connection #4 – ‘Out of the Window‘ followed their story two years later.

Sometimes, you can create a character who, superficially, may appear to be unlikeable, getting little empathy from your readers. But you can use this to create twists in a plot by eventually explaining why a character acts in a certain fashion. Suddenly, your readers will understand why he (or she) does what he does, and they can actually end up rather liking one of the bad guys. Tricks and twists like this will hold your readers’ focus and built loyalty for your books. Above all, build strong characterisations, whether for your protagonists or your antagonists.

First step to writing

First StepThe first step in writing a book is the desire to do so. I think I have always wanted to write a book. I’ve always had a thought somewhere at the back of my head that it would be ‘a good idea’ to write a book. And I guess that made me the same as almost every other person on the planet who is capable of reading and writing. However, at the tender age of twenty-one, life overtook me and I moved away from creative ideas and into the world of families and houses and just plain living.

Since then, I have been very, very lucky. I have worked for other people and I have worked for myself. I have worked in Britain, France, Kuwait and the Netherlands. My early career saw me learning accountancy. In mid-life I was heavily involved in the construction industry. The later stages of my working life saw me back in accountancy and finance-related matters as European Business Analyst for a major international company.

I’ve had a great life in many ways. Sure, there have been ups and downs. There have been achievements and there have been disappointments. But I could never claim it’s been boring! As I drifted towards retirement, I again felt the urge to take the first steps in writing that book, which I knew was nestling somewhere in my brain. Eventually, I dared to put finger to keyboard and made a hesitant start. At the end of the last century (that sounds like ancient history now, doesn’t it?) I penned my first attempt. It was called ‘Paperchase’ and was a weighty tome of 120,000 words. Then I went back to my ‘real’ work and got on with my life.

The first step becomes the second step

Ten years later, I took another look at ‘Paperchase’. As a first effort, it wasn’t that bad, but I knew I could do a whole lot better. So I wrote ‘Walking on Water’, my second novel. And that was when I realised that all I had been missing was practice. To perfect any skill, you have to practise, and I wasn’t doing it nearly as often as I should. Now, I have rewritten ‘Paperchase’ and it is published as ‘Chasing Paper’. It flows more easily, it’s less than 90,000 words and it is a far better novel for it. Now, I actually like it!

I initially thought I would go down the traditional publishing route but after discovering the amount of wasted time it takes, I decided to self-publish. I am in the fortunate position of writing for fun, not for a living, so I never expected to sell tens of thousands of books. Good job too, because even after press releases and some targeted marketing, I only sold a few. Literally, a few. But what I did discover is that the first book you write will change your life. It really did change mine, as I learned the process of writing (and now I’m learning the process of self-publishing). A while ago, I didn’t have a clue about marketing online. I had focused on traditional PR, but surely the internet was the way to reach more readers? So I started researching about blogging and social networking and other methods of internet marketing.

I have personally grown as a writer and am currently writing my ninth book. I continue to invest in my education as an author and I absolutely
love the online community. Come with me on my journey, if you will. I believe it will be interesting as well as instructive.

My own first step, Chasing Paper, is available on and in both paperback and Kindle.

Walking on Water – how it happened

Walking on WaterWalking on Water takes place in The Netherlands. I still fell strongly that is belongs in The Manx Connection series. It follows on from Chasing Paper (Book #1) and some of the same characters appear in both books. Walking on Water is a stand-alone read, but if you have read Chasing Paper first, you’ll know who the characters are already.

Just as an early pointer… if you read your books electronically (e-book) you’ll find that Chasing Paper is free on all the main online book stores. And in Chasing Paper, you’ll find links so you can get Walking on Water free too. (Or just go here Free e-book)

Back to the plot…

There was a handful of characters who I had grown to rather like in Chasing Paper. Two of them had been left in a state of uncertainty at the end of the book. So I got to thinking what would they do next. Where would they go? How would they survive? They were, after all, born survivors. But working for a living held few attractions. I was living in The Netherlands when I wrote Walking on Water, so it seemed the natural place to bring my protagonists. For that reason the action is based in the flat, wet wastes of The Netherlands. The place where billions of tons of water are held back by earth dykes which, in normal times, are adequate for the job. But if somebody wanted to destroy vast tracts of the country, the answer was already staring them in the face.

Okay, that’s two strands (former characters whose stories are unfinished and the destruction of The Netherlnds). The third strand was a contract killer looking for a man who was running from his own twin brother. Will the man escape or will the brother’s hit man get him first? The answer to that is not revealed until the very end.