Percy Spurlark Parker’s fiction debut was a story for EQMM’s Department of First Stories in 1972. Since then he’s authored two published novels and dozens of short stories, which have appeared not only in EQMM but in AHMM, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, Espionage, The Strand, Woman’s World, and a variety of anthologies. Although he is primarily a private-eye writer—and one of the original members of the Private Eye Writers of America—Percy also writes classical puzzle mysteries and pure suspense. His story “Some Flames Never Die,” in our January 2014 issue, for example, is a P.I. tale, while his upcoming story for EQMM, “Splitting Adams” (July 2014) is psychological suspense. I’m sure a lot of aspiring mystery writers are going to find what this veteran has to say about the process of creating a mystery fascinating.—Janet Hutchings
I have never professed to know all there is to know about writing mystery fiction, and as such I rarely try telling anyone how to write. I have, however, collected a set of guidelines, tips, truths, and half-truths over the years that seem to work for me. I shall be imparting those pearls of wisdom later in this piece for you to rummage through, take what you like, or just poo-poo the whole thing as the ramblings of an old man whose is still trying to get the hang of this writing game.
But let’s get to what got me interested in writing in the first place.
Back in the Stone Age, before there was the internet, before there was TV, there was something called radio. Every day after school I had my regular programs I listened to. Gang Busters. The Shadow. I rode with the Lone Ranger and Tonto; help solve cases with Richard Diamond and Johnny Dollar. The more intense the stories got, the closer my ear got to the radio speaker. I remember once I’d hit my head on a fire hydrant wrestling with a kid named Donny Boy. The result was a day-long splitting headache, to the point that I had tears in my eyes. I couldn’t tell my folks, they would’ve made me go to bed. No, I had to sit there and listen to my programs.
What kind of hold did these shows have on me? What would force a kid of eleven or twelve to go through all that pain, just to help put another bad guy behind bars?
When I asked myself these questions, the only answer that came to me was that it had to be in the writing. Sure there was the music, and the inflections in the actors’ voices. But someone had sat at a typewriter, created a situation; told the actors what to say. And in turn their words had kept me inching closer and closer to the radio, kept my heart beating faster, kept me struggling to identify the culprit, regardless if I had a headache or had to run to the washroom.
So, how was it done? My favorite radio programs were crime shows, and fortunately in those days there were at least a half-dozen pulp magazines on the stands at any given time. So, I began to read. I dissected story after story trying to identify the twist and turns the authors were taking me through. Whenever I’d get engrossed in a story and forget to dissect it, I’d read it again to see if I could detect where the author had gotten me to simply enjoy the piece instead of looking at it as a textbook.
Somewhere along the way I began to wonder if I could write a mystery story, not so much with the idea of selling anything, but just to see if I could do it. I’d experimented with doing my own comic book, but at that time I had visions of becoming an artist. When I started thinking about trying to write, I started looking for how-to books. I don’t believe I ever read an entire book, but I’d read the chapters on plotting, dialogue, and viewpoint over and over.
My turning point came when I was eighteen. I’d tried a few short stories at various magazines without any success. It was okay because my focus was still on becoming an artist. A cartoonist was actually what I was aiming for. I prepared a couple of strips and took them downtown to the Chicago Tribune to show off my handiwork. The editor in charge of the cartoon section showed me some of the artwork he was rejecting. To be kind to myself, let’s just say the stuff was only a hundred times better than what I had brought with me. Cleaner, neater, the artwork itself much, much better. I couldn’t complain.
The year before, I’d taken a summer art course at the Chicago Academy of Fine Art, and had picked up a few pointers. However, I figured if I was going to make a go of it as an artist I needed to get back in school. I needed an instructor right at my shoulder pointing out each error I made as I went along. But, if I was going to be a mystery writer, well, I could teach myself how to do it. Maybe that hit on the head as a kid did more than just give me a headache.
At any rate, twelve years later I sold my first story, “Block Party,” to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which appeared in their April 1972 issue. Since “Block Party,” my published works haven’t reached the astronomical level I once thought they might, but I do have two novels and sixty-five short stories to my credit thus far. I’m still writing, so who knows what the final total will be.
Okay, now here are the rules that work for me.
When I start a new story, ninety-five percent of the time the first thing I do is write out a list of names. I do this for two reasons. First, as an aid to individualize my characters. I try not to have the names sound alike, or even began with the same letters, unless of course it’s a pivotal part of the story. Secondly, as I introduce a new character into the story, there’s a list of names readily available for me to choose from. The remaining five percent is the time I come up with an opening line first. On those occasions I generally sit back and tell myself, “Okay, you’ve got the hard part done. Now what?”
Another aid I use in individualizing my characters, especially if I’m introducing two or more, is I never describe their features in the same order. Height, color of hair, eyes; figure. That way it’s like going down a check-off list. And doing so, for me, seems to have the result of meshing the characters into one big lump. I may start with character A’s hair, the shape of character’s B’s mouth, the girth of character C’s waistline, and add a little something here and there as I go back to each character through dialogue or observation.
How about viewpoint? I usually stick to one person’s viewpoint in a story. The reader sees, hears, feels, and smells everything the narrator experiences. I don’t go into everybody’s head. I have trouble figuring out how that can be done in a mystery piece. The only way I’ve ever handled the All Seeing Eye, or omniscient viewpoint, is to divide the story into segments giving each character their own patch, therefore revealing only what they perceive as true as the story unfolds. I did this in “Woman at the Window,” EQMM June 2002. The story starts in a defense lawyer’s viewpoint waiting for an assistant State’s attorney to arrive before going in to see his client. When they enter the room the story goes into the woman’s viewpoint as she sits at her bedroom window watching children playing outside. She get increasingly agitated with the men being in her bedroom and wishes her husband would arrive to protect her. When the lawyers leave the room and step into the hospital corridor the story goes into the state’s attorney’s viewpoint. He is convinced the woman has killed her husband but has no knowledge of the act. He tells the defense lawyer the state will not be pursuing murder charges, as he looks back into the room at the woman, who is sitting there staring at a blank wall. I could not have told the story differently.
I also believe in showing, and not telling. He stood there, eyes wide, mouth partially open, head rocking slowly back and forth. As oppose to: He stood there confused.
I always play fair with the reader. I never pull a rabbit out of a top hat with the solution to the crime, when the reader didn’t know the protagonist owned a top hat in the first place. The reader should see everything the protagonist sees, and know everything the protagonist knows. And when the protagonist makes a wrong guess, if the reader is truly vested in the character, they’ll make the wrong guess too. As a sidebar, at some point in the story the protagonist should suspect the guilty party, dismiss the idea, and then come back at the end to prove that person is guilty after all. How about a second sidebar? When it comes to a solution, I generally have a part when the protagonist sees or hears something that brings the whole case into focus. Keeping in mind what I’ve said earlier, I always let the reader see and hear the same thing. But, it’s the part in the story where the protagonist essentially tells the reader what he or she has seen or heard has made a connection with something that went on earlier in the story, and the implied statement is, “Okay, I’ve figured it out, have you?”
I think most people read PI and detective fiction to match their skills with the story’s main character. I know I feel a sense of accomplishment when I can pick out the bad guy before the detective does. But, I’m absolutely overjoyed when the detective gets there before I do and points out all the clues that were right there for me to see, but that I’d missed.
As for my stories that don’t feature a PI or police detective, or some character that gets put into a position where he has to act like one, I go for the twist ending. For me it’s a matter of directing the story to its obvious conclusion, and then do an about face at the end. And hopefully the reader will say I didn’t see it coming, but now that it has, it makes sense.
That’s it. I don’t believe I’ve left anything out. Thanks for taking the time to read this.