A Maine native, Iris Hockaday has an Associate of Arts degree in graphic design and a B.A. in psychology. She is a poet as well as a short-story writer, and her first professional fiction publication, “The Thunderstorm,” was in EQMM’s last issue (July/August 2020). In this post she reflects on the concept of mystery and the importance of credible motivation as it applies to our genre. —Janet Hutchings
I’ve got a secret. Do you want to know what it is? Of course you do. We want to know the unknowable. What do we want to know about a secret? If it is a good secret, everything. If we think it’s mundane, not so much. What is the hook? In a piece of fiction, when and where will this hidden knowledge be revealed? Does it clear up the mystery in an exciting or satisfactory way? Does it lend a twist to the story?
We are excited by the journey and the art of discovery. We are pulled into cleverness and the intelligent reasoning of The How when it comes to the genre of mystery fiction. The Why, the motivation behind the truth of the story, intrigues us even more. We are curious creatures by nature, which advances our self-preservation. And if we can read the minds of characters on a page, ascribe to them details and traits that matter in a story, we have the ultimate advantage—we can participate with nothing to lose but perhaps our time or some junk we would rather not have in our minds. The only work we really have to do is read and absorb the writer’s tale, intertwining our own ideas and emotions as we proceed.
Mystery fiction springs from the deepest, most ancient questions of all—Who am I? And Why am I here? Life’s mystery and the realization that we will all die at some point lead us necessarily to ask questions relevant to the unknowable. Everything in our future is basically a secret—a place always just out of reach. We yearn to unravel a mystery, to be in control of our destiny, which we can do only in a limited fashion. Our anxieties, our griefs, our joy and our pursuits all stem from the answers we tell ourselves about our little corner of the world, or our universe. And since we cannot control the way other people respond to life’s ups and downs, we come to different conclusions about whom we can trust, or not. Thus we have the perfect setup for writing mysteries. The reader must be given glimpses into the commons, where reader and characters meet. We share a space thus far unoccupied by us. The writer has created a world from nothing, but we must be able to plant our feet on the story’s ground, smell the sweat or lilac, taste salt on our tongues, have hair mussed by the wind, and either intrude our heart or mind or both inside the new home we have been given. We must be able to trust the writer, but not necessarily the narrator.
No matter how bizarre or eerie or crazy this literary space will be, we must be able to identify ourselves there. Somehow, there must be a connection for a reader to dip a toe into the virilium waters of the planet Creop, whose currents bounce like a spring and shift from liquid to solid silver whenever a magic acorn lands in the river. Why, I, as a reader, want to come along on this adventure, is a matter of taste and a willingness to follow the breadcrumbs wherever they lead.
The vicarious charm of being in control, while at the same time experiencing another person’s conundrum or reactionary foibles, gives rise to empathy or disdain, depending on how deeply we are drawn into the story. Through neglect or unpersuasive writing, not having us care at all about the protagonist, I think, is the greatest insult a writer can foster on their main character. That being said, some characterizations of the protagonist can appear shallow when the object of the story is more the adventure and thrill of the ride—overcoming obstacles, achieving or not achieving goals, stumbling around in the dark for answers crucial to the protagonist’s goals or life itself. But even then, we must care somewhat about the person who invites us to come along on this tour without knowing every childhood or adult memory that underlies present actions. If we don’t care, we might stop reading—causing the premature death of all the writer holds dear.
Reading a short story about a crime or a mystery, might at times, take us where we don’t necessarily want to go. There might be a horrendous murder, we might have queasy stomachs, but if the story takes us along a route we find intriguing, we will surrender our dislike or fears to see what happens next. But if we go along with it, read all the way to the end, and feel like we’ve been betrayed in some way, we will not be happy. And perhaps that writer has lost a fan.
I, myself, get peeved when a character commits an action where a strong motivation has not been established. It feels as though the writer has cheated me by allowing a poor excuse to pass as the reason for the crime, or the dots seem not to connect sensibly and rationally, even if insanity is involved as a basis for the plot. On the other hand, a well-crafted mystery leaves me in awe of the skill and imagination involved to pull it off. It is a wow moment.
The joy of reading a mystery lies in the revealing of the underbelly of the story, the invisible made visible . . . the whys and wherefores making sense at crunch time. Some endings call for a leap of the imagination or ends tied loosely enough that more than one interpretation might work. A satisfactory ending is one in which the reader feels satisfied with all elements of the story, the writing technique, dialog, characterizations, plot. Obviously. But is it so obvious? The skill should not be so obvious that it jars the reader from the fictional world back into their own world. A sentence can jump off the page like a flea jumping on the reader’s arm. This sentence cannot stand unless the writer is working some kind of spell they want broken for some reason. I would think this would take a master magician for this trick to work at all. Misdirection is used all the time in mysteries, but this is to cloak the visible for a big reveal down the road. Red herrings are akin to a maze with lots of dead ends. This works well in a novel, but a short story has its limitations.
To me, a good short mystery story carries me in its arms and either drops me on my butt or sets me down gently when its over. Either way, the need to know more and more and more as I was reading, to know where I was going and how I ended up there is paramount. Some invisible hand is tugging and pulling me along. Sometimes, I’m still enchanted or brightened by the tale days and weeks later, unwilling to leave that world behind. The story refuses to stay on the page, jumping into and taking up residence in my imagination. This is a successful story.
The question is always, What’s going to happen next? And, can I, by faith and the willingness to suspend my own reality for a time, be swept up in the story’s arms?
So much is subjective in life. One person can read a mystery and totally rave about it while another person gives it a ho-hum. We bring to the story our own set of baggage, expectations, and wonderment. All a writer can do is write from a place of honesty and as excellently as one can. When a line or a story feels false, one has to go with one’s gut and reject it. There is proof in the pudding. The joy, I believe, in creating a work of fiction, lies in having a bit of work that never existed before, come to life before our eyes. It is truly a gift of the trade that we get to craft beauty, or suspense, or crime that pulls together elements like water, wind, fire, metal, in an alchemy of words. And that the words form thoughts or descriptions or feelings in sentence logic. And the sentences form a story in a synergy so luminescent and energetic as to mimic life. But as writers, we cannot be so in love with our work as to pass over flaws or be blind to our momentary lunacy, when we have not really thought something through. We must constantly autopsy a draft until it cannot be picked apart any longer.
All artists get to participate in a transcendence from creativity, where we create something from nothing. Which brings us back to the beginning of mystery—there is always something mysterious to learn or ponder in this world, whether its quarks or galaxies far far away, or strange creatures in the depths of the black ocean, or a wellspring of faith and inspiration in the supernatural or the eternal God. We are blessed that there will always be mysteries, for without them we would be belly-button gazers, never pondering the outer banks of our imaginations. If we had no mysteries, would we be able to invent a mystery story? Would it entail a language we could not even conceive of? Would we even be able to grasp the fact that something invisible could be revealed? Would we even have survived as human beings on this planet?
It is the nature of past present and future to move us along, and move the story along—for us to judge what is worthy or unworthy about ourselves and our characters. A perfect word, a well-crafted sentence, an “aha” plot, that pushes us a bit past what we thought we were capable of, is very satisfying and spurs us on to more discoveries as a writer and as the reader. For we are the discoverers of new lands, steering our ships in rough waters, through terrible storms or placid seas, always hunting the white whale that lives invisibly below the surface, catching glimpses of the leviathan when we least expect it. We dream our dreams and write them down, as if harnessing and controlling a creature so daunting, we wonder how it can be possible we have dragged it to shore.
Writing to me is usually not easy. I am into precision and precision takes work. But it’s a navigation with sextant and compass and bold temerity to even lay fingers on the keyboard and peer into the white screen of invisibility that will allow letter by letter, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, a prairie dog to come out of its hole.
Some days no words come. But the work in the mind continues consciously or unconsciously, jumping synapses into uncharted territory, mysteriously linking concepts, awaiting the perfect occasion to manifest itself as needed. Then the words do come, as if from nothing.
There is an ache in a writer. We are in love with words and we must prove our love by hugging them closely, giving voice to their strengths, printing them on canvases in our personal gallery of ideas.
We might avoid them at times, but we are truly writers, we will always come back to the beckoning of words that speak in our own mysterious code and language. We urge our perspective to become yours. Please enter into the mystery, wholeheartedly and with great expectations.
We will try to deliver.