Gestalt Mystery Writing

I wrote the first Coot Long mystery in between double hip replacements.

My left hip was replaced in January of 2015. As I recovered (once I got to the point I could focus), I lay in bed flat on my back so the new hip wouldn’t wrench out of the socket, and I read mysteries.

Before I went under the knife, I’d solicited mystery recommendations. I’ve been a big mystery fan ever since I discovered John D. McDonald‘s color titles on my parents’ bookshelves (“The Lonely Silver Rain,” “The Deep Blue Good-by”), but I needed some new “favorites.” I got a slew of suggestions (it’s nice to have writer friends), and I read them one after another, about 25 total. I then dove into writing about Coot.

MacDonald’s Travis McGee books were my first favorite mystery series

It’s easy to think of mysteries as homogenous with certain unbreakable rules. But the mysteries I read were very different in tone, pacing, point of view, amount of description, and reliance on dialogue—kind of like novels in general. My goal was to let my subconscious absorb the rhythm of plotting—what to reveal when—then let it guide my writing. My theory was similar to the rote practices we used when I was a young tennis player to teach the body how to react on the court. I was teaching my mind how to plot, not through analytical study (I’d already done a bit of that), but through immersion.

When I was getting my hips replaced, we still owned our home on the Wolf River Harbor where the Coot Long mysteries are set

My next hip replacement was in June of that year. By that point, I’d been working on Coot since April. I was on a roll with what was then (misnamed) Cracks in the River. Then—pow! Major surgery again. Intrepid writer that I was, I didn’t let that stop me. Waking in my hospital room, I picked up my phone.

I’d only recently discovered the i-Phone’s Notes feature. I could use the microphone to dictate my thoughts, a skill I was raised on when practicing law in the 1980s (we used actual Dictaphones, clicked the bitty tapes from the hand-held machines, and gave them to our secretaries to type up.) The afternoon of my surgery, still under the influence of heavy drugs, I dictated my revisions.

Listening to that recording is HILARIOUS. My talking is slow and deadly serious (“Then…Coot decides…she is lying…to him.”) I methodically outlined the rest of the story to completion. Finished, I relaxed back on my pillow. Typing “The End” was within sight, easy-peasy.

The drugs wore off, and I read what I’d dictated and thought, what the hell? My notes were sketchy as a scarecrow. I’d actually made some good suggestions, but, dang, I had a long way to go. Yet by the end of that rehabilitative period—around October—Coot was finished. Complete. Done.

The pajama squad—I spent a lot of time in pajamas that year, but I had good company

Except, of course, that was the first draft. It required heavy revision. And a (less-than-helpful) paid editor’s read. And two rounds of (very helpful) Beta readers. And another (very, very helpful) developmental editor read. And getting an agent who had yet more (incredible) developmental suggestions. And (final) revisions as I attempted to implement the agent’s suggestions.

Coot is now in the hands of 5 publishing houses. If we get “passes” that provide consistent feedback, the manuscript will be again revised. Or perhaps it will be acquired and that editor will want more revisions.

So, in light of all the revisions, how to I evaluate my gestalt method of writing a mystery?

Let me put it this way: I have written a synopsis for the second installment of the Coot Long mysteries—PLUS—I’m once again immersing myself in recommended mysteries.

I don’t think I would have ever produced a mystery worth revising if I hadn’t prepped myself with all that reading. And I want to try—for the first time in my writing life—working off a synopsis to see if it cuts down on the unnecessary yakking that doesn’t advance the plot.

What about you? Do you read mysteries? Do you have ones you always recommend? What do you admire about the author’s work?

Tom and I walking the St. Jude 5K the year of my hip surgeries. Who knew the writing of Harboring Evil would be just as much of a marathon?

A Coot Long Mystery, Great mystery series, Harboring Evil, homeless sleuth, John D. McDonald mysteries

Comments (2)

  • I (very unhelpfully) don’t read mysteries. Perhaps it is because there is too much suspense in my real life and I don’t think I can withstand any more tension. I admire your dedication to reading a variety of exemplars before you write, though. I’m sure that whatever suits you from each filters into your writing in a very positive way. Fingers crossed that one of the five current publishers accepts the first book – and is anxious for the second, too!

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      I completely understand, as my ability to read different genres has waxed and waned with the events of my life. One thing I learned in this period of immersion, when I’ve (inadvertently) read recommendations that turned out to be thrillers rather than mysteries, is that I’m not really a fan of thrillers. Too much emphasis on the terror rather than the puzzle of the mystery. Thank you muchly for your well-wishes!

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