Julia Buckley on Writing Mystery Novels

In this interview, Julia Buckley offers advice on writing mystery novels and reveals that mystery writers don't always know "whodunit" when they start writing a book.

Julia Buckley's mysteries include The Dark Backward and the Madeline Mann mystery series.

"I suppose I would compare my technique to meandering down a road, excited to be at the beginning of a journey. The people and things I meet along the way, for the most part, are a surprise to me as much as to the reader."

- Julia Buckley on Writing Mystery Novels

A Conversation with Julia Buckley

CWN: On your blog, you've said that your novel The Dark Backward was inspired by Macbeth and Watergate. Could you talk a bit about this?

Julia Buckley: Sure! I taught Shakespeare’s Macbeth for many years, and the themes of the play always stayed with me long after we finished, specifically the idea that Macbeth cannot be content with murdering the king, but instead becomes obsessed with killing all those whom he feels will somehow endanger his crown. In fact, one of the titles I toyed with for the book was In Spite of Thunder, because Macbeth decides to kill Macduff, an honest thane, so that “I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies, and sleep in spite of thunder.”

In my book, the corrupt governor makes some of the same mistakes that Macbeth does. He has killed, but he feels driven to kill again in order to protect himself, and, like Macbeth, he brings about his own destruction.

I saw the Watergate analogy partly because I love the movie All the President's Men and show it each year in my journalism class. It details the long investigation of Watergate (by Woodward and Bernstein), which ultimately brought down the Nixon administration. These were two unknown reporters, but they were the only ones who stuck to the investigation and followed it to its momentous and shocking conclusion.

An epilogue that begins my novel is the line Richard Nixon famously said in his post-resignation interviews with David Frost: “When the president does it, it’s not illegal.”

Both Shakespeare’s play and the real-life event of Watergate were about men who became so powerful that they lost touch with their humanity, and the evil character of Nob Stevens was informed by that abuse of power.

CWN: Could you talk about how you conceived of the Madeline Mann series? How much of the series had you planned in advance when you got started?

Julia Buckley: Madeline Mann was my second novel, but I actually wrote it first, over a period of years before I had children. I wanted to write the sort of thing I loved to read: a mystery that was narrated in the first person (in the tradition of Mary Stewart), but which also had a sort of whimsical tone, so that the story was both mysterious and fun.

By the time I sold the novel to Midnight Ink, I had already written a sequel and was working on a third in the series (which will probably end as a trilogy—I have not written a fourth).

I know that some people write a book with the series in mind, the way J.K. Rowling did with her Harry Potter novels, so that she could weave details into book one that might not become important until book four.

I didn’t really do it that way; I concentrated more on finishing book one, and then once it was completed I started getting little bursts of ideas for another adventure. It was really just a desire, I think, to be with Madeline again. Readers have told me that they really enjoy her character the way they would a funny friend, and that is exactly the effect I wanted her to have.

CWN: Your Madeline Mann books are set in a small town in Illinois. Could you talk about the role of setting in a mystery series and how it adds to the reader's overall experience?

Julia Buckley: I think setting is very important (P.D. James has gone as far as to say that setting is everything—the lynchpin that holds all else together).

I am not a well-traveled person, but I wanted to write about a setting I knew well enough to describe realistically. I am from Illinois and have traveled all around the Midwest, so I know that small-town feeling and what I might call a Main Street sensibility. I tried to incorporate that into my story, both in Madeline’s town of Webley (which is fictional), and in the town of Saugatuck (which is real).

CWN: Could you talk about your process for plotting a mystery?

Julia Buckley: I have heard writers at conferences who seem to divide into two camps: those who outline, and those who don’t. I actually envy the writers with crisp, organized outlines, but I have never been able to write that way.

I suppose I would compare my technique to meandering down a road, excited to be at the beginning of a journey. The people and things I meet along the way, for the most part, are a surprise to me as much as to the reader (although I have a general template in my mind).

It might surprise people to know that many mystery writers don’t know “whodunit” when they start the book. I had a couple of possibilities for the ending of Madeline Mann, but I didn’t know which way I wanted to go until I was about halfway through the writing. Later I had to go back and insert some clues that pointed the way, but for the most part this rather haphazard method works for me, because it allows my creativity to flow freely.

One quick example of this is that Madeline’s brother, Fritz, who is now one of my favorite characters from the books, was meant to be a minor player—someone the reader rarely saw. But something about Fritz in dialogue, when I wrote for him, made him jump off the page. He made me laugh, and so I expanded his part significantly. These are the sorts of things I can’t know in making an outline.

"Many mystery writers don’t know 'whodunit' when they start the book."

- Julia Buckley on Writing Mystery Novels

CWN: Could you talk about some techniques that you use to create suspense for the reader?

Julia Buckley: Well, I have always loved Elmore Leonard’s advice: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.”

Usually I know the big scenes that I want in my novel, or will imagine them out over a period of days. So I’ll often start with these scenes alone, and then work later on the transitional material that ties them together. In this way, I have emphasized the things that I think the reader will find compelling, and downplayed the less fascinating (but still important) narration.

CWN: Could you offer some advice for writers new to the genre about writing mystery novels successfully?

Julia Buckley: I’m a big proponent of the “write what you want to read” philosophy. Deep down you (the writer) have probably always longed for a certain type of book. I’m sure all of the readers of this blog have heard this sentence, but it bears repeating, especially because it was written by the great Toni Morrison: “If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.”

The whole reason I began writing in the mystery genre was because I loved reading mysteries, but I also believed that I could write a book. I advise others who want to write to read daily and to think about what makes writing good or bad, beautiful or ugly, forgettable or unforgettable. I also recommend that they write every day.

Even some of my best-selling author friends have moments when they agonize and post something on Facebook like “I hate every word that I wrote today.” But beware of those feelings, because those words are valuable, and your hatred of them is an illusion. Put all of your writing safely away, let it sit in a drawer for a while. Then take it out and you’ll realize how much of it is good. Pick one of those good ones and expand on it. Flesh out your mystery before you worry about revising it.

Writing is like any long endeavor—a diet, a pregnancy, a giant puzzle. With each day comes progress. Keep going! All writers, at all levels of success, began at the beginning.

"Writing is like any long endeavor—a diet, a pregnancy, a giant puzzle. With each day comes progress."

- Julia Buckley on Writing Mystery Novels

Writing Mystery Novels - Next Steps

Did you enjoy this interview about writing mystery novels? You might also like our interview about mystery writingwith editor Allister Thompson.

Read general tips on writing mystery novels

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