On Writing a Mystery – “One Little Spacepod”

Writing is a process and everyone’s process is different.  I’ve always had a great deal of interest in how other writers get from point A (the idea) to point B (the finished story).  How many times have a read a story or watched a movie and thought “that was a great idea, how did they come up with that?”  Well, in the interest of that question I’m going to share a little bit about my method and how I write a short story.  In this case, I’ll be discussing One Little Spacepod.  (***SPOILER ALERT*** – if you plan on reading the story, do so before reading this post!)

Ideas come randomly at all hours of the day.  There is almost never a case where I’ve sat down and thought “I’m going to conceive a story right now,” and proceed to work it all out in one sitting.  I wish I could do that, but I can’t.  There is usually a fragment of a concept that occurs to me, unrelated to anything else, that serves as the seed of the story.  It can come from reading a news article, watching TV, a conversation, or just while walking the dog.  That’s the easy part.  The hard part is taking that seed and turning it into a coherent story.  I have many, many seeds that never grow into stories.  Most rot away in a notebook somewhere waiting for their turn to be written and end up waiting forever.

The hard part is taking that seed and turning it into a coherent story.  I have many, many seeds and very few grow into stories.  Most rot away in a notebook somewhere waiting for their turn to be written and end up waiting forever.

In relation to that, I always write notes in black-and-white Mead Composition books.  It’s all I use and ever have used.   They are the repositories for countless snippets of ideas, information, characters, situations, plot points, themes, and vocabulary that may or may not ever find themselves into a story.  I have many of these notebooks sitting on my shelves, filled up cover to cover.

For One Little Spacepod, I simply wanted to try my hand at writing a mystery.  I had been on an Agatha Christie kick for a little while and thought I’d take a stab at it.  It also occurred to me that you don’t see that many murder mysteries set in science fiction settings, so it seemed like a good idea.  So, I started putting things together little by little.  Building the story, even a short story, for me is a somewhat slow process.

Character relationships map for One Little Spacepod by Adam Perin

Character Relationships

In the case of every story, screenplay and novel I’ve ever written, I figure out the ending first (point B), then the opening scene (point A), then connect A to B.  Depending on the length of the story, there are several plot points between A and B that lead you through the story.  Short stories may not have many of these, while novels and screenplays have many.  Spacepod is a novella, so it lies somewhere in-between.

Plot points in these case are obviously the murders.  That made plotting a little easier.  The characters, however, were very difficult.  Or rather, the characters and their relation to one another.  In this type of mystery (the so-called “country house” mystery), you have a small group of people in an isolated location that fall victim to an unseen assailant.

The characters, who at first seem unrelated, are revealed to unexpected relationships to one another that make each of them suspect in one way or another.  Each character must also, of course, have a secret of some kind.  Creating characters is always challenging, as it become increasingly difficult to try to create something that is neither cliche’ or boring.  Writers get them from wherever they can.  In Spacepod. the main character of Simon was based on someone I knew years ago.  I didn’t put him in there rote, but the appearance and mannerisms are there.  I like to think of it as an homage.  Let this be a warning!  If you know a writer, there’s a good chance that someone very similar to you will end up in one of their stories.

 Let this be a warning!  If you know a writer, there’s a good chance that someone very similar to you will end up in one of their stories.  

So in the case of Spacepod, it took me a while to conceive of the characters first, but then to arrange them in such a way that there were relationships between each of them.  The picture I’ve included here is a page from my notebook where I’ve drawn a picture of who is connected to who (via their initials).  I had several more pages where I fleshed out each of these relationships more clearly.  A lot of these relationships involve either bad blood between people or hidden romantic liaisons, either of which provides good fodder for murderous intent!

Outpost diagram for One Little Spacepod by Adam Perin

Outpost Diagram

The other big decision to make with this story was the location.  By necessity, a story like this has to be set somewhere isolated and cut off from outside intervention.  It should also be impossible for any of the characters to “escape” and simply run away once people start kicking the bucket (that wouldn’t be too exciting, would it?)  So, I arrived at an isolated outpost in deep space, a listening post whose very existence is a secret.  That would ensure that 1) no one came to help and 2) no one can just walk away.  The impending arrival of the Cnidarians (and the horrible death and destruction they would bring) serves as a countdown clock that adds tension to the situation.  The setting for these type of mysteries is important, not just for where it is but how the scene is laid out.   Agatha Christie would sometimes include diagrams in her books depicting the layout of the scene of the crime.  This picture would be referred to often so the reader can relate the position of characters at various times in the story, helping to deduce who was where and when.  Such clues are often vital to deducing the murderer.

Character locations during the murders chart for One Little Spacepod by Adam Perin

Character locations during the murders

I didn’t include a sketch of the outpost in the story, but I did make a sketch for myself!  In my own mind, I needed to know exactly where all the characters were at all times.  This image shows the sketch I made, solely for my own reference as I wrote the story.  The numbers you see annotated on the picture correspond to the murders (they are numbered in the previous image).  Each murder occurred a definite day and time, and for each I had to know where every character way and what they were doing.  The next image is a chart I made of each murder, listing where each character was at that time.  You’ll notice I’ve crossed out a few entries and re-written them.  Normally what I plan to happen at first and what ends up actually being in the final draft are very different.

So I have the opening, the ending, the location and the characters.  I know who’s going to live and who’s going to die.  I know how they’re going to die (it took a while to figure that out).  Finally, I made a list of the clues (what kind of a mystery doesn’t have clues?)  A lot of these were informational fragments or ideas (“bracelet,” “bloody crowbar” “seeing Michalik and Wenona together” “lack of bloody footprints in lab”).  Often I had no idea how they would work into the story.  I probably wrote about thirty or forty of these and ending up using less than then.  Some of these also spurred the method of murder for a particular character, too (Which came first, the murder or the clue?)

After all that, the writing is the easy part!  I probably wrote the first draft in a couple weeks once I sat down to do it.  The prep work (all the above) took much longer.  Normally, I write a first draft, set it aside and work on something else, and come back to it weeks later to try to look at it “cold.”  Then I’ll revise it and do it again for three or four drafts before I get sick of revising and decide its complete.  I wrote this story with the intention of selling it to a magazine, but that was always a longshot.  At over 16K words, its too long for most publications.  The market for science fiction novellas is microscopically tiny and occupied mostly by established authors, so it was no surprise to me that no one wanted it.  But, I knew that going in and did it anyway.  I wanted to see if I could do it and I enjoyed it!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look into my writing process.  I wish other authors would put their methods out there.  I’m always curious how others do it and I can’t be the only one.  Until next time….

Leave a Comment