WINNIE THE POOH’S 6 RULES FOR WRITING MYSTERIES

Full disclosure, the six rules of writing mysteries were set forth by A.A. Milne, who wrote Winnie the Pooh, but Milne does speak for Winnie, so there.

Milne also wrote a delightful mystery The Red House Mystery, that he dedicated to his father who was a big fan of mysteries.

So the six rules:

  1. The story should be written in good English

I thought that would be a given. After all, if you write bad English, you write a bad novel. So writing in good English should be obvious. I think this rule came from Winnie and Milne used to make Winnie happy.

2.  Love interest is undesirable.

Raymond Chandler also said the same thing. Of course there was Nick and Nora Charles, but being married their love is implicit. They sparred with wit and charm, with Nora being Watson to Nick’s Sherlock, although she was smarter than Watson.

Chandler, by the way, thought little of Milne’s mystery. He also trashed Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and virtually all British mystery novelists in the Golden Age of British mysteries, between the two world wars. Chandler was about realism, especially the writings of Dashiell Hammett. But Chandler missed elements of Red House Mystery, those being social satire, with a stab at comedy of manners. It is very witty with sharp dialogue.

3.  Both detective and villain should be amateurs.

Since the early 1920’s, when Milne was writing these rules, police procedural mysteries  have become a sub genre of their own. There were a few back then, but the genre has grown to the point that this rule does not apply. It is a matter of taste and preference and I prefer the amateur.

4.  Scientific detection is ‘too easy’.

I am not sure what Milne meant with this rule. But obviously nearly a century has passed and science is much bigger now in detecting clues and evidence. British mysteries in the golden age were more about puzzles, and figuring out who did it. Milne may have implied that the amateur detective should rely on getting clues, piecing them together to solve the puzzle.

5.   The reader must know as much as the detective.

This rule should apply to all mysteries of any era. The reader should have access to the information, not only to see if he can solve the murder before the end, but more important, not to trick the reader. You can not add information at the end when the killer is revealed that comes as a surprise to the reader. That is not playing fair and it pisses off the reader who has invested his time in the story.

6. There should be a Watson: it is better for the detective to Watsonize’ than soliloquize.

This is elementary. One could have a detective working alone and he can share his thoughts through the first person, such as “When I saw the gun on the floor it was too far away for it to be suicide, but then why was the gun ten feet away, perhaps because . . .”  In essence the reader could be the Watson. In my mysteries I use Chet and Eveleen, a married couple, who along with their flapper friend Clancy solve mysteries. I do this because I enjoy their interplay.

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How Story Plotting Makes You Write faster

Books to Die For is an anthology of essays written by mystery writers about their favorite mystery/crime book and author in that genre. One of the books, A Night for Screaming by Harry Whittington is one of many that caught my attention.

Whittington is quoted by Bill Crider in the e-book version of A Night for Screaming about plotting, saying:

“I understood plotting, emotional response, story structure. Fifteen years it took me to learn, but I knew. I could plot – forward, backwards, upside down. It was like being half-asleep and abruptly waking. Never again would I be stumped for plot idea or story line. From the moment I learned to plot, I was assaulted with ideas screaming, scratching and clawing for attention. For the next 20 years I sold everything I wrote.”

That should catch your attention. Whittington used 12 pseudonyms and wrote, depending on the source, 170 or over 200 books, and according to Wiki wrote 85 over 12 years.

Thinking about what Whittington said, if you have the plot of the story-that being what happens to whom from beginning to end- then all you have to do is fill in the blanks. Of course the plot contains all plot twists, surprises, getting the hero in trouble, piling on more trouble, then making his troubles unsolvable, before wrapping it up. 

Also in Crider’s introduction he says this about plotting, quoting Larry Dent’s formula:

“Maybe you’re familiar with Lester Dent’s formula for plotting a pulp story. At least three of its major sections begin with this advice: “Shovel grief onto the hero.” Or some variation thereof. The final one begins like this: “Shovel the difficulties more thickly upon the hero.” Dent follows that with this: “Get the hero almost buried in his troubles.” Nearly any of Whittington’s novels is a master class in following that advice. By the time you near the end of A Night for Screaming, you’ll be wondering how anybody could ever escape, and you’ll be zipping through the pages as fast as I did all those years ago.”

The advice can be used for any story, not just pulp fiction. Also in Crider’s introduction he said he read A Night for Screaming in one day. I don’t remember ever doing that, but I did with this book. The flow of language and the story was that good.

I plan on plotting my next e-mystery before writing the story. I think that will prevent me from bogging down here and there, trying to see where the story goes next.

Here is Goodreads list of Whittington’s books.

And here is my short list of e-books on Amazon:

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