Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Mystery Writing: The Inside Story

By Tom Mach (Guest Blogger)

If a mystery is any work of fiction where some sort of crime has been committed, then I can say I’ve written several mysteries. In my novel All Parts Together, Lincoln is assassinated and although there is no mystery as to why today, there was mystery surrounding that assassination back then. Until then, no one had ever killed a President so folks in 1865 wanted to know why and my book goes into the mind of John Wilkes Booth--how he planned it and why he did it. In my short story “The Crossword Puzzle Murders,” published in a collection entitled Stories to Enjoy, a female detective tries to solve a string of murders of professional women and she finally uncovers the clue that tells her who the murderer is--but is it too late?

But switching from a short story to a detective mystery novel like An Innocent Murdered is a giant leap. Let me tell you how and why I did it. Back in 1990 I met a detective who helped me understand how a detective thinks and operates. From that, I had a more realistic “day-in-the-life-of” vision of a real detective I could use in my novel. The problem was I didn’t much care for the detective I created back then. He was a hard-nosed SOB who was great at playing “good guy’ vs. “bad guy” roles in interrogating persons of interest, and he solved cases. But to me that character was nothing more than a robot who did his job and had only one goal in life--to solve cases. Well, I put that novel aside and went on to other things. But two years ago, I went back to the novel I had written and decided that two-thirds of the novel had to be rewritten, some of the characters removed, new ones added, and a complete makeover done on Detective Matt Gunnison.

Before I continue discussing how and why I had to change him, I want to say that I was interested in writing a murder mystery concerning a priest who was innocent of any wrongdoing even though the media assumed he was already guilty--and as a result, the priest was murdered. The big question is: now that the dead priest was found to be innocent after all, how does that affect the murderer--or does it? In An Innocent Murdered I made sure that the prime suspect, Jacinta Perez, appears to be as guilty as possible. She has the priest’s blood on her boots from where they had walked on the carpet where he was stabbed; a witness claims he saw her enter the rectory; she made a threatening phone call to the priest before he was killed; the DNA on a cigarette stub found on the carpet matched her; and she had a strong motive to kill him. This was an open-and-shut case, apparently. I enjoyed writing this book because I was curious as to where this case would lead me. (Yes, I did have some clues as to where this story was going, but the characters surprised me going in new directions as I wrote the book.)

Matt Gunnison is the detective assigned to solve this case, but I had to change his persona from the one I had 21 years ago. I learned a lot about developing characters during that span of time. Matt now came alive to me as a man in his late forties who was a good detective, but he was also a man who was struggling with a horrible past (his high school sweetheart was murdered by thugs) and a messy divorce, yet he manages to show compassion without sacrificing his ability to get to the truth. I could see in my mind’s eye not only what he looked like, but how he behaved under stressful conditions, his attitude toward his coworkers and friends, his easygoing nature that hid his unpleasant past, and--most of all--his thoughts. He reluctantly accepts the fact that his intimate friend, Heather Williams, has a lesbian relationship with a woman named Cassie. But he is devastated when he learns that Heather “used” him by going to bed with him with the hope of getting pregnant so she could share the infant with Cassie.

I had to carefully plant clues as to who really murdered the priest without making it too obvious. I also had to plant a couple of women in my novel as red herrings that would make the reader believe that Jacinta didn’t commit the crime but that one of these other women did. This was a real challenge because there had to be a convincing motivation as well as circumstantial evidence for either of them to have committed the murder. (In fact, one of these women had the murder weapon!)

Many detective mysteries I see today are plot driven, which is a shame because I really want to know more about the character. Matter of fact, in An Innocent Murdered, I did not start the novel with the murder of the priest. Instead I spent a few short chapters showing the reader who the priest was, how he behaved, how he thought. There would be no question in the reader’s mind that the priest was a good man and innocent of the charge of molesting a young girl. Had I not done so, the reader couldn’t have cared less about this murder, but I wanted the reader to cry over his murder. I had several female characters in this novel, which made me work harder to be sure these women came off as being credible. Too often, a male author thinks all he has to do is throw in some descriptive information about the woman (hair color, eye color, height, manner of dress, etc.). But a woman cannot be created as a believable person unless she really behaves and thinks like a woman. I spend a lot time trying to live in a woman’s body and soul, realizing that men and women placed in the identical situation do not necessarily behave the same way.

Weaving romance into a detective novel is a challenge. An author needs to stay focused on the case but he also needs to realize that the male detective has feelings and passions and is not a detective 24/7. There are two women that Matt cares deeply about--Heather Johnson, an African-American psychologist (who loves the company of men but is a lesbian friend of another woman), and Susan Stratford, a former nun who indirectly helps Matt solve the murder case but who has a problem she feels only Matt will understand.

To make Matt more human, I gave him a sense of humor. When Susan visits him in his hotel room, they play gin and Matt cracks a joke. “I’ve had a pretty dull life in Little Rock as a kid. I remember having a crush on a girl when I was in the eighth grade….Yeah, I offered to buy her an ice cream cone but she wanted a triple decker. I got so nervous two of those decks went splat on the floor of the ice cream store.” Matt is casual with both Susan and Heather. When Susan sees his penis (never having seen one in her life) she tells him it’s quite small. Rather than take offense, he explains that Henry (the name he gives his organ) shrinks when he takes a bath. Then he tells her: “Henry, please meet Susan. Susan, meet Henry.” When he showers with Heather, he questions whether her lesbian partner Cassie is jealous. Heather acknowledges that she might be. “Well,” Matt says, “maybe she’d like to join us sometime.”

But I also let the reader know Matt is tenacious when it comes to dealing with suspects. When Jacinta insists that someone else must have killed the priest, Matt doesn’t buy her story, especially after evidence proves she made a threatening phone call to the priest the evening he was killed. “You were coming over to the rectory to do the same thing, weren’t you?” he asks her. Jacinta denies it, claiming she didn’t have a weapon with her. He comes back with another retort: “What about that Halloween mask I found in your house? It had a blood stain on it. We checked it out. The blood was Father Jim’s. How do you explain that?”

For me, writing a mystery novel is much more than finding a dead body and assigning a detective to solve the case. We need to make the detective and the people with whom he comes in contact three-dimensionally real. We need to give the detective warts and problems and heart and make him human. We want the reader to be puzzled as to who really did the murder, and we want the reader, at the end of the story, to breathe a sigh of relief and say “Aha, I see why so-and-so did it. It all makes sense to me.” Most of all, I want the reader to keep turning those pages. I think that’s what An Innocent Murdered does.


Father O'Fallon has been murdered, and police officer Jacinta Perez is arrested and charged. Detective Matt Gunnison, however, is not convinced and with the help of Susan, an ex-nun, he discovers a fascinating link between the priest's death and the death of a child 25 years ago. Will Matt be able to solve both murders?

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Bio: Tom Mach wrote two successful historical novels, Sissy! and All Parts Together, both of which have won rave reviews and were listed among the 150 best Kansas books in 2011.Sissy! won the J. Donald Coffin Memorial Book Award while All Parts Together was a viable entrant for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize Award. He also wrote a collection of short stories entitled Stories To Enjoy which received positive reviews. Tom’s other novels include: An Innocent Murdered, Advent, and Homer the Roamer.

His poetry collection, The Uni Verse, won the Nelson Poetry Book Award. In addition to several awards for his poetry, Writer’s Digest awarded him ninth place in a field of 3,000 entrants. His website is: He also has a popular blog for writers of both prose and verse at

From Lisabet: Tom is giving away a $50 Amazon gift card to be given to the commenter that he feels leaves the best comment. During his blog tour. You can find a list of all his stops at: Don't forget to leave your email when you comment!


Goddess Fish Promotions said...

Thank you for hosting Tom today.

Crystal Trent Dotson said...

Wow , love the interview , Thanks for introducing me to a new Author , I really like the blurb on All Parts Together and An Innocent Murdered. I truely enjoyed this !!
Crystal Trent Dotson

Tom Mach said...

I appreciate your comments on today's blog. You might want to check out my site at www(DOT) TomMach (DOT) com to see not only the kinds of books I have written but something about me as well. I am coming out with a new historical fiction work next spring called ANGELS AT SUNSET. It is a historically-accurate portrayal of the women's suffrage movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s and it also covers two important historical events--the great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the McKinley assassination in 1901. If you would want to pre-order this book, get an autographed copy and save $5 in the process send an email to hillsongpress (AT) yahoo (DOT) com and you will get all the information about it. Thanks so much for writing.

Karen H said...

Your next book, Angels at Sunset, sounds like it's a sweeping saga-type story. How many main characters does it have?

Tom Mach said...

Karen H.

Angels at Sunset provides a page which lists the fictional characters and who they are so readers will quickly know them. There are seven main characters in this novel. You will find it fascinating as the novel takes place in 1920 but goes back to the past every so often when the main character reads her biography written by one of her daughters. If you want to preoder the book, click on hillsongpress(AT)yahoo(DOT)com Thanks for your comment.

MomJane said...

It sounds like you did a great deal of research to make this book so realistic. It sounds really good.

Tom Mach said...


Yes, I did put in a lot of research, but it's something I enjoy doing as well. In fact, a university professor once had me give a presentation to her history class based on my novel.

Mysti Holiday said...

I far prefer character driven stories to plot driven ... I think I'd read about characters I cared about hang wallpaper. Smart move on your part IMHO.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Greetings, Tom,

Sorry I wasn't here earlier to welcome you to Beyond Romance! (I was away all day.) I've always loved mysteries but haven't really dared to write one - possibly because I do tend to think of them as driven by the plot rather than character. The one book I have that comes close is EXPOSURE, which I call an "erotic thriller". And in fact that book IS character-driven. The book is really about the heroine, Stella Xanathakeos, and her quest for the truth.

Thanks for being my guest and good luck with the tour.

Mary Preston said...

I was most interested to read about the make-over you gave your detective. I'm looking forward to reading more about him in the book.


Tom Mach said...

Lisabet Sarai

Thanks. I do hope you read AN INNOCENT MURDERED, not because I need the 99 cents but because this is one of the most character-driven mysteries I think that was ever written. I could be wrong, but I'd like you to give me your impression. Nice blog, Lisabet !

Tom Mach said...

The detective who gave me suggestions for my book was a hard-nose, no-nonsense officer. I didn't want Matt Gunnison to be like that and I think I modeled him more after myself.

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