Where Should a Mystery Begin? by Susan Van Kirk
My research is done, and I’m organizing the plot and scenes for a second book about the small town of Sweet Iron, Illinois, with my historical researcher/genealogist protagonist, Beth Russell. This means it’s time for me to deal with what I consider the hardest part of writing a mystery—the first chapter. Where does my story begin? My track record is all about getting that question completely wrong. Multiple times. That is why I have an editor and beta readers.
Consider the first book in the series, A Death at Tippitt Pond.
I first began this mystery with a chase across New York City. Exciting, right? Beth lives in the small town of Sea Cliff on Long Island. One evening she leaves the New York City Public Library, where she’d been researching, and becomes aware of a man following her from a distance. Since I’ve never lived in New York City, I relied on a former student who lives in Sea Cliff and works in the financial district. She gave me all kinds of help. I studied videos of Bryant Park at Christmas time, and perused the subway and train systems, studiously figuring out how to make Beth’s connections accurate. It was an exciting race, culminating with the stranger ringing the doorbell at Beth’s apartment. My editor nixed that one.
Plan Two. Beth is researching at the Rose Room in the New York City Public Library. Once again, I studied pictures and the organization of the library and made sure I could describe the Rose Room down to the last detail. I even knew that in real life the Rose Room was under construction during Beth’s fictional research, so Beth would have had to work somewhere else at times. In this scene the stranger approaches Beth, telling her an impossible story about how she might be the heir to an inheritance from a wealthy family named Tippitt. He gives her a plane ticket, a bed-and-breakfast reservation, and a date and time to meet the lawyer who wants to discuss this in Sweet Iron. She is skeptical, but it would cost her nothing to go there between research projects. My readers nixed that one. Need more excitement.
Plan Three. Beth meets her best friend, Gabrielle Martinez, at a posh restaurant in Manhattan. I researched restaurants and menus. She tells Gabby about an investigator who accosted her at the New York Public Library concerning an inheritance she was supposedly in line for in a small town called Sweet Iron. Gabby urges her to go and check it out. What would it hurt? They discuss Gabby leaving for Florida with her family for Christmas and how Beth will be alone—once again—for the holidays. This one was big-time nixed. Too much backstory.
And we have the winner. I haven’t yet figured out a way to do this process backward so I can start with the winner. In fact, consider how much time I wasted researching so many places about New York City. I’m starting on a new book. This will give me a new opportunity to start in the wrong place once again.