A Good Mystery is Like a Turducken

In August of 2014 I was asked to write a guest blog for A Woman’s Wisdom. I thought about what I might write and figured I’d be on safe ground talking about mysteries — my genre and my favorite books to read.  But I also like food; in fact I’m rather a gourmand. No, not a gourmet – I just like food.  It can be comforting, like a good mystery. It’s a wonder I don’t weigh 500 pounds.

We are grilling a chicken this weekend, so the gourmand naturally thought of this post. Hope you don’t mind looking at it again!

A good mystery begins with a whodunit, but one that should wrap around at least one other story, and maybe two. A good mystery, as Winston Churchill once said about Russia, “…is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.”

Turducken IIt sort of reminds me of a turducken, a deboned chicken into a deboned duck, which is in turn stuffed into a deboned turkey.  Hence turducken.  It was introduced to the world by football commentator and former coach John Madden, during a National Football League broadcast. Did I mention I like football, too? While announcing a game, he displayed the turducken and started to carve it up.  In the United Kingdom, the Pure Meat Company offered a five-bird roast (a goose, a turkey, a chicken, a pheasant, and a pigeon, stuffed with sausage in 1989. Now that’s a royal roast!

Turducken II




So what makes a good mystery? There are a plethora of to-do lists on the internet about writing mysteries, but here are some of mine.

1. An interesting locale. The locale itself can be a character in your story.

2. A compelling main character. This person can be you, if you wish, but bring in parts of other people to make him or her interesting and give them depth.

3. A hook to catch the reader. This is usually the first sentence, the first paragraph, or first chapter of the book, although occasionally a prologue does the trick. Think of the beginning of P.D. James’ Unnatural Causes, in which a famous crime writer’s body found handless and floating in a local vicar’s boat.

4. A strong main plot = the turkey. Hopefully not a turkey.  I find inspiration for this in news stories and personal experiences. Make sure it involves a murder and a body – I know this should be obvious – but no one is going to want to read an entire book about a stolen watch.

5. A subplot = the duck. The subplot does not necessarily have to tie into the plot except through the main character, although it is nice if you can weave them together. A third subplot = the chicken. You are not limited in number with regard to subplots – so you can go for the five bird roast – but with too many the book becomes confusing.  The flavors are lost!

In my first book, Death in a Red Canvas Chair, the main plot concerns finding the killer of a young woman. The subplot involves college student prostitutes. Another subplot, although minor, was the purloining and selling of untreated body parts for transplantation. These tie to one another and ultimately to the young woman in the canvas chair.  My protagonist’s marriage has a life of its own through the book, and it continues as a subplot in the second book, Death in a Dacron Sail.

Being a gourmand, I had to have food running through both books; one reader told me I made him hungry!

6. Be sure that each subplot is populated by one or more distinct characters, whose personalities are well-drawn, likable or not. Tension is created by the unlikable. Sometimes it’s hard to create a nasty character, but once you’ve done it, you’ll find it’s fun!

7. The story needs to be believable. This might seem a bit obvious, but I’ve read some mysteries in which the plot is too fantastic or the protagonist superhuman. I like Clive Cussler’s books, for example – they’re entertaining beach reads, but the stories are wild and the main characters are, well, too perfect.

8. Research! For every scene in which something procedural takes place or there is a known locale, you need to do your research. This can be really enjoyable; I’ve met some incredible people with stories of their own to tell.  I even spent a week in Maine in February to get a feel for winter there, as background for Death in a Dacron Sail. Experiencing temperatures below zero and amazing images of what feet of snow can do to the landscape made it an adventure.

You might want to research where to find a turducken.

9. Read!  Mystery is one of my favorite genres, so maybe that’s why I decided to write one or two or three… You learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t by reading other mystery writers.

10. Write! You need to write every day, even if it is only for your blog. If you don’t want to write a mystery, write what is comfortable for you. What’s your favorite genre? Maybe that’s where to start.

Many thanks to A Woman’s Wisdom for the opportunity to write a guest pos!

In case you’re wondering what I am doing for  the A-Z Challenge, this year my subject(s) will be people and places from my books, including the third (Death by Pumpkin, out in April).



40 thoughts on “A Good Mystery is Like a Turducken”

  1. Where (or what) is the McGuffin? Hitchcock says ya gotta have a McGuffin — something portentous and vaguely evil that shadows characters in key scenes throughout the work. You got one? 😎

      1. Hitchcock is one of my favorites. I loved it when he had a TV program of his mysteries. There was one where the killer was a wife who killed her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooked the murder weapon and served it to the investigators!

        1. There was also one where the villain raised pedigree chickens. He murdered his wife. Then he cycled the corpse through the feed grinder and fed it to his flock. When the detectives couldn’t find a body, they filed her disappearance as a ‘missing person’. A few weeks later, villain invited the cops over for a roast-chicken dinner with wine and all the trimmings just to show them he had no hard feelings for their having suspected him of murder.

    1. The term did come from Hitchcock. I consider it to be a red herring – something or someone that could be important to solving the crime but turns out to be a dead end. The protagonist has to take it seriously as a possible clue, even if it leads nowhere.

  2. This was a fun and informative read. Being new at this, I like to be reminded of exactly what my potential audience is looking for. I’ve read many different types of crime novels, and while different sub-genres/niches have different expectations, there are some universal threads that simply can’t remain loose.

    1. Maybe a turducken could be the McGuffin. Change it to a comedy-mystery. Get Chef Paul Prudhomme to dress in a turducken suit and harass the main characters? Nah! Won’t work. I guess it’s pretty good the way it is. I’ll shut up and leave you all alone.

      1. Interesting thought – part of the turducken could be a McGuffin (cute – it rhymes). But I tend to think of each layer as a different plot line that adds to the overall flavor of the book.

      2. You make some good points, sir. The point is to choose your beta readers wisely. I only have 5 and I choose them based on their own writing. A couple are editors. My grammar and syntax isn’t always perfect but I’ve been writing (okay, scientific papers) for decades and although I’m still learning how to write fiction, I never had a journal reject one of my manuscripts. Then I have both an editor and a copy editor work on the book, then two editors who now run their own marketing firm. Finally, I give it an out loud run through, which catches a few more things. At that point a say a prayer and send it off to print!

        1. Yup. You’re right to read it aloud to yourself. If you stumble, others surely will stumble too. I always read mine aloud. I’ve been to graduate J-school. I went through the magazine editing sequence, though I freely admit I didn’t take too much of it to heart. Working freelance, I have no need of a stylebook. I used to keep one handy to settle some issues I had with myself, but I packed all that stuff in boxes years ago when I ran out of shelf space for my TBR stacks.

    2. That is one of the most difficult things about writing a mystery – you create different threads, some important, some red herrings, and you have to remember to tie them all up.

          1. No ‘beta reader’ will ever get to see my stuff. Showing your unpolished stuff is like walking down the street in your dirty underwear, skidmarks and all.

          2. You’re laying a trap for yourself, as far as I’m concerned. If you ever hit it big, one of the people you chose to help you will tell that you wouldn’t be who you are if it hadn’t been for the help of ????. And you won’t be able to deny it because (s)he has others to back him/her/it up.

            I just finished polishing a manuscript for a guy who has half a dozen ‘beta readers’. The author has already gone to press with the book because he had so many people (college students) read the thing that he was sure it was OK. Now it’s in print, he sent me a copy to review. I looked at it and refused to write about it because it was chock full of infantile errors of syntax and spelling. There were errors of fact and of circumstance. I would have been ashamed to send it to a genuine editor in that condition and I sure didn’t want to wreck his life by writing about it.

            He ended up by saying: “Hmmm. I’ll have to make you one of my beta readers!” I said: “This time was a freebie because I had no idea what you were sending me. Next time, (if there is one, and there won’t be) you’ll have to pay me cash in advance.

            I simply cannot believe he sent that book to a printer for self-publish and didn’t bother to read what the ‘college kids’ had done to it. And I DO believe he paid them. College kids that I knew weren’t into charity work.

    1. Thanks, Judith. Yes, hopefully not a turkey. Hadn’t thought about that! Disregard previous comment – wordpress has misled me again about who I am answering.

  3. I have never heard of a turducken… amazing! I should like to try it! My family would love it, they are all carnivores. A very clever and entertaining post, Noelle! 😀

    1. Thanks, Ali. We thought about trying one, too, but it’s usually Thanksgiving when we think about it and the kids always override the idea in favor of the traditional turkey. How is Carys’s new treatment going?

  4. Love the quote you begin with from Churchill, especially since you help clear up the enigma with your take on what makes a good mystery. Cheers to a great week ahead…

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