The mystery short story market is competitive. Most publications receive a substantial amount of submissions. So our job as writers is to figure out what we can do to increase our chances of a sale.
Just as men and women attempt to capture the attention of the opposite sex, we, as story-tellers must capture the attention of editors.
One way we can do this is to make our mysteries unique.
Imagine what it’s like to be an editor. He goes to his office in the morning hoping to find some great stories that he can publish in his magazine. However, after perusing numerous tales about philandering husbands and bank robberies, that hope begins to wane. He wonders if he’ll ever find those ‘great’ stories.
Then he opens an email that has a mystery about a robbery. However, it takes place at Comicon, the comic book convention. Even though it has a murder in it just like most other mysteries, the new setting makes it unique. Due to this, (and the fact that it’s well-written,) the editor buys it.
Unique stories are always more interesting. More interesting = a better chance of a sale.
In the forties, many mysteries opened with a seductive blonde walking into the detective’s office. She would ask the detective to investigate her husband to discover if he was seeing another woman. Eventually, the case would lead to a murder.
At the time that was a unique scenario, and many of these types of mysteries sold. Soon, however, a lot of writers started to use the same concept, and it became commonplace. These stories were no longer unique, and editors stopped buying them.
Now, just to be clear, it’s not necessary to be different in every aspect of a story. One or two unique elements thrown in will definitely help in our quest for sales.
Below are some ways that you can make your mysteries unique.
1) Create a Unique Title
Since this is the first element that the editor sees, it would behoove us to come up with something different—a title that literally forces the editor to read the story.
In my humble opinion, the best titles are mysterious.
We want the editor to ask himself, ‘what does that title mean? What’s this going to be about?’
For example, if I saw two mysteries in an anthology, one with the title, “Going South like the Birds,” the other entitled, “Doll Hands,” I would immediately start reading the second one. It’s different!
Your title, of course, doesn’t have to be so far out. For example, in 1976, Lawrence Block wrote a story entitled, ‘The Ehrengraf Defense.’
I’m sure a lot of people read this because they wondered what it meant. It was a mysterious title.
Block got this effect by using the weird word, Ehrengraf. However, this was simply the name of the main character.
2) Create a Unique Setting
Setting is a great way to differentiate your tale. I’ve already given you an example of this with the Comicon idea.
You might set your tale in a laboratory, a burger joint, or the lighting booth of a play. These kinds of locations make your story intriguing.
One way to come up with new settings is to observe the various shops or service businesses as you go around your neighborhood. Perhaps, you notice a dry cleaner on the corner or a maybe a taxidermist. Ask yourself, could a mystery occur in one of these places? I doubt there are many ‘dry cleaner’ or ‘taxidermist’ stories.
What about that store where they sell wool for sweaters? I don’t think many mysteries have been set in a place like that. You definitely don’t expect a murder to occur there.
You can also do a search on the internet and find all kinds of locales where you can set your mystery.
3) Create a Unique Crime
Since a crime is at the core of your story, it would be an excellent idea to find one that hasn’t been used before. One way to create uniqueness here is to look at the newspaper.
Every day in every paper across the country, there are articles about crimes that are different. Some are wacky/funny, others are serious, but strange.
I recently read about a man who stole bricks from someone’s house. When the home-owner found out about this, he started stealing bricks from the other man’s house. This could be the basic idea for a mystery.
I recommend you create a file where you keep these articles. Of course when you’re ready to write your mystery, you need to alter it so that it’s different than the original article. This also adds more uniqueness to your tale.
Another way of creating a unique crime is to write down ‘what if’ statements. For example, ‘What if a mob boss was upset with what they said about him on a TV show.’
Then ask yourself, what would happen after that? Does the mob boss kidnap the writer? Does he eliminate the host, cameraman etc. on the show? There’s lot of ways this could go.
I usually come up with many scenarios and then figure out the best one to use.
4) Create a Unique Motive
Most villains have the usual motives–revenge, drugs, self defense, power etc.
It is difficult to come up with a completely new motive. If you can, that’s great. If not, you need to create one that is a different slant on one of the traditional motives.
One way of generating these is to find true crime examples in books or on the internet, and then alter the details.
For example, I found the following on the web. Both of these are true.
1) A sixty-one year old woman was so upset that a store wouldn’t accept her dollar coupon that she shoved a gun into the manager’s chest.
2) A man tried to get caught robbing a bank just so he could get away from his wife.
You can do a lot with these kinds of motives.
5) Create Unique Characters
A story can rise or fall on the characters. So we should endeavor to make our characters unique.
If your protagonist is a detective, you can mix and match qualities from book/TV or movie detectives. By combining these qualities, you are creating a totally new character.
You can also make your protagonists the opposite of well-known detectives. Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson are well-respected in the Arthur Conan Doyle stories. Perhaps we create two characters loosely based on them except they’re janitors at a school and are not respected. When there’s a murder, the two shoot into action and solve the crime. Perhaps by the end of the tale, they get the respect they deserve.
If you’re writing a story that doesn’t involve a detective, then give your lead character, a different occupation or hobby than you’ve seen in mysteries before. Perhaps your protagonist is a cigar roller in Cuba, a professional bridesmaid, or a pet food tester.
I hope the above ideas will help you make your stories unique. If you’d like to learn more about writing the ‘shorties’ then join me for my workshop, crafting the mystery short story.