Chapter 18 is the kick-off for the murder investigations which make up the second half of Petition. Whenever I look back at this chapter and the outline I had for it now, it’s always very funny to me.
Not only am I someone who isn’t very into crime fiction, I’m also terrible with outlines.
But I knew when I decided to add in this murder mystery that I would have to have some semblance of an outline because I had to know, in advance, who the killer was, what their motive/s were, how the victims died, and what kind of clues Rahelu and her team of Petitioners would be able to find.
So I wrote down some basic questions like:
- Who’s been killed so far?
- Who is the killer targeting?
- What is the murder weapon?
- What is the killer’s motive?
- Is the killer working alone?
- How did they kill [extremely spoiler-rific character name]?
- Who are they going to kill next?
I came up with 1-sentence answers to each of those questions and then I used Brandon Sanderson’s promise/progress/pay-off framework to plot the rest of the murder mystery.
- Promise: there’s a killer going around the city knifing people with an odd weapon. If Rahelu and team can catch the killer, then they can stop the murders and also she can pay off her family’s debts.
- Progress: ~921 words across 17 sub-bullet points that outline, in 1-2 sentences, what happens sequentially to solve the murders and confront the killer.
- Pay-off: this one is obvious 😉
It ended up being more fun and easier than I expected mainly because:
- Murder mysteries come with a built-in plot structure. Step 1: investigate the crime scene. Step 2: interview witnesses. From there, it becomes a series of pursuing clues and running into dead ends which dovetails very nicely with the “Yes, but…”/“No, and…” technique for building out the story.
- I have the benefit of being in a writing group with Caitlin L. Strauss (author of the sci/urban fantasy detective procedural series, The Nocturnum Files) and Dan Harris (author of the humorous urban fantasy series, Unit 13, and some soon-to-be-published cozies). Seeing how they work behind-the-scenes to construct their stories has been a great help.
- I also cheated by not writing a whodunit where the tension revolves around identifying and then figuring out which of the many possible suspects is the real killer. Instead, the plot revolves around tracking down the killer before someone else dies which, to me, is simpler.
One thing I did worry about—and that did come up in alpha reader and early beta reader feedback—was the sudden tone and plot switch from tournament to murder mystery. My solution for the tone issue was to add in the prologue and herald the plot switch with both Onneja’s Augury and repeated signals from Maketh that the stakes have changed. Late beta reader feedback indicated this worked for the most part though people were still confused as to how Rahelu suddenly had such excellent investigative skills so I added in a few lines of narration to clarify this.
Looking back at the various drafts, I think this was one of the most fun chapters to write.
While it’s not the first time we’ve got Rahelu interacting with her peers, it is the first time she’s doing so in relatively relaxed fashion. Strictly speaking, the first half of the chapter is full of dead ends and the latter half of the chapter—once we devolve from a debrief of their investigations to ribbing at Ghardon’s expense and a follow-up on the subject of Rahelu’s dinner plans—has no relation to the main plot at all.
The only thing maintaining a very light level of tension is the question of “who won the bet?” set up at the end of the first scene. I could have cut straight from the debrief to the next chapter but I think the story would have been poorer for it. Letting the serious conversation over lunch devolve into more lighthearted moments gives us emotional variety and the characters more dimensionality.
That, to me, is what makes a story both more fun to write and to read.