Arrive late, leave early? How rude! In real life it’s considered the height of bad manners to arrive late at a party and leave early. Emily Post and her successors in the etiquette business would throw up their hands in horror. But this is one of the best writing tips I’ve ever received, especially when crafting a mystery.
“Arrive late, leave early” was also much needed advice, because I came to mystery writing from the long-winded school of fiction. Think Dickens’ novels and other lengthy tomes by Victorian authors that Henry James, no slouch himself regarding word count, called “big baggy books.” I had even written one myself—an 800-page historical novel long on incident but short on plot that still fills a suitcase in my closet.
I turned to mystery writing, because I felt I needed the discipline of writing a tightly plotted book. But determined as I was to write “lean and mean,” my wordiness kept getting in the way. In my first mystery, MURDER AT PLIMOTH PLANTATION, I particularly struggled with a party scene, in which my protagonist, Miranda Lewis, meets a lot of people for the first time. No matter how much I trimmed this scene, the members of my writers’ critique group cried, “too long, too long!” Finally, one group member offered the “arrive late, leave early” dictum from his background as a screenwriter. Still, I balked. The advice went against both my tendency toward verbosity and my well-bred upbringing, where it was bad form not only to be tardy, but to “eat and run.”
Eventually, I got the message: If my critique group found the scene tedious, so would the agents and editors I hoped to attract. I began using the delete key more frequently. Out went the long drive to the party, with its detailed descriptions of geography and the weather, and a lengthy conversation between Miranda and her niece about the people Miranda is about to meet. Instead, Miranda arrives when the party is well underway, and gets to know the various guests by interacting with them in small groups, or one at a time. I also have a key player arrive even later than Miranda to delay their meeting and generate suspense about whether he’s coming at all.
And, instead of describing everything that happens at the party, I focus on the highlights, and use a space break to cut from one important moment to the next. Needless to say, the revised scene does not end with long, drawn-out good-byes on the part of everyone present.
Rather, one character whispers to another, “I could just kill him!” and we leapfrog to the next chapter.