Crime novels 101

Imagine this: A disgraced financier flees from Manhattan to Idaho as his investment fund collapses around him, searching for a wealthy banker who mysteriously disappeared from Wall Street years ago. The financier’s assistant, a Yalie, follows him across the country.

Where does the banker who disappeared live now?

Susan Froetschel leads a workshop about writing mystery novels.
Florence Dethy
Susan Froetschel leads a workshop about writing mystery novels.

“A monastery in Nebraska,” Bryce Taylor ’11 suggested, only half facetiously.

Taylor was a participant in “Getting Started on Your Mystery Novel,” a workshop taught about mystery novels on Wednesday afternoon at the Yale Writing Center by Susan Froetschel, a former Yale writing tutor and the author of three mystery novels. Along with providing tips for would-be writers, Froetschel said she wanted to encourage Elis to let their bright college years serve as literary fuel.

When the workshop’s four attendees fleshed out their mystery’s characters to Froetschel’s satisfaction, the plot began to take form. Nick Olsen ’09 speculated that the banker turned monk is hiding a valuable secret. Writing Center director Alfred Guy Jr. envisioned the financier traveling across the Midwest, searching for the monk.

After the workshop, Froetschel stood up and thanked the participants, all of whom said they had written short fiction set at Yale before.

“I hope you guys do write books,” she said. “Maybe they’re set at Yale.”

For Froetschel, who worked as a Saybrook writing tutor and lecturer from 1995 until 2005, Yale’s campus is the perfect setting for drama and intrigue.

Froetschel is working on a fourth book, in which the University serves as the backdrop for a crime of medical ethics. Ranging from the School of Nursing and School of Medicine to New Haven’s public schools and East Rock neighborhood, the mystery follows a medical ethicist whose husband is murdered during a research project.

Yale is such a “rich setting,” Froetschel said, “because of the juxtaposition of young and old, diverse interests, rich history and many ambitious, intelligent people who more often compete than collaborate.”

As a former tutor and a current assistant editor for YaleGlobal, an online magazine published by the Center for the Study of Globalization, Froetschel has had plenty of experience with the campus and the students who come through it. She joked that she hopes none of the promising writers on campus come out with a mystery set at Yale before she finishes hers.

“So many students have such strong voices and such good stories,” said Froetschel, who has read hundreds of Yalies’ papers, essays, poems, screenplays and even letters. “If I could write a mystery, any Yale student could.”

When she taught and tutored at Yale, she said she met many students who wanted to write books but did not know how to start.

It was to help Elis like Taylor, a staff columnist for the News, and Olsen — both of whom are aspiring fiction writers — that Froetschel decided to offer a workshop. Although Yale offers a variety of creative writing courses, these are typically geared toward upperclassmen, and students must submit applications to most because of extremely high demand.

Guy, for his part, said that the Writing Center hopes to host creative writing workshops at least once a year to provide a forum for student writers. “Course-based opportunities for creative writing can’t meet all the demand,” he said.

At Wednesday’s workshop, Froetschel advised breaking down the process of writing a mystery into deliberate steps. Writers should first describe the motive behind the crime and the crime itself. Then, she said, they should create their characters, allowing the specific choices made about each character, such as political leanings, hometown and education, to shape the plot and conflict.

But even before writing, Froetschel said she believes mystery writers should look for book ideas in “a crime or problem that bothers them, something that may never get resolved,” she said. “They want justice.”

Although Froetschel has wanted to write mysteries ever since she read Nancy Drew books as a child, and even started a novel in her 20s before stalling at 50 pages, she did not finish her first novel, “Alaska Gray,” until she found an issue that fascinated and angered her.

As a reporter for a small newspaper in Sitka, Alaska, in the 1980s, Froetschel regularly read the police blotter. In 1985, she noticed a young homeless woman who had been arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct several times. Within months, the woman turned up dead with a blood alcohol level four times the legal limit.

Investigating, Froetschel learned that because the woman’s mother was a heavy drinker and drank while pregnant, the woman suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome and several developmental disabilities, dying all alone.

“One sentence in a police blotter really triggered my outrage,” she said. “It was just such an unnecessary death.”

It was this sentence that inspired Froetschel to begin “Alaska Gray,” writing at least a page a day — another of her rules for good writing. The 1994 novel features a character who deals with fetal alcohol syndrome, though the mystery is not at all like the Sitka woman’s story.

Since then, Froetschel has written about overdevelopment in Alaska, unnecessary medications for children and Britain’s class system.

What the book is about is almost irrelevant, she said, as long as the writer cares deeply about the conflict. At Yale, she added, there are myriad possibilities for topics and stories. “Imagine hundreds of novels coming out of Yale four years from now,” Froetschel said.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    I hope the writing center does more of these.

  • Anonymous

    How do you find out about these?

  • Anonymous

    There should be more advertising for these things!