So I thought I’d write a blog post about some writing I’ve been doing recently. I haven’t had a huge amount of time recently to work on my novels, short stories or poetry recently, mostly because of my academic work and editing/publishing work, which is why this blog has been a bit bare for a while. But I have been busy with one creative outlet, so I thought I’d share a bit of info about that.
Murder Mystery Dinner Party Games
I first played a murder mystery dinner party game on a writing retreat in 2004. My writing group were staying in a rented cottage for a week (I think there were about 8 or 9 of us there), and there was a stack of old board games in a cupboard. Amongst these was a boxed murder mystery game, and we decided to give it a try. It was one of the commercially produced games that you can buy in shops, with printed booklets for each character and a tape to play between rounds. The whole thing was a bit of silly fun, requiring us all to improvise weird outfits from what we had available and put on daft voices. I seem to remember I did an absolutely appalling impression of Blanche Dubois (because my character was supposed to be American, and that’s the only ‘American’ accent I can do… and I can’t even do that very well). The detective on the tape kept up a commentary of terrible puns and awful innuendos. Given that we weren’t actually playing the game over dinner, but over a very large amount of red wine, much fun was had by all.
The writing retreat was an annual one, so we decided to include a murder mystery game as part of the proceedings each year. At some point over the week, after the day’s exercises and critique was done, we’d open some wine, put on silly clothes and voices, and get cracking.
These games were a lot of fun, but also a little disappointing. I’ve been a huge fan of detective fiction (particularly Golden Age detective fiction) since I was a child. It’s something I inherited from and shared with my grandma. Back in the days of terrestrial TV only, I can remember watching episodes of Agatha Christie adaptations on a Sunday night, and then getting a phone call from my grandma to see if I’d worked out who’d dunnit (she always knew, as she’d already read the books). That love of detective fiction has stayed with me, and I still adore Agatha Christie.
So when it came to the games we were were playing, I was missing something. I liked the ‘game’ aspect, but there was no ‘mystery’. I wanted clues, red herrings, mistaken identities, secrets from the past… all the things that you’d find in a traditional detective novel. And so, with a bit of trepidation, I decided to see if I could do better.
A new range of mystery games
The mystery games I’m working on at the moment will be launched in the summer by Hic Dragones. The idea is that they are fun dinner party games that will appeal to discerning fans of classic detective fiction. The plots are intended to be rich, layered and cryptic. Guests have to work out who the murderer is, but also solve the puzzle of how the murder was committed. The first one I wrote involved a murder in a seaside hotel, but with an added conundrum – the victim was seen walking around two hours after the time of death. The most recent one involved a poisoning, but with no apparent means through which the poison was administered.
Writing these games is a very unique type of challenge. I have to begin by deciding on the solution, and then work backwards from there. (I spend quite a bit of time researching different poisons at the moment, working out which one will do what I need it to do!) Like a mystery novelist, I have to plot backwards, working out when and how important bits of information should be revealed, and how many red herrings can cloud the truth.
Unlike a mystery novelist, however, I have absolutely no control over my characters! Some of the dialogue is scripted, and each round has questions to be asked and information to be revealed. But, outside of that, guests can say and do what they like (so long as they’re in character). I’ve now seen three of my games being played and each one has had more ad-libbing than I could’ve predicted, and the insertion of strange backstories that were not part of my plot! When I watch one of the trial games, it’s like being a playwright who has crafted a beautiful script – only to watch it being discarded by an enthusiastic group of improvisers. It’s a very unusual experience for a writer!
All this makes for a unique challenge. If my plots are going to be complex, then it’s vital that all the clues are revealed. In classic whodunnits, even the most throwaway line can be crucial, but when you write a murder mystery game you can’t bank on those throwaway lines actually being spoken. I’ve already had one experience of a very significant clue not being revealed due to a guest assuming it wasn’t important and not reading it out!
I don’t want guests to feel they can’t improvise and ad-lib (that’s part of the fun), but I don’t want clues to feel heavy-handed or signposted too much. So I’m developing strategies to make sure the information is all conveyed… even if enthusiastic guests go wildly off-script. These have to be subtle – and I’m not sure I want to give too many of my tricks away here! Suffice to say I have dissected the works of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham to see exactly how they do it.
I’ve had several of my games trialed by willing groups of volunteers so far, and will be continuing to put myself through the nail-biting experience of watching people play new games without being allowed to intervene. My inner diva hates this – I always feel like bursting in and saying, ‘No, no, no… you’re doing this all wrong!’ But I’ve learnt to control myself.
I’ve had some really useful feedback so far. Guests have pointed out clues that were far too cryptic, and red herrings that were too obvious. This has helped me with writing future titles immensely. But the best feedback has been about their experience of playing. My volunteer diners and hosts have all commented on the overall ‘feel’ of the nights. And I think my favourite ever comment was: ‘It’s like being a character in an Agatha Christie novel for a night.’ That really made me feel like I must be doing something right!
The next title I’m going to be writing is for the horror range – which is a bit different, and I might blog separately about that. The next classic title I’m doing will be set in the home of a 1930s industrialist. I’ve got volunteers queuing up to take part in a trial, which is reassuring. But I’m still hugely nervous. Time to get out my poison book and begin to work out how, why and whodunnit…