A Question for Mystery Writers

All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.‘ Ernest Hemingway

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.’ Mark Twain

I dare say that we’ve all heard Mark Twain’s quote above. And probably a good many of us have heard what Hemingway had to say. I’m struck by the dichotomy posed by these two statements. As writers, if we are to write the truest sentence that we know, how are we to either accept or pay attention to Twain’s warning? Though Hemingway once said that all American literature begins with Twain, the two thoughts seem to cancel each other out. Don’t they? Or am I taking them out of context? And as mystery writers, is all of this beside the point? I mean, our aim is to write a thumping good tale and let the chips fall where they may, isn’t it? Twain is right in part. I have, as have you all probably, seen situations that nobody would believe if you put them into a book. But does that mean we aren’t servants of truth?

For my part, I always fall on the side of telling the story and not worrying about deeper meaning. It seems like every time that I have ever concerned myself with deeper themes, with finding “truth,” I end up being ham-fisted in my attempt. In graduate school, I studied under the late Dr. Joanne Cockelreas, a graduate, in the early 60s, of the Iowa MFA program. She told me once that I should focus on good, old-fashioned storytelling. “Look at the anthologies,” she said. “You’ll find one or two or three experimental pieces. But, the vast majority are just excellent, straightforward stories.” While she wasn’t speaking directly to Hemingway’s assertion, I think there is an application to be made.

Having said all of this, I’d like to hear what other mystery writers have to say. So, chime in. Let’s talk about truth and fiction for a few minutes.


4 Responses

  1. Great question! I don’t think these two statements contradict each other. I’ve heard fiction called “the lie that tells the truth,” and that’s one of the best descriptions I’ve heard. I think that when Hemingway wrote about writing the truest sentence you can, he was talking about that deeper truth. Not just facts. I think he meant to be true to your characters and your story. (I’m basing this, in part, on the fact that he wrote fiction.) Twain’s quote is, I think, just addressing the need to make a fictional world make sense. So often, real life doesn’t. Coincidences happen that would destroy a novel. A story isn’t life; it’s the crystallization of a portion of life. In order to reveal that deepest truth, you have to make it more plausible than real life or you risk losing your reader. Mysteries can be both rollicking good tales and still reflect some truths about life and the human heart.

    • I would tend to agree with you, Jaden. One of the reasons that, I think, mysteries have remained popular over the years is that they offer insights into the darker corners of human nature. And they let us explore the mean streets of either today or the past.

  2. That last sentence explains why I read them so often, and why it’s such a challenge to write good ones.

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