Friday, November 16, 2012

Guest author John Brantingham: What Writing Sonnets Taught Me about Writing Mysteries

John Brantingham
When some mystery writers find out that I was a poet before I wrote mysteries, they expect me to be a little snobby. I’m not sure why. None of my poet friends are ever surprised to find out that I love mysteries. Most of them do too.

Besides, I love to write sonnets.

The major misunderstanding of the sonnet is that it is a restrictive form of poetry with rules meant to inhibit the writer. Anyone who has worked with the form for any length of time has found the rules liberating. These are not rules that weigh the poet down but tools that help the writer find meaning. Because certain things must happen at certain moments in the sonnet, the poem writes itself.

What I love about the form of the sonnet is that it gives me the poem and the ideas. As long as I allow the tools of rhyme and meter to carry me along, I will always get a poem that is satisfying to me and the readers.

In fact, often the worst thing that I can do is to get in the way of those elements. It’s better to start without a clear idea of what I’m going to say in a sonnet and let the form write the poem. All I need is a word or two or a beginning idea and the form of the poem will help me find greater meaning. Wordsworth knew that. Shakespeare did too.

And Shakespeare would have loved to write a mystery novel.

The genre has built-in tools that help writers create meaning. When I write a mystery, I always come to that wonderful moment when the story takes over. I -- like the reader -- wonder what’s going to happen next.

That’s the form taking over as it does in the sonnet. If the form doesn’t take over, if I am forcing things to happen, then I know something is wrong. Perhaps, the characters have not been well drawn. Perhaps, there is not enough action to propel the story. Perhaps, the antagonist has no real complexity.

What the sonnet taught me to do was to lighten up and not be so controlling. It taught me to surrender to the process. If you like, it taught me to surrender to the muse. That’s served me well in writing mysteries.

I put the murder in chapter one and let the form pull me to the end.

Anyone who writes sonnets well appreciates mystery novels and appreciates mystery novelists. Sonneteers and mystery writers have the same love of form and have the same dedication to craft.

So here’s a question for everyone. Whoever answers first will win a copy of my poetry collection, East of Los Angeles. What important event happens in the last two lines of a Shakespearean sonnet? It not much different than what happens at the end of many mystery novels.

John Brantingham

John Brantingham's work has appeared on Garrison Keillor's daily show Writer's Almanac, and he has had more than 100 poems and stories published in the United States and England in magazines such as The Journal, Confrontation, Mobius, and Tears in the Fences. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for a poem in his chapbook Putting in a Window, which was published by Finishing Line Press, and his second chapbook, Heroes for Today, was published by Pudding House Press. He is a full-time professor at Mt. San Antonio College in Southern California and one of two fiction editors of The Chiron Review, a nationally distributed literary magazine.

John's website:
His blog:


Sue Guiney said...

Fascinating! Thanks!

Charles Gramlich said...

I haven't worked with sonnets enough to get to the freeing part yet. Come to think of it, not with mysteries either. I'm more a SF/fantasy/horror kinda guy. Enjoyed your post.

William Doonan said...

Enjoyed your post, John. Not a poet I, but I'll have a shot - the event at the end of the sonnet would have to be some variety of an epiphany or a resolution.

Anonymous said...

I love this premise. I'm not a poet but wish I had that skill. I love the depth and richness it would lend t my writing. This sounds fascinating.

KeVin K. said...

Welcome to Novel Spaces, John.

I've always said I don't have the self-discipline to be a poet. Said it around here recently. However, in my dotage I've returned to university in search of an MFA. My concentrations are fiction and literary nonfiction, but you've made a pretty good case for including at least one poetry course. The verbal discipline I've been evading may strengthen all my writing. Great article.

As for your question: I don't know the term for the process but I think the last two lines of Shakespeare's sonnets rhymed with each other but not with anything else in the poem. Which, if correct, is the sum total of all I remember from Brit Lit in the 11th grade, 1967. (Actually, that's all I remember even if it's wrong.)

Liane Spicer said...

Welcome to Novel Spaces, John.

Fascinating and thought-provoking article. I recently discovered (sort of) something along these lines. Always hated haiku because I thought the form acutely restrictive - until I was 'forced' to write a few for a class and had something of an epiphany. Never attempted a sonnet, but I see sonnet-writing exercises in my future. :)

If memory serves, the last two lines of a sonnet resolve the complication introduced and explored in the preceding 12 lines.

Vex said...

The last 2 lines summerize and leaves the reader with a new, concluding image.

John Brantingham said...

Thanks for the comments everyone. William, you're right and first with the right answer. If you email me with an address, I'll send it to you!

Sally Carpenter said...

I'm late in the game but I'll still leave a comment. I find that mysteries have their own set of "rules" regarding setting up suspects, red herrrings, finding clues, revealing the killer, etc. Once you lock into the format, the story pretty much writes itself. Thanks for the post!

marta chausée said...

Based on how much I love the depth and breadth of your poetry, I know I'm going to love your mysteries.

Nice tie-in-- how form creates something new, both in poetry and mystery.

Eileen Obser said...

Very interesting and informative blog, John. Thank you. Maybe Shakespeare did, in fact, write a mystery novel, with sonnets built in, that hasn't been discovered yet? That may be a plot for you or another reader!