My latest book, Lost and Found in Paris, is an art history treasure hunt set in Paris. The main character, Joan Blakely, is an American curator and art courier who is transporting a modestly valued sketchbook of Joan of Arc murals to a mystery buyer in Paris. It’s not an important piece of art, but it’s an important piece of art to her personally, connecting her to her late father through his devotion of St. Joan. She boards a plane, connects romantically with a man sitting next to her, and after a series of miscues the sketchbook goes missing.
The hunt is on to retrieve it. Joan receives the first in a series of clues that leads her all over Paris, revisiting parts of her parents’ past and, eventually, to the sketchbook. Along the way lessons are learned, and Joan’s treasure hunt becomes a rollicking and romantic personal journey.
When I first started working on this book and readers asked about it, I would answer, “It’s an art history treasure hunt because I don’t know how to write mysteries.” Which is entirely true! But the deeper I got into the book, the more I enjoyed the distinction between a search story and a mystery. With a search story, readers are along for the ride. There’s no payoff in figuring out the clues ahead of the plot because you might miss all the fun.
Along the way, I picked a few tips for writing a satisfying search story, from pacing to location scouting to mixing up the methods of transportation.
Pick a subject you know a little about … not too much about
In my book, the main character is searching for a sketchbook filled with sketches of Joan of Arc that’s been stolen from her hotel room. When I started the research, I had an Art History knowledge level of a college junior and knew enough about Joan of Arc to make my confirmation at age 13. Bottom line, I was not a scholar in either subject. It was a great place to start. I had a baseline of knowledge but was open to places and angles on both art and St. Joan that I might not have gotten to if I was armed with a doctorate. Knowing enough but not too much allowed me leeway with the topics, incorporating some pop culture with the history and broadening the scope of the story.
Play around with the clue delivery system
One key aspect of search stories is to determine how your main character is going to move through the hunt, moving from Point A to Point B to Point Z. If you choose literal clues like I did, think about how you can make those clues unique while also serving the story. A few lines scribbled on Post-It? Letters hidden in library books? Mysterious envelopes delivered by a stranger with clues hidden in song lyrics inside? (My choice!) Anything can work but consider a delivery system that is organic to the story. In the case of Lost and Found in Paris, the clues were coming from a songwriter, hence the song lyrics. And there was a payoff at the end of the story that involved the actual clues.
Goldilock it to find the right number of clues
When you’re plotting out your story, the key is to figure out the number of clues that feels not too many, not too few, but juuuuuust right to keep your audience engaged but not frustrated by the nonstop hunt. At some point, your characters need to take the information they’ve collected and act on it. In the rewrite process, I jettisoned a whole chapter of searching because I felt like the audience had already been through enough and they needed some resolution. The main character represented the audience at that point, with her “enough is enough” attitude.
Mix up the transportation system
Take a lesson from an invigorating James Bond or Jason Bourne chase sequence and mix it up with planes, trains, automobiles, motorbikes, subways, or horse-drawn carriages. It’s a visual way to shake it up and challenges the main characters to adapt. Watching how your city dwelling sleuth navigates driving a country lane can be character revealing as well. You can play it for comedy or thrills.
Location, Location, Location
It’s fiction, make it fun. Sure, back alleys, dive bars, and park benches work for exchanging information with rain-coated men. And galas are grand for a big final scene. But think about going beyond the obvious locations to add layers of interest with the locations. Searches can happen in a grocery store, a zoo, the public library, or a car wash. In Lost and Found in Paris, after several clues involving museums and famous landmarks, I used a trendy hair salon as one of the clue locations and it really injected an unexpected twist into the story.