Jan lives with her husband, teenage twin boys, mother, two dogs and two kittens in a small village in East Anglia.
She set up Maple Mystery Games in 2020 – and was just about to sell her first “At Home” mystery when Covid struck!
Maple Mystery Games has a mailing list if you sign up you get 1 - 4 emails a year with details of new games and you can receive a discount.
Tell me about your Murder Mystery Games
I write light-hearted, fun murder mystery party games for 6-14 players. People can download them from our Maple Mystery Games website and host them with family, friends or work colleagues.
Each murder mystery game has an At Home option (the dinner parties and parties we “used to have” before Covid) and also a Virtual option (for Zoom, Skype, Microsoft teams etc).
We provide everything you could need for a party – host instructions, themed invites, pre-party booklets for each character, party booklets and clues, audios, lots of decoration printouts and advice on menus and costumes etc.
Each A5 pre-party booklet starts with “newspaper clips” that give players an easy-to-digest overview of the theme.
Our most popular murder mystery is Murder in the Swinging Sixties – a fab mix of hippies and rock stars, East End gangsters and anti-smut campaigners, with a mini dress designer, ditzy scientist, spiv and a rock festival organiser thrown in.
Murder in a 1920s’ Speakeasy takes you back to the Roaring Twenties in Prohibition America. It’s set in one of the many illegal speakeasies where the public flocked to enjoy dancing, jazz and that all important moonshine. Expect gangsters and flappers, bootleggers and law enforcement – and a very vocal Temperance Movement.
Murder in the Naughty Nineties – wannabes, celebrities, a New Age psychic, end-of-the-world cult leaders and some snooty aristocrats all have secrets. A murder resulted …
Murder at Horror Castle – vampires, demons, mutants, ghosts, witches, a zombie and a serial killer all prowl round an ancient castle. Guess what happens?
Jolly old Mr Claus has been poisoned before the North Pole Crisis Meeting could happen. Ho, Ho, Ho – Nooooo! The toys in the toy factory have disappeared, the sleigh is damaged and the Naughty and Nice lists have become jumbled. Will the Christmas saboteur win – or can you solve the mystery of Is Santa Slayed? so that Christmas can happen again?
When and how did you start writing?
I always wanted to be a writer, ever since I was at school, but never thought my dream would come true.
About 20 years ago, the anxiety-based health problems I’d suffered from throughout my adult life got so bad that I couldn’t work and so I started writing themed crosswords for different monthly county magazines throughout England. For years, I really enjoyed building up a knowledge base about different counties and also wrote the odd historical or folklore article for a few magazines.
Then my husband suggested I resurrect an old murder mystery game I’d written before our twins were born so he could do a fundraiser event for the World Scout Jamboree he was attending. We never did do that fundraiser – but the murder mystery bug was born!!
How do you start to put a game together? Which bit comes first?
I tend to get an idea and start writing!! I sort of write my way into a mystery. Often, I’ll start writing a draft of the promotional blurb for my site followed by the “newspaper clips” that form the front page of the pre-party booklets that the host sends out to each character.
The fantasy/horror mystery that I wrote earlier this year started with the single sentence “the portals have opened”; from there, I suddenly found myself creating an ancient vampire curse, which led into different horror kingdoms and a backstory for those kingdoms.
I tend to rewrite and rewrite the “newspaper clips” part of the pre-party booklets while I’m finishing the last mystery as it can take some time for the different ideas to gel together.
Then I’ll start the character bios before tackling the party booklets themselves. I find that the best way to bring a character to life is to start writing dialogue for that character. Once I’ve got a draft of all the party booklets together, I go back to the pre-party booklets and rewrite the catchphrases that I give to each character and also rewrite the secrets and character relationships.
My style of writing tends to be Edit, Edit, Edit and Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite. I rewrite constantly as I’m going along. My first draft is something no one needs to see!!
Once I’ve edited and proofread a small version of a mystery (6-8 players), I rewrite the mystery for 8-10 players (sometimes also a separate version for 10-12 players) before I test it in a trial party. I find that, each time I rewrite a mystery for a different number of players, I come at it from a slightly different angle and think of new dialogue suggestions, character quirks, jokes etc which I can then feed back into the earlier versions.
Once I’ve got 2-3 versions of a mystery into a format I’m happy with, I test on family and friends. Then I rewrite and – you’ve guessed it – rewrite before putting the mystery up for sale.
What do you consider your greatest writing accomplishment?
I am actually proud of each one of the games I create – if something doesn’t “sparkle” at me when I’m writing it, I put it to one side and come back to it months later.
Which was your biggest challenge?
Getting the right format for the games!
I began with a vision that I wanted a “flexible” format for the party rounds – one where those who can’t ad lib can just read some dialogue ideas, complete with appropriate slang and catchphrases and mannerism suggestions, but one where other more extrovert types can ad lib and use their own words and really make the character their own.
The first version I tried worked – in theory!! Alas, when I tried testing it on family and friends, I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me! Disaster! Even though most politely tried to say they had enjoyed the evening, the format didn’t work. Eventually, I plucked up courage to restructure with a different format, rewrote the mystery and tried again with a dinner party. Another disaster – although not quite so bad this time. At that point, I would probably have given up if not for the fact that we had another party booked for the next weekend and friends had already ordered their costumes. I spent a week madly restructuring and reformatting the booklets and – Eureka!! The Swinging Sixties party went with a swing!
Since then, I’ve tweaked the structure a few times, and have spent some time working these revisions back into my earlier mysteries, but I’ve been lucky enough to get a lot of lovely reviews so I’ve now got the confidence to know that the format is right and that the mysteries work!
How have the restrictions affected your work?
It sounds terrible to say this when so many have suffered because of Covid, but virtual mysteries do sell well during lockdowns as they give people a way to connect with family and friends other than by the usual virtual quizzes.
I feel guilty sometimes, but then I get an email saying how one of my mysteries has brought their friends and family together over lockdown and thanking me for the fun it’s given them and I realise that they have actually helped people.
That said, I’d love for Covid to get sufficiently under control that we’d feel safe testing out our next mystery as an “At Home” party rather than a virtual one!
What would you do if you didn’t create murder mystery games?
I’d probably still be writing crosswords and running the small web design business that my husband and I once had. I’m so glad I’m not doing either now though as I love writing.
What is your ultimate dream as a writer?
One day, I’d love to write an epic fantasy – I have the bones of a book plotted out in my head but struggle with making characters believable. (For murder mystery games, the customers neither expect nor want detailed, believable characters – superficial, OTT characters with fun catchphrases and quirks work best.) I have a massive amount of respect for my fellow writers who have mastered the “novel genre”!!
What projects should we be looking out for?
I’ve just finished an early draft of Murder at a 1970s’ Disco – grab those platform shoes and bell-bottoms!
Then I’m planning to revisit the 1920s, only this time looking to write a Manor House take on the Roaring Twenties.
Do you have any advice to share with us?
Never accept your first draft. Or even your second. Rewrite, rewrite, and then, once it’s as perfect as you can get it, ask outsiders for their honest opinion. The opinions you least like receiving can sometimes be the ones that move your writing up a level!!