10 Steps For Writing a Mystery

Talking about me changing from romances to mysteries on my last blog made me think about mysteries more.  I like a variety of them, from cozies to traditional to British detectives and humorous.  I read the occasional thriller, am drawn to paranormal and historical.  P.I.s are harder for me to get into, but if push comes to shove, I’m happy to read those, too.  On top of that, the article I read about reaching more viewers suggested making lists.  Lists catch readers’ attention, it said.

Since my mind was already on a mystery bent, I decided to give that a try, but I had trouble taking myself too seriously.  I don’t feel like much of an expert on anything, but I’ve learned from lots of mistakes.  So, for better or worse, this is what I came up with:


  1. Kill someone. Anyone.  If the victim’s a nice person, the reader will sympathize with him.  They’ll sympathize with the people who lost him and are grieving.  If he was a rotter, the reader and everyone else will cheer.  The S.O.B. deserved it.


  1. Find a murder weapon. Poisons are trickier these days, easier to detect.  Guns are good.  Ballistics can incriminate or clear suspects, perfect for clues.  Knives come in all shapes and sizes.  Shovels have long handles.  So do fireplace pokers.


  1. Keep it clean? If it’s a cozy, sweep the dead body under a rug.  Don’t make too big of a mess.  Just because a body holds a lot of blood doesn’t mean you have to spill much of it.  If it’s a thriller, go for broke.  Splash blood and gore on the walls.  Have the body fall at an odd angle.  Visuals should shock.


  1. Create characters to type. In a cozy, let’s all have good manners.  We don’t have to be nice, but we shouldn’t be vulgar.  In a thriller, go for gritty.  The hero’s tough and rugged.  The villain’s a scumbag, even if he wears expensive suits.  Morals can be dubious.  But the good guy’s good, even if he’s rough around the edges.


  1. Tension should drip from every page. In a cozy, the amateur sleuth overhears a private conversation, stumbles on a clue, and keeps the pace moving even when she’s knitting or making fig pudding.  In a thriller, the hero walks the mean streets, gets beat up when he strays too close to alleys, and refuses to quit the case.


  1. A cast of extras keeps things interesting. Every sleuth needs a friend to confide in, to hash over clues.  A romantic interest is good, makes for a great subplot.  The more suspects, the merrier.  In a cozy, they’re polite even when they lie to you.  In a thriller, they might be more dangerous than the killer.  They certainly cuss more.  And a great way to add a twist to the plot?  Kill the main suspect, then point fingers at who’s left.


  1. In cozies, a niche is needed. A mystery isn’t enough.  The protagonist has to fix up houses, know her way around antiques or fine wines, run a bed and breakfast, or have something she’s really good at it.  And if cooking and recipes are included, all the better.  A pet cat is a plus.  A dog will do, too.  It doesn’t hurt to have a love interest who’s in law enforcement.  In thrillers, life’s easier if you’re dealing with a pro—a P.I., detective, journalist, spy, or coroner—someone who knows his/her way around the block, someone who can pressure people to talk when they don’t want to.


  1. For a woman in jeopardy book, (and I like those, too) you bump a woman who’s good up against a villain who’s evil, and she has to grow strong and get tainted by his badness to survive. He does everything he can to make sure she doesn’t.  But PLEASE don’t use the old horror tripe where the woman does something stupid just so the reader will worry about her–the “No, don’t go down in the basement to see what that noise was” schtick.


  1. In any mystery, whether cozy, traditional, British, or thriller, you have to play fair. You can’t hide every crucial clue, then pull a killer out of your hat.  You have to give the reader a fighting chance and try to distract him with false directions and red herrings.  You can point to the wrong suspect while keeping your fingers crossed behind your back, but when your detective learns something new, so should your reader.


  1. Don’t give away too much too early, or you have a whole lot of book left to write with not much of import to fill it. But most important of all, just kill someone on paper and have fun!


(I’m sure there’s a lot more you need to know, but these were the big points that came to mind.)





5 thoughts on “10 Steps For Writing a Mystery

  1. I love this list, not because it’s your playlist of what and what not to do for mystery writing, but because it has your wry and snarky sense of humor. That bit about going down to the basement is so LOL and true. (Thinking of the commercial with the stupid teenagers hiding in a shed full of dangling chainsaws.) I love it when your characters come up with those funny wisecracks that broadened and define and just make me laugh. This one is a keeper.

    Liked by 2 people

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