How to Write the Perfect Mystery
by Heather Haven
If you love a good mystery and want to write one yourself, there are some basic rules to follow. Like most things, it’s a practiced art. If you play tennis five hours every day, you’re going to get pretty good at it. So it is with a well-written novel that just happens to have a dead body in it. Remember, there is no substitute for writing well. But you knew that already, didn’t you? No mystery there.
What kind of a mystery do I want to write?
The Amateur Mystery is solved by someone who just ‘happens’ to be around at the moment or ‘happens’ to become involved (no matter how many books are in the series). This person does something else for a living, even if it’s sheering sheep or running a bookstore, but is always bright and committed. The plus side for this type of mystery is the writer ‘merely’ needs to come up with a good story and run with it. The protagonist often doesn’t know much more than the reader from the onset of the story. The protagonist learns as s/he goes along, often helped out by someone who has ‘insider information’.
The Professional or Detective Mystery revolves around a private investigator or law officer, someone who does this for a living. The plus side of this kind of mystery is the writer can dig deeper, go into more detail, often getting into scenes and places otherwise not available to the average Joe Schmoe. This protagonist is usually more committed to the cause – for whatever reason – than anyone else around. Find that reason and you’ve got the heart of your story.
How do I find a plot?
Now you’ve got the person who’s going to solve the crime(s). But if you have no idea what kind of plot to wrap around your victim(s), pick up the newspaper, listen to a podcast, or search the internet. Sometimes people in your own life have weird stories they’d love to tell. Listen and delve. Truth is stranger than fiction every time.
Now that you’ve got some sort of plot going, start popping in characters that work within it. You don’t even need to write them down yet. While standing in the checkout line of your local supermarket, have a chat with these characters. Don’t worry, passersby will think you’re on your phone. The most important thing is you’ll soon see characters that fit, move the plot forward, foil or compliment your protagonist.
HINT: Read mysteries by writers you like and study how they make it work. We all learn from one another.
How do I set up the murder?
Setting up the murder is easier than you think. When your imagination is doing the victim in, the sky’s the limit. What you need to remember, though, is the type of mystery you are writing. Soft and sweet? Hard-boiled and gritty?
With the easy, breezy cozy, it’s best to have the murder victim go in a way that’s more palatable – quick, but inventive. Drowned in a vat of cabernet sauvignon comes to my mind, but I live in wine country and we love that kind of demise.
If you’re writing a hard-boiled detective story where the protagonist eats rusty nails, drinks rotgut, and hasn’t talked to his mother since he was eight, dismemberment comes to mind.
Provide a myriad of suspects possibly responsible for the victim’s death. Or do just the opposite: no one could have done it. Right away tension is created. Who, who, who? How, how, how? Each suspect should have something to gain or lose by the death.
HINT: Be inventive, be clever, but be realistic. Don’t turn your reader off by coming up with something that could never happen.
Do I really have to have the murder happen by the end of chapter one?
Unfortunately, yes. I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule, but it has become de rigueur to find or mention a dead body 99% of the time at the end of chapter one. To some extent, let’s thank the internet for that. Nobody seems to have the patience to wait around for four of five chapters like the good old days. This creates a certain amount of pressure on the author to slam it all out right at the beginning of the book.
HINT: That’s what you get for writing a mystery. Nobody said it would be easy.
How do I plant clues without giving away the culprit?
Most of the time, the writer knows who the killer is going to be. Consequently, as I’m writing scenes or dialog between characters, I try to find a spot to throw in a clue. Here’s a secret — but don’t let this get around the neighborhood — it’s no big deal when you add the clues, because you can go back and insert them into the novel after you’ve finished. It’s like setting the table for a dinner party. Stand back, see how it looks, and start laying down plates…ah…clues.
HINT: Vague but concrete clues seem to work best. For instance, if the killer used a now missing mantle clock to do our victim in, have your protagonist ask what time it is, or rest a hand on the spot where the clock used to sit. Don’t have her/him notice the empty spot on the mantle or the new vase in its place unless the story is going to the next level.
How do I keep it interesting?
Good luck to all of us on this one. I would say pacing is one of the keys to a well-written mystery, but then, that’s true for any novel. Throw in the unexpected. Have a grieving widow sum up in five words her 30-year relationship with her recently deceased husband. Show a character flaw of your protagonist at a surprisingly inopportune time. Reveal a worthwhile trait about a worthless villain. How many of us can forget that Hitler loved his German Sheppard to distraction?
HINT: Regardless of what type of mystery you write, usually someone is going to die in it. While we may not care about the victim, we should know the impact of the death on others. No one dies without affecting someone with the leaving, good or bad. It will make for a richer read and help ground the story.
Now get out there and write the perfect mystery. And when you’re finished, come back and show me how to do it.
About The Book:
Casting Call for a Corpse: A Fun Detective Cozy
(The Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries)
A DETECTIVE AGENCY WITH HEART.
AND A WEDDING ANNIVERSARY!
Super sleuth, Lee Alvarez, finds a dead man wearing a tuxedo in a friend’s bathtub during a soiree for San Francisco’s VIPs. And not just any friend, but an internationally acclaimed actress who recently came to live in San Francisco. And not just any bathtub, but a bathtub residing inside one of Alamo Square’s famed Painted Ladies, recently bought by said actress.
The police believe it’s the actress friend who done the man in. After all, it’s her house and her tub. And another man died under suspicious circumstances around her recently. Both romantic encounters, doncha know. The actress must be guilty.
Or is she?
For ace detective Lee Alvarez, the timing couldn’t be worse. She is supposed to go off in celebration of her 6-month wedding anniversary with her hunky hubby. Paris is calling!
Or is it?
Her long-time friend, plus her mother – She Who Must Be Obeyed – thinks she should stick around and find out who the real killer is. So Lee, family, handsome hubby, and Tugger, the cat, are on the job. But Lee’s nose is itching. Which means not one of the suspects is telling the truth.
Or not all of it. Lee soon uncovers threatening letters, sullen playwrights, dead bodies, and a criminal web of jewel thieves, all treading the boards of her friend’s latest musical. This is showbiz?
Author Haven pulls out all the stops in a cozy fan’s delight about a charming, and unconventional Palo Alto detective family who get their man or woman, as the case may be. Book Seven follows its tradition of the Bay Area’s favorite PI, who rolls over with all four paw in the air when it comes to her darn near perfect mother. But with the help of her computer geek brother and handsome hubby, Lee works to solve the case in time to celebrate her own 6-month wedding anniversary.
Book Link: Amazon
About The Author:
Heather moved to the Bay Area and studied creative writing at Stanford University. Previously, several of her comedy acts and plays were performed in NYC. Her novels include the humorous Silicon Valley-based Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries, Manhattan-based Persephone Cole Vintage Mysteries, Love Can Be Murder Novellas, Snow Lake Romantic Suspense Series and standalone mystery noir, Murder under the Big Top, based upon her mother’s stint as a performer with Ringling Brothers’ Circus. There is also her anthology, Corliss and Other Award-Winning Stories. Her favorite protagonist is in Corliss, one of the featured short stories, but don’t tell anyone!
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