Friday, May 13, 2016

Murder and Mayhem, Crime and Clues: How to Write a Great Mystery

This article was first published in Writer’s Guide to 2012.

People like to know the answers, but they also love a mystery. Mystery books allows readers to ponder options, follow clues, test their wits – and ultimately learn the answers.

The mystery category contains many sub-genres, from gritty Hard-Boiled to light and humorous Cozies. Some fans read across sub-genres, but many have favorites. Claire Eddy, Senior Editor at Tor/Forge Books, says, “I am a sucker for a well crafted noir tale. Also historical mysteries, but only if the author has really done their research.”

Robert Kresge wrote Murder for Greenhorns, about a young schoolteacher and a Texas cowboy who join forces to solve a murder in 1870 Wyoming. “They say ‘write what you know.’ So with 30 years in the CIA, should I be writing spy novels? It can also mean ‘write what you read the most of.’ I found myself reading or listening to [historical mystery heroes] Brother Cadfael, Marcus Didius Falco, Amelia Peabody, and Phryne Fisher.”

Mystery or Suspense?

Whether historical or modern day, mysteries can feature heroes ranging from police officers and private eyes to nosy amateurs or innocent victims who get swept into trouble. Thrillers and suspense novels may also be considered mysteries, even if the hero isn’t trying to solve a crime in the traditional sense.

For example, my Southwestern adventure The Mad Monk's Treasure features the heroine and hero trying to elude villains while they hunt for a long-lost treasure. Romantic suspense novels like these find favor with many mystery fans if they have enough action.

Each sub-genre has its particular challenges. “Dealing with romantic suspense means fitting a mystery or a suspense into the romance reader’s expectations,” says Terry Odell, author of Where Danger Hides. “In mystery series, relationships can develop over the course of many books; in romantic suspense, it’s one.”

Aspiring authors better know the genre’s traditions. Cozies tend to avoid sex or on-stage violence. Hard-boiled mysteries delve into the seamy side of life. Police procedurals must get the police work right. Techno-thrillers focus on the latest technology. Reading widely in one’s chosen sub-genre is the best way to identify these differences.

But genres, like rules, are made to be broken. Pari Noskin Taichert calls her Agatha Award-nominated Sasha Solomon series, “Whodunits – with a humorous New Mexican flair. They’re not your standard cozies because they have an edge to them. Some of my readers think they’re beach reads while others find the deeper themes. I’m happy to satisfy both ends of the spectrum.”

Mixing genres can be fun for the writer and the audience, but may also make it harder to sell the manuscript. Kresge received about 200 rejections for Murder for Greenhorns, often hearing, “This is just a Western and we don’t publish Westerns.” He was about to give up, when he found a small local publisher that shared his vision. Murder for Greenhorns became a finalist for the 2011 Bruce Alexander Award for Best Historical Mystery of the Year.

Putting It All Together

A solid mystery requires a clever and believable puzzle. Noskin Taichert says, “For me, with traditional mystery series, there are three big challenges: telling a really good story; making the puzzle interesting and believable enough that the reader wants to work with my amateur-sleuth protagonist to figure out the crime; and not giving too much away with the hints I put in the story.”

Odell lists the keys to a good mystery as “Providing clues, being fair to the readers with red herrings, and, for anything current, keeping on top of the latest technology. Things are out of date before you finish writing, and the public has a skewed perception of reality based on television.”

But a good puzzle is not enough. Editors judges mysteries by the same standards as other books. “What I’ve seen a lot lately is a great premise, a terrific pitch, and then a mediocre manuscript,” says Brian Farrey, Flux Acquisitions editor. “Having that great premise is meaningless if the writing is phoned in and reads like anyone could have written it. I look for authors who have a pronounced sense of voice.”

At Kane Press, Senior Editor Juliana Hanford says, “We always look for great characters. And when authors can balance humor with nail-biting, on-the-edge-of-your-seat suspense, and can come up with a final twist that surprises even the readers who think they know everything, then we’re sold!”

Libby Sternberg, Editor-in-Chief of IstoriaBooks, says, “We look for the same thing we want in all submissions: a good story, well-told. Do I want to keep turning or clicking through the pages, and do I want to keep hearing this author tell me the story? I know that seems simple, but you’d be surprised how hard it is to write a page-turning story that has a great ‘voice’ attached to it.”

Playing Fair

Sternberg notes, “With mystery, I’d also add this requirement – the mystery itself must be well-constructed with a resolution that does not rely on a deus ex machina, or anything similar – I hate reading mysteries where, suddenly, a strange character, never encountered in the story previously, shows up and turns out to be the criminal. The reader should be able to reread the story and see how the clues add up to the denouement.”

“In writing mysteries, one has to come up with a crime, figure out who did it, create a sympathetic sleuth or sleuths, manage subplots, plant clues, play fair with your readers, and – usually – come to a satisfying conclusion,” Kresge says. That’s in addition to the challenges present in all types of fiction: “Creating and sustaining believable characters, plotting, pacing, setting, research. Piece of cake juggling all those elements, right?”

How does a writer deal with all these challenges? Noskin Taichert says, “I’ve written all my life. That’s part of the way I’ve developed it. Reading voraciously is another. Studying writers – the popular ones who tell stories really well – makes a difference in my own writing. I’ve also taken a few workshops here and there, but the biggest result has come from committing to writing, every single day.”

Writing a great mystery that is also a great book isn’t easy, but it has its rewards. Sternberg says, “I’ve read various reports that indicate the mystery market remains strong. Certainly, its fans are loyal and intelligent, always willing to look at new authors and material. Well-written mysteries take a tremendous amount of talent, and what I love about mystery fans is that they appreciate the skill level of mystery writers.”

Finding an Audience

Mystery fans show great loyalty to favorite authors, but reaching potential fans can be a challenge for newcomers. E-publishing is providing new opportunities. Eddy has noticed a jump in e-books sales for genre fiction, especially science fiction, fantasy, and mysteries. “As the devices proliferate I think we will see this continue,” she says. “People love to read about murder and mayhem – the way they read them might change; the desire for the genre will still be there.”

“It also gives authors a way to keep [out-of-print] books alive,” Odell notes, “and to get things published that straddle or cross genres, or don’t fit into the narrower confines of traditional publishers.”

“I’m launching an original e-book mystery soon,” Noskin Taichert says. “More and more writers are taking this chance partly because of economics, but for me it’s mostly about artistic freedom and control. If I write a protagonist who editors at the major publishers say mystery readers aren’t ready for – like my new one who can communicate with insects and other non-humans – I have the freedom to give her life even though she may not fit the mold that New York City houses are looking for right now.”

The time has never been better for mysteries, whether for children or adults, traditionally or independently published, and in whatever subgenre. As Hanford says, “Good mysteries never go out of style!”

Kris Bock writes action-packed romantic suspense involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. In Counterfeits, stolen Rembrandt paintings bring danger to a small New Mexico town. Whispers in the Dark features archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. What We Found is a mystery with strong romantic elements about a young woman who finds a murder victim in the woods. The Mad Monk’s Treasure follows the hunt for a long-lost treasure in the New Mexico desert. In The Dead Man’s Treasure, estranged relatives compete to reach a buried treasure by following a series of complex clues.  Read excerpts at or visit her Amazon page

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