25 Things You Need To Know About Writing Mysteries, By Susan Spann

Mystery novels work a lot like any other genre, except that mystery writers murder their imaginary friends. To paraphrase the Hoover campaign promise, a mystery novel will deliver “a corpse in every pot.” (Mystery authors are twisted. We might as well get that straight from the outset.)

Mystery offers plenty of room for variation, too. Murder is universal—it can happen in any setting and any time. A sleuth can be a professional, an amateur, or a NINJA (though I’ve already done that last one), and your victim and method can vary just as widely. One warning, however: killing your imaginary friends is a lot like eating potato chips. Nobody I know can stop with one.

Sound like fun? Awesome. Let’s get going:

1. DEATH: IT’S WHAT’S FOR DINNER

Occasionally, a mystery succeeds with a central crime other than murder, but generally speaking purloined papers, missing mutts, and the seizure of family jewels doesn’t get you very far in the mystery world. (However, properly handled, the family jewels have great potential in other genres.)

On the positive side, if your imaginary friends are at all like mine, they’re better off dead.

2. PUT THE HATCHET DOWN AND FIND A SLEUTH

It’s easy to rush prematurely into the process of fitting imaginary friends for cement waders. When real killers rush the process, they end up in jail (or dead). The best way to keep your novel (and your career) off the writers’ version of death row? Plan it thoroughly. Plan it well. And plan to start with an interesting sleuth. Readers don’t turn the pages because they care about fictitious corpses. Readers want to help the cool kids solve a crime.

3. KNEE THE DICK IN THE GROIN

What’s better than an intriguing sleuth? A BROKEN ONE! Hooray! Is your detective emotionally damaged? Physically impaired? Addicted to Hostess Fruit Pies? Excellent: good times lie ahead.

If not, stop now and take a hammer to your sleuth’s emotional kneecaps. Bust those suckers good—and be creative. Divorces, tragic accidents, and dead relatives are dime-a-dozen. You can do better. Make your detective allergic to coffee, or phobic of houseplants. Squash her beloved iguana beneath a Zamboni and then force her to solve a murder at an ice rink.

You get the idea.

3. MUMBLE, MUMBLE, BACKSTORY … OR, EVERY ZAMBONI-HATING SOCIOPATH HAS A MOTHER

Your detective needs a reason to solve the crime you’re about to commit. Faced with a choice between tracking a killer and going out for Mexican food, every normal human picks the churro. Something (aside from your need to MAKE A MILLION DOLLARS PUBLISHING, YO) makes your detective select “hunt killer” over “Tuesday Tacos,” and you have to know the reason before you write. Maybe the story prompts it. Maybe it’s something in the detective’s past. Best case scenario, past and story fuse in a giant quesadilla of motivation. Mmmm…cheesy goodness….

4.  THE FIRST RULE OF THE BACKSTORY IS DO NOT WRITE BACKSTORY

No, seriously. Don’t. Not directly, anyway. Backstory is the cayenne pepper of the writer’s literary spice drawer. A little, added at the proper time, enhances the novel and gives it zing. Use too much and readers dump the entire thing in the garbage bin.

5. EVERY BODY NEEDS A COFFIN – BUILD YOUR WORLD

But I thought this was about killing people! Patience, young Padawan. We’ll get there. First things first.

Your sleuth and your supporting cast live in a specific time and place. Construct and memorize that landscape. Novels set in the “real” world need just as much attention as the ones that live on fantasy and science fiction shelves. Maybe your victim lives alone in a fifteenth-story apartment carpeted with empty Reese’s wrappers. Maybe the sleuth uses only one-ply toilet paper. I don’t know, but you have to, and you need to know before you write page one.

6. MURDER: IT’S DYING, WITH STYLE!

In real life, people get run over with cars, shot with pistols, and decapitated with ancient swords. (THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!!) In fiction, anything is fair game if you can explain it. Take down your victim with all the creativity you can muster. Pufferfish poison? Absolutely. Shuriken to the face? You’ll see it in one of my novels. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours!

One note: In my world, the method comes before the victim, but this is a chicken-and-egg kind of problem. Do it the other way ‘round if it works for you. Which brings us to:

7. SPIN THE WHEEL OF VICTIMS!

As with the sleuth, choose wisely—and by “wisely” I mean with all the wicked, sadistic power within your twisted soul. You can kill ANYONE YOU WANT TO. Or more than one! The world’s your oyster…shiv—er, shuck—that baby and find some pearls.

8. WHODUNIT, WHY-HE-DUN-IT, DUN DUN DUN

You know that big “reveal scene” where the sleuth explains who killed the victim and why? Surprise! The author had that plotted out 300 pages earlier. (My first novel has 288 pages. Do the math.) Figure out the killer’s method, opportunity and motives before you start writing. Mystery readers will burn you in effigy (and barbecue your book in reviews) if these elements fall flat.

9. ROUND UP THE (UN)USUAL SUSPECTS …

You’ll need at least three suspects (I prefer four), each of whom falls into one of two categories: people who wanted the victim dead and people who might have killed him. Sometimes they overlap. Sometimes they don’t. Also? At least one should come from “outside the box” – the victim’s kindergarten teacher, for example. Don’t stretch belief, but don’t just fill your story with expected variations on the theme.

10. … AND LISTEN TO THEM LIE ABOUT KEYSER SÖZE.

All suspects are liars. Let me repeat for emphasis: Every one of your suspects is a liar. The issue is that only one is lying about this murder. The rest don’t want the sleuth finding out they were dressing in drag, having sex with a prostitute dressed as a purple dinosaur, or fertilizing the marijuana grove at the time of the killing. Figuring out what your suspects are hiding is just as important as figuring out “who-done-it” … and sometimes, a lot more fun.

11. OUTLINE, OUTLINE, OUTLINE

Some writers pants their way through a novel, but how they do is a mystery to me. My novels start with an outline, and that outline starts with the murder—even when the killing happens before the start of the book. The outline doesn’t need huge detail, but it should include every major scene (and major clue) in the novel. It gives you a road map and helps you keep your sleuth on course when everyone starts lying.

12. BUT WAIT! THERE’S ANOTHER OUTLINE!

A secret outline, for your eyes alone. This one tracks the offstage action—what those lying suspects were really doing, and when, and why. The “secret outline” lets you know which clues to plant, and where, and keeps the lies from jamming up the story’s moving parts. Mmm….jam….Back in a minute, I need some toast.

13. GET A CLUE. IN FACT, TAKE TWO, THEY’RE SMALL

Mysteries have three kinds of clues. “Genuine clues” point to the killer and help the detective solve the crime. “Fake clues,” (also called “red herrings”) point to someone other than the killer. They serve to distract the reader (and, often, the detective too). “Pivotal clues” are the lynchpins upon which the solution turns—they give the final piece (or pieces) to the puzzle and, ultimately, solve the crime. You need all three types of clues, and you must insert them in a way that keeps the reader guessing which is which.

14. WAITER! THERE’S A DEAD GUY ON PAGE ONE!

Mystery readers are like the crowds in the Roman Coliseum—they came for blood, and they want it NOW. Readers will not wait a hundred pages for a corpse. They want death by page 50 … if not, your book may well become the victim.

15. HERO, MEET QUEST

Remember back around #3 where I made a big deal about the detective’s backstory? Without violating the First Rule of Fight Club Backstory, your mission—should you choose to accept it—is to persuade the reader that “hunting down a serial killer who wants to eat your eyeballs” is a viable alternative to churros and beer in your detective’s world. Extra points if you do this without internal monologues, flashbacks, dreams, or the Ghosts of Dead Ancestors.

And yes, the detective novel is the Momomyth (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monomyth) in murderous form. However, the writer’s quest is to keep formula from becoming formulaic.

16. STEP 1: STEAL UNDERPANTS. STEP 2: ????

Between Act One (the choice between death and churros) and the midpoint-ish AHA!, lies a quagmire where unwary authors get lost in the process. Write the early stages of the investigation quickly. Take the suspects out for a test drive. See what they have to say. Plan to fill in the details once you get a grip on what’s happening in the endgame.

17. AHA! THE FIRST SOLUTION!

Your detective must identify the killer by the midpoint of the book. The investigation then shifts to proving how and why (s)he did it. Except that…

18. THE FIRST SOLUTION WAS WRONG

At some point, your sleuth will discover that everything he knew was wrong, the killer is NOT the female Elvis impersonator from the planet Diva-9, and OMG WE ARE ALL HOPELESSLY SCREWED.

Welcome to the long, dark, potty break of the soul—and every detective has to hit bottom (or at least wipe out) before he or she can find the killer. Let your detective dig a hole and fall through into a cesspool … and then collapse the ceiling on her head. Force her to dig her way out with a broken chopstick.

19. AHA, AGAIN, THIS TIME FOR REALS!

The second time ‘round, your detective is stronger and more motivated (digging out of a cesspool with a chopstick can have that effect). The answer doesn’t come easily, but this time, when the sleuth reveals the killer, it’s the right one. Which leads to:

20. BOTTOM OF THE NINTH, TWO OUTS, AND BASES LOADED: TIME FOR A GRAND SLAM!

This is the BIG REVEAL SCENE, in which the sleuth unmasks the killer, explains the motive, and gives free puppies to everyone. Hooray! The reveal is one of the two most important scenes in a mystery novel (the other being discovery of the corpse), and it has dual goals. The first is to explain (or explain away) every major clue and to expose the murderer’s identity. The second is more important: it can’t be boring. This is why your reader stuck with you for all those pages. Strike out here, and all the free puppies die.

21. HOORAY! YOU WROTE A NOVEL! CELEBRATE!

Surprise – this is an actual step in the process. The hardest part of writing a novel starts after you type “the end” on that stinky cheese you call Draft One. But reaching the end of that draft deserves celebration.

I recommend beer and churros, or lemon cupcakes, or port and honey-barbecue Fritos. Whatever form of celebratory debauchery fits your style.

22.  FEAR IS THE MINDKILLER, BUT REVISION KILLS EVERYTHING ELSE

Revision doesn’t mean “polish out a few passive cases and send that baby off to win worldwide praise.” Revising a novel is like killing a hydra with a safety razor. When you’re deep in the process, you swear it will NEVER END, but no good comes of short-circuiting the work.

Not only must you fill the rotting, swampy holes you left in the early pages, you have to tighten the pacing, fix the plot, and make sure the clues hold up. The characters may need tweaking so they don’t all sound like Grandpa from The Muensters, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg where the edits are concerned.

Remember that celebratory bourbon? Keep some around, you’re going to need it here.

23. AND NOW, A LESSON FROM BILL AND TED: IT’S NOT A CRIME TO GO BACK AND HIDE THE KEYS

(Yes, I’m about to quote Keanu Reeves for writing advice. Shut up or I’ll cut you with this safety razor.) Near the end of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the guys are stuck outside the San Dimas jail with a real problem: they must free the imprisoned historical figures or fail their presentation and flunk out of school. They have to engineer a jailbreak NOW. So Ted turns to Bill and says, “When this is over, remind me to go back and hide the keys.” Moments later, Ted slips behind a bush and returns with the jail keys in his hand.

The lesson? When you have a time machine, getting the details right is not a problem.

Hey, writer? You have a time machine. Go back during the editing phase and drop the keys where you need them. Just, please, find a better explanation for how they got there.

24. WIRE CRITIQUE PARTNERS IN SERIES, NOT IN PARALLEL

Readers get only one virgin pass at a mystery (heh… I said “virgin”…). If all your critique partners read at once, you won’t have anyone left to tell you if your edits and adjustments wreck the story or ruin the surprise.

I run my novels through three sets of eyes: my alpha reader, peer editors, and my critique group, making edits and adjustments after each. You don’t necessarily need that many, but you need good ones and you should space them out.

25. PUT A SHIV THROUGH THE HEART OF ANY ADVICE THAT DOESN’T WORK FOR YOU

What I’ve just shared is my method. (There are many like it, but this one is mine.) Some authors pants their way through a mystery, fueled by the tortured screams of their imaginary friends. Some of us find solace in chocolate waffles and naked shuffleboard. (Don’t judge…) The most important advice I can give is FIND WHAT WORKS FOR YOU AND DO IT EVERY DAY.

Whatever you’re writing, write it until it’s finished. Then revise. Then write something else. And something else again, until you run out of imaginary friends … and then create some new ones and kill them too.

About the Author

Susan Spann is a transactional attorney and author of the Shinobi Mystery series featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori. The first book, CLAWS OF THE CAT, released in July 2013 from Minotaur Books. In addition to murdering her imaginary friends, Susan’s hobbies include archery, martial arts, horseback riding, and raising seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at http://www.susanspann.com, or on Twitter @SusanSpann.

96 comments

  • I have been writing my mystery novel for over 5 years now and finally I’m nearing its end. Its a struggle though. But, its the one of the best things i ever done in my whole life. Writing a mystery doesn’t just give readers out there something fantastic to feast their eyes on but it gives you an insight on who you really are on the inside of that organ that’s called, “skin.”

  • I love this! I started writing my murder mystery in September, but really focused on it in November (for NaNoWriMo). I was wondering…do I have creative autonomy to allow my detectives to solve the mystery using methods that may not exist in real life. How true to real “detectiveness” do I have to be? I don’t want to be TOO unbelievable, mind you, but perhaps adding data bases that they can search that probably don’t really exist, or tests that might not actually be real. I figure they do it constantly on the TV shows (with seemingly success, since the audience seems to eat it up), I would think I have the liberty to do it in my book! 😀 Am I way off? I don’t want to alienate my readers if this is a big no-no.

  • Without limiting the “absolute rewrite” to mystery genres, the rule might help alleviate issues modern “superior literature” suffers, namely over-writing pretentious, silly, wordy, pseudointellectual verbiage masquerading as worthwhile fiction. Novels are not haiku, and one needs detached courage to eviscerate a favorite phrase, lurid description, or nonessential character, however “colorful”. Edit and rewrite without mercy, until your critical reader alter ego can move without tripping over errors of grammar, or plot, or “great writing”, or anything in the structure that reminds us we’re reading a printed page, and not entering an imaginary world of believable characters and events.
    Also, Rene, that can of worms is known as the “deus ex machina” (“god from the machine”) from the Greek’s theatrical device of having a divine imposition that conveniently resolves every problem for you. Needless to say, it has been famously mocked (alien in “Life of Brian”) and is just not going to get you anywhere, as it just looks as if you’re too lazy to find a solution. In non-science fiction, limitations of problem solving are what build dramatic turns, and your goal is to devise ways around crises, with research and cleverness, adding tension and veracity rather than stretching credulity.

    • Hi whydoubt,

      Thank you for your response. I agree completely with the need to cut out wordiness that is happening in today’s fiction. There is nothing like reading a book with a great storyline and plot, only to find myslef “tripping,” as you say, over the wordiness and over-description of clothing, expressions and surroundings. A little description is needed when it enhances the tone and actions of the story, but I honestly don’t care what color the character’s clothes were or if there were ruffles and lace on the sleeves of a shirt, unless it will play a specific role in the plot.

      Also, thank you for your feedback concerning “deus ex machina.” I definitely do not want to get into a situation where I am using ways of finding out information that are more like science-fiction than mystery. I don’t have a “superhacker” working on a computer to get instant information, nor do I have an instantaneous DNA identifier; I know DNA results take time and are not available in just a few days. However, something such as identifying a blood type can come back much sooner. I will stay away from the science-fiction additives and try to stay as close to real life as I can.

      Oh, one more thing, for Susan Spann, the author of this great post…my main detective is afraid of mice; terrified of them, actually. So there will be a couple of scenes where he’s either watching for them, or he comes across a nest (without overdoing it throughout the book, of course!). 🙂 I LOVED that idea!

  • This post was actually super helpful (and very entertaining to read). I laughed out loud probably more times than I should have while reading this, and I’m definitely going to check out some of your books. (One thing I did notice is there’s actually 26 advice points — there are two #3s :P). Thanks a lot for writing this, I really wanted something to help me plan writing a mystery since I was having trouble figuring out how to start.

  • Love your style, Susan – will have to pick up one of your books – do you have a favorite? I’m working on Book 3 in my mystery series featuring strong, female protagonist, Logan McKenna. SHATTERED: Logan Book 1 and FOREST PARK: Logan Book 2 are the first two in my character-driven series. What’s your opinion on using multiple POVs? I liked your comment about having to use flashbacks if you put the dead body in the first chapter. So true – I’m still developing my skills in that area – I like helping readers get inside the head of the bad guy(s). And I want the reader to almost be not sure who to root for for a while, if that makes sense.

  • Sorry, Chuck! I addressed my comment to Susan – must have looked at one of the comments and that name got stuck in my brain – please feel free to put in the correct name and change the pronoun! Sorry!

  • April 4, 2017 at 2:23 PM // Reply

    This is the most useful article that I’ve EVER red, I didn’t just enjoy your amazing tips but also your sense of humor and the way you’re helping your fellow writers.
    Greetings from Egypt <3

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