Discovering how to write a mystery novel needn’t be a mystery.
As a murder mystery and thriller writer myself, I have been hooked on mystery books ever since childhood when I read my first mystery novel, book one of The Secret Seven.
Tucked under the blankets in bed, I would turn the pages at a rate of knots to discover who the dastardly crook was that stole a precious violin, or worse still, their precious dog, Scamper. It wasn’t long until I had read all fifteen books; each story pulling me in and keeping me hooked until the young amateur sleuths reached their conclusions.
Over the years I graduated from Enid Blyton to other more grown-up mystery novels, realising that the basic rules for writing engaging mystery stories remained the same. Whether it’s Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, or Val McDermid, the secret has always been to keep mystery readers hooked until the final page.
In this article, I will be sharing tips and tricks on how to create your own mystery story, as we explore the genre and the best-selling crime fiction that’s captured the hearts and imaginations of mystery readers worldwide.
What Is A Mystery Novel?
In short, a mystery novel is a story that asks the question ‘who dunnit?’ and then spends the rest of the book answering that question, while introducing you to all kinds of characters and potential suspects.
If you love having the opportunity to solve a riddle, what could be better than to be taken on a literary adventure with the promise that by the end you will be in on the secret, as you try to work it out along the way.
There are several subgenres that come under Mystery, here are just some of them…
These stories are a gentler form of crime book. Often a body is found with no gory descriptions or details and when the murder is witnessed it is quick and sanitised. They usually feature an amateur detective (or detectives), a confined setting (often somewhere rural), and characters who know one another.
Examples: books by T L Huchu, Andrew Wilson, and Richard Osman.
Hard Boiled Crime/Police Procedurals
Unlike cosy crime, with this mystery genre, you’re more likely to read all the gory details of the darkest crimes, from grisly murders to autopsies in the morgue. There may be no holding back when it comes to the crime either, whether quick or prolonged, you will relive it in much greater detail. With a police procedural, the story focuses on the investigation from the perspective of the diligent sleuths; often a flawed character who works outside of the confines of their job.
Examples: the works of Lynda La Plante, MW Craven, and Karin Slaughter.
As a noir writer, you are focusing on shadows and hazy lights, mood and atmosphere. This isn’t detective fiction. The focus is on the criminal in a concise story that follows the main character’s descent into self-destruction.
Examples: Tina Baker and Megan Abbott’s books.
As fast-paced page turners, thrillers make you gasp and shake your head in awe at the unexpected twists and turns. Thriller writers love to take readers in the wrong direction, offering high stakes; all leading to a stunning conclusion. Thrillers are often psychological and dark, and sometimes even supernatural.
Examples: books by James Patterson, Nadine Matheson, and Oyinkan Braithwaite.
True Crime Fiction
True crime books are extremely well researched and explore true crimes in factual detail. They can be an exploration into the mind of a killer or place more of an emphasis on the victims and their lives.
In true crime mystery novels, a murder is usually involved, but it could be a crime of another sort, such as financial fraud or a disappearance. It’s anything that requires information to work out what has happened between the innocent person and the perpetrator.
Examples: The Jigsaw Murders by Jeremy Craddock, and The Five – The Untold Lives of The Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold.
How To Write A Good Mystery
Before you start writing mysteries, there are five things you need to consider and get right.
Decide On Your Sub-Genre
In order to pitch to an agent, edit, distributor, or to simply get a mystery reader hooked, you need to know where your book fits in the mystery novel spectrum.
There’s no point calling your mystery story ‘noire’ then having a 90 year old woman go on a quest with her bingo friends to help solve the mystery of all the missing cats in their quaint village. There’s nothing dark about that!
Research Your Setting
If your mystery novel’s setting is a small town where everyone knows each other, then speak to people who live there. Or, better yet, visit the place yourself and get an idea of the lay of the land.
What are the buildings like? Is there a pub? A post office? Print out photographs and draw maps; know it all inside out.
The more you know about the setting, the easier (and more fun), it is to write. Plus your readers will be able to picture the setting in their own minds better.
Create Engaging Characters
Convincing characters drive the plot. If you want readers to invest in your story, then writing fascinating characters that won’t be forgotten in a hurry is essential.
Character development is key; we need to see the hero of the story’s own arc – not just solving the mystery but learning something about themselves. Your readers don’t have to like the characters, but they have to believe in them and care about what happens to them.
Research By Reading
A huge part of researching before you write any kind of novel is to read within your genre. Search out the best-selling mystery books and read them. They may not all be to your taste, but they will all help you understand exactly what’s needed to write a successful thriller, procedural, cosy, or hardboiled crime story.
Once you’ve finished your first draft ask yourself ‘Is it ready to send to an agent?’ The answer will almost certainly be, ‘no!’
Ask someone impartial, who you trust, to read it. Or you can pay for a professional edit; if you do this, seek recommendations from other writers you trust or check out our editors at Jericho Writers.
Never send out your manuscript until you have made it the best it can possibly be!
Great Mystery Novels You Should Read
Reading is part of your work as a writer. Some fear another author’s style will somehow seep into their own work, or worse, the book will be so good it will make you feel like your own work isn’t good enough.
However, only by reading widely will you learn what makes a successful book, and I believe that can only impact your work positively. You will also need comparable titles when it comes to pitching your book to agents and publishers, so knowing the market beforehand is essential.
Here are some great mysteries for you to try out (and I would urge you to read even those that aren’t in your sub-genre, as the basics are still relevant, and you might even find a new favourite!)
And Then There Were None By Agatha Christie
There’s no denying that the endurance of Agatha Christie’s books is a testament to the quality of her writing and stories. Voted as the favourite of her books in an online poll, And Then There Were None sees ten guests, all with something hide, invited to an island off the Devon coast. One by one they die, each victim’s demise echoing the line of a child’s nursery rhyme that is played to them at night.
Gone Girl By Gillian Flynn
On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne’s wife, Amy, mysteriously disappears. Nick quickly becomes the prime suspect and must follow a string of clues in order to find out what has happened to his wife and to try and prove his innocence. But is he the wrong suspect?
A deliciously tangled web of deceit and unreliable characters makes for a twisty and jaw-dropping story.
The Silence of the Lambs By Thomas Harris
When a senator’s daughter goes missing, it is feared that she has become the latest victim of Buffalo Bill, a notorious serial killer. Clarice Starling, a young FBI recruit, is bought in to help find her using the help of the imprisoned violent killer Hannibal Lecture.
Part thriller, part horror, and part police procedural, The Silence of the Lambs is a thrilling tale that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Plotting Vs Pantsing
Do you plot your mystery novel? Or do you fly by the seat of your pants and make it up as you go along?
Mystery books can be incredibly complex to plot, as you have to consider red herrings, false clues, specific details, and dead ends. Not to mention including a vast cast of convincing characters.
Plotting is a vital part of the process of keeping track of events and making sure all loose ends are tied up. Strict plotters have a very clear idea of what is going to happen scene by scene, chapter by chapter. Pantsers, on the other hand, may have a vague idea of where the story is going, but on the whole, they just sit down in front of the laptop and let the characters do the talking, the story unfolding before them. They find tight plotting too constrictive.
As a mystery author, you need to find the technique that works best for you. Here are some examples of successful mystery authors who have used either method, along with some tips to help you plan your own mystery novel.
The Plotter Mystery Writer
Mystery writer, Victoria Dowd, is renowned for her plotting. So much so that her novel, A Book of Murder, featured her plotting method on the front cover. Victoria’s son has also created a Lego village for her, so she can keep track of her character’s movements throughout the story!
Agatha Christie is probably the most famous mystery writer of them all, and she tightly plotted her stories by beginning with the murder, the killer and the motive. Then moving on to suspects and their possible motives. Next, she would plot possible clues and red herrings to keep readers guessing.
With so many characters and possible outcomes, it’s no surprise she chose this method. How many of us have read or watched her stories, feeling sure we know who ‘done it’ only to see them finished off before the climax of the story?
The Pantser Mystery Writer
Author of The Call of Cassandra Rose, Sophia Spiers says:
I begin with a ‘What if?’ question, then I start to play around with the idea in my head. Maybe write a few notes down, but not much. I’m mostly working it out in my head. I write a very bad first ‘vomit’ draft, then print and read through, looking for plot holes and tightening as much as I can. Deleting and rewriting where needed. I recently tried to plot but got bored, it was disastrous!Sophia Spiers
The same goes for author of Her, Meera Shah:
I start with a character scenario then I write as if I’m her/him, chapter by chapter in chronological order. Just me and the computer.Meera Shah
Jonathan Whitelaw, author of The Bingo Hall Detectives, starts with a rough outline and then heads straight to his computer, finding the excitement of not quite knowing where things might end up.
Tina Baker, author of Call Me Mummy and Nasty Little Cuts, also keeps her ideas in her head, but for a few scribbles here and there, she just writes down the bare bones and builds with each draft.
As you can see, there is no right or wrong way to write a mystery; just the way that works best for you. You may even find a mix of both methods works for you.
Help With Planning Your Mystery Novel
With so many intricate plot lines and dead ends to line up, whether you plot tightly or leave it to chance, it helps to have a rough idea of where you are heading. Here are a few handy hints and tools that can help you on your writing journey.
You’ve seen those walls on social media? A mass of yellow and pink squares to put the fear of God into any minimalist interior designer. Each scene broken down on a small sticky square and arranged in order of events. For the more visual writers, this is a great way to keep the series of events and characters at the forefront while writing.
Apps And Writing Software
Similarly, there are software packages that can also do this, keeping your walls free for family portraits and bookshelves (hopefully filled with lots of mystery books for you to read and research.) Scrivener is one such package commonly used by writers.
Wipeable boards are a great tool for an ever-evolving plot and keeping track of the story.
Character development is one of the most important parts of your story. If you don’t know exactly who your main character is, how is a reader supposed to care about them?
Using people you know or TV/film stars, create a cast of characters that will help you move the story along.
Mystery Writing Advice
Stuck For ideas?
Read true crime in books and newspaper articles. Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction! Of course, true crime is a mystery sub-genre in itself; today it is written in a much more exciting and narrative fashion creating the same effect as a novel.
This is incredibly important in a mystery; you want to keep the reader turning the page and engaged. Keep the story concise and make every chapter count. Omit anything that doesn’t move the story forward towards the readers’ goal (finding out the who and why).
It cannot be stated enough that all classic mystery books are remembered for not just the twisty plot but the unforgettable characters too!
So, know your characters inside out, what makes them tick, what scares them and what drives them. Once you do this work the entire book will be easier to write because they will tell you where the story is going. Don’t shoehorn characters into a plot, make sure they act in a way that’s consistent with their character.
Know Your Suspects!
Understand their connections to the crime, motivations and why it might just have been them (or not!). Keep the reader guessing throughout.
Foreshadowing And Red Herrings
Dripfeed clues throughout the book. Don’t put too many clues or foreshadowing too soon. Trust your reader to do some of the work and they will thank you for it. Sometimes it helps to write the entire novel, then work backwards adding in clues and dead ends!
Frequently Asked Questions
Is The Female Victim An Overdone Trope?
It is true that historically women have borne the brunt of crime; fictional and in real life. As a result, many have grown weary of seeing themselves as the victims.
I believe this is merely art reflecting life. Two women each week are killed in the UK, so to ignore this would be to ignore the reality. Until femicide becomes a problem of the past, these terrible crimes will always be of interest, and the why? a pertinent question.
Should We Ignore The Perpetrator’s Life And Focus On The Victim?
I would say this is more relevant to true crime, where a welcome trend is now to discover the life of the victim and their history, rather than that of the perpetrator.
In fiction, we are naturally interested in character, and whether we like them or not, that’s the goodies versus the baddies. Would The Silence of the Lambs be as interesting if we didn’t get to know the evil but enigmatic character Hannibal Lecture? I think not. Who is Ayoola in My Sister, the Serial Killer?and why does she do what she does? The mystery of an enigmatic character will move a story along, whether they are the victim or the perpetrator.
I Don’t Like Gore And Murder, Can I Still Write Mystery?
Of course! But you would be best suited to mystery, cosy style, or stories with less brutal crimes. Cosy crime doesn’t show the death in any detail, the story quickly moves to the amateur sleuth(s) and concentrates on the solving of the crime.
Mystery Novel Writing Is No Mystery
Mystery isn’t an easy genre, but for me, it’s one of the most satisfying to read and to write. Taking a complete puzzle and mixing it up in a way that creates an exciting and satisfying read is a thrill in itself.
Now you know some of the subgenres and authors, dive into the genre in all its glory and forms. Learning how others write mystery novels will give you ideas and enthusiasm for your own story.
Good luck and enjoy!
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