Author tools and hacks, featured, How To, Mystery Writing, op-ed

HOW I WRITE A MYSTERY NOVEL

By Author Judy Moore

There’s nothing like a good mystery to give some excitement to your day, make you forget your troubles, and stimulate your brain cells.

I like a mystery that will keep you reading into the night.

When I write a mystery, I want to be sure that it’s entertaining, that it doesn’t waste the reader’s time, and that it doesn’t cheat the reader. I want the people who read my books to go away feeling satisfied, the way you feel when you’ve placed that last piece into a jigsaw puzzle or filled in the last clue in a crossword. Learning that I’d disappointed a reader would be the worst feeling I could experience as a writer.

When I write a mystery, I first visualize a plotline that I think will hold high interest to a great many mystery fans. I want the story to take place in a world that most people can identify with, or that they have a curiosity about:

• A young woman moves into her murdered aunt’s house and begins to suspect her neighbors

• Ungrateful children learn their mother is donating her wealth to charity
• A teenage girl is found dead at an exclusive country club
• A tourist is killed after a famous author’s book signing
• A new bride must live with an intimidating mother-in-law

I’m sure every mystery author approaches writing differently, but I know from the start who the victim is, who the killer is, and the all-important “why.” I don’t outline as many writers do. I just start writing and let the characters develop their own personalities, and then guide the plot through twists and turns as the storyline evolves. Along the way, I like to have six or seven suspects, each with a plausible motive for why they might want the victim dead. I try to hide the real motive of the actual killer but drop a few subtle clues along the way that a close reader might pick up on.

Having read and watched so many mysteries during my life—my favorite way to relax—I’ve determined there are about a half-dozen reasons someone might decide to commit murder. Greed. Jealousy. Anger. Revenge. Hatred. Or, often, to keep an indiscretion or criminal act from coming to light. Accidental death is also a possibility. I’ve used most of these as a motive in my mysteries and others as red herrings for potential motivations of other suspects.

The first key to writing a good mystery is to have a good beginning, to grab the reader’s attention immediately and then hold on to it. How many books are put down because the first page isn’t interesting? Being a former journalist, I’ve always gone by the mantra that the lead is everything. If not the first sentence, then at least the first page. My favorite beginning to one of my mysteries is from Murder in Vail: “It was Christmas, so Sally had to see her children. And worse, their dreadful spouses.”

Personally, I like to build up to the murder, to really get into the relationships and motivations of the characters before the actual death occurs. I think it makes the reader care more about the victim, as well as the potential suspects. Nowadays, though, some readers can be so antsy. They want that murder right away. So, sometimes, at or near the beginning, mystery writers will make some kind of allusion to or foreshadowing of the havoc to come to keep impatient readers reading as the story is developed.

It’s best to stay focused on the mystery plotline to keep that attention you grabbed hold of on your first page. Not everyone agrees, but I like to end each chapter with a question or a little mystery of its own to keep the reader from putting the book down. It’s tempting to veer off at times into too much description of settings or landscapes, but today’s reader doesn’t have a whole lot of patience for long-winded descriptions that bog down the plot. Another maxim I learned in journalism school that I follow, though some don’t agree, is “Write for the reader, not for yourself.” To me, that means not trying to impress readers with the depth of your vocabulary or the lilt of your phrasing. Big words and too many adjectives have lost many a reader.

Most of my books are set in Florida, where I’ve always lived.

Sometimes, I just can’t resist writing about the beauty of the ocean, the texture of the sand, or the loggerhead turtles, manatees, egrets, and other wildlife in the state. While creating a world for the reader to picture is essential, it can be done as part of the plotline, while moving characters from place to place, rather than paragraph after paragraph of description.

Each character should have definite personality characteristics that aren’t stereotyped. They each should be realistic individuals with some positive and some negative traits. You don’t want characters who are all good or all bad—even the killer might have a good trait or two. Quirky characters are always fun, and I try to include at least one in every book I write. They can be a good source of humor to balance darker content.

When characters speak, it’s essential that what they say reflect their individual personalities. What they say has to be completely natural. I put myself in the character’s head and ask, “What would this person really say?” Quotes shouldn’t be used only to advance the plot, though, of course, some quotes do. There’s nothing worse than long paragraphs of quoted material that could be spoken by anyone and are obviously just pushing along the plot. Another journalistic truism, “Only use quotes if you can’t say it better yourself.” Quotes should be succinct and interesting. What each person says should bounce off what another character says. Conversations need to snap. Boring conversation is a major yawn and will quickly sink a book.

In a mystery, the key to moving the plot forward is to maneuver the reader away from the actual villain by placing suspicion on other characters and throwing in a red herring or two. This is the most challenging part of writing a mystery, and it has to be handled delicately. You don’t want someone who’s not guilty to look too guilty early on, or a seasoned mystery fan will immediately throw that suspect out of contention. You also don’t want to cheat the reader. The murder and the murderer have to make sense when all is said and done. The killer can’t just be pulled out of thin air.

To keep interest high as the sleuth or the police work to solve the crime, it’s not a bad idea to have another murder or attempted murder. Near the end, another possibility is to start heaping suspicion on one likely suspect and then to pull the rug out from under the reader to reveal the real killer.

I like to have a big climactic scene in my mysteries with the killer chasing or attacking the protagonist. I like my stories to end with a bang, not a fizzle, so my readers won’t feel let down. The killer doesn’t always have to be caught, and the leading characters don’t always have to survive. I have to admit, though, in one of my books I really wanted the evil-doer to get away with it and the innocent protagonist to go to jail. But I changed the ending when a picture entered my mind of an angry reader throwing the book against the wall. I think there would have been a lot of book throwing had I gone with that ending.

And, although many writers wouldn’t agree, I like to end my stories with a nice bow on top, wrapping up each of the characters’ storylines. Some of that wrapping might be black and funereal, but I like to answer all the unanswered questions a reader might have about the future of the characters.

I really do want the people who read my books to be happy and satisfied. But first and foremost, I want them to be challenged—and hopefully fooled.

Judy Moore’s new cozy mystery is A Book Signing to Die For. To read another of Judy Moore’s mysteries, pick out one here.

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9 thoughts on “HOW I WRITE A MYSTERY NOVEL”

  1. Very cool to get inside the mind of a mystery writer! Thank you for this opportunity. It’s funny because when you said your favorite way to relax is to watch mysteries, I shuddered lol. We are all wired so differently and that’s what makes us beautiful and unique. This reminded me of how my daughters used to play that game where they had to figure out who, with what and where (Ms Scarlett in the closet with whatever murder weapon) lol. They were into it lol. Thank you for this awesome post! ❤

    1. Hi, Mary, yes this site is designed for writers and readers in the Christian genres. If you like it, please share it with your writer/author friends. Thanks for your comment!

  2. This was a fun and enjoyable read to understand your method in writing mysteries. I always thought that it might be neat to write a book. But in my life it might be more of a non fiction work to tell my story of overcoming a life threatening illness and quad amputations. But I would think something fiction would be also fun. Congratulations on your work.

  3. I love murder mysteries! It’s my way to relax too, especially the ones that keep you guessing. Thanks for sharing how you write and plan them!

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