Guest Blogger – Elizabeth Craig: 15 Tips for Writing a Murder Mystery

Writers In The Storm is delighted to welcome Elizabeth Spann Craig, w/a Riley Adams. Elizabeth’s latest Memphis BBQ series mystery, Hickory Smoked Homicide was just released on November 1st. Enjoy!

Thanks so much to Jenny Hansen for inviting me here today to talk about mysteries—my favorite subject!

Before I was a mystery writer, I was a mystery reader. I’d easily devour two or three in week.  I loved everything about them—the sleuths, the puzzle, and the resolution of the case at the end of the book.

As a writer, I love mysteries just as much.  For me, the structure in the books makes them a lot of fun to write.  That structure also makes them the perfect books for a new writer: the pattern of introducing a body, the suspects, laying clues, and resolving the case. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you write your mystery.

15 Tips for Writing a Murder Mystery:

1.  Make the sleuth someone readers root for.  The sleuth, like any protagonist, needs to be multi-faceted.  If they’re too perfect, they may be unlikeable. Flaws serve to make a sleuth relatable to readers as well as give them stumbling blocks for solving cases.  Another important point is that the sleuth needs to be intelligent and act intelligently. Readers get disgusted with sleuths who set out on their own to meet killers on deserted alleys in the middle of the night.

2.  Be careful with your number of suspects. Suspect numbers can get a little tricky.  You want enough suspects to ensure that the killer’s identity is a surprise, but not so many that the reader forgets who they are. I usually like five suspects, killing one in the middle of the book. One of my editors actually prefers fewer.

3.  Think carefully about timing of the body’s discovery.  This point can create sore feelings between authors and editors, but usually the murder needs to occur fairly soon in a book.  I know my editors like it that way.  Otherwise, the readers are just sort of in suspended animation, waiting for the crime to kick off so they can participate in solving it.  It’s the whole point of a murder mystery. If we have a lot of chapters before the body’s discovery, they probably just function as set-up or backstory…which is never popular with editors.

4.  Give the reader a reason to care about the case.  What is it about the murder or case that makes the reader want to keep reading?  Is the victim someone very likeable and innocent and they want to avenge her death?  Is one of the suspects wrongly accused and needs to be vindicated?  Is the sleuth somehow personally involved or emotionally connected to the case?

5.  Know your subgenre.  Planning to submit your mystery for publication?  Your language and the level of gore or description of the body or crime will affect your subgenre and readership. Writer’s Digest has a nice list of mystery subgenres (scroll down on the landing page.)

6.  Keep the mystery fair.  One of my favorite aspects of mysteries is that they have an almost interactive feel to them.  The reader solves the puzzle along with the sleuth. To provide the reader with this satisfying feeling, we’ve got to play fair with them. They need to receive all the information that the sleuth does. If the sleuth knows something, the reader should know it, too.

7.  Make sure you’re leaving several clues to the murderer’s identity, but aren’t making them too obvious.  The clues need to be scattered throughout the book or else the reader will feel that the mystery wasn’t fair.  But the reader doesn’t need the equivalent of a neon sign pointing out that a clue happened.  No one wants to figure out the solution to the mystery in chapter five. Find a way to lay the clue but to distract attention from it—maybe another suspect arriving on stage?  A sudden argument between the sleuth and another character?

8.  Use red herrings, but don’t let the red herrings continue too long or be too frustrating. Red herrings mislead the reader and sleuth. Mysteries need red herrings to give the sleuth false leads to investigate.  But if a red herring stretches the entire length of the mystery before being proven wrong in the last chapter, it may feel unfair to the reader…or make it seem that they’ve wasted too much time on a lead that didn’t pan out.

9.  Make sure the suspects’ motives are believable.  Most common motives are revenge, jealousy or envy, self-protection (from the victim divulging something about the murderer or hurting themselves or someone close to them), the need to cover up a crime, personal gain (financial, promotion, etc.), frustration or anger, and love or hate.             ,

10.  Realize you can change your killer—even after the first draft.  Could all of your suspects have murdered the victim? Did they all have motive, means, and opportunity? If you realize, at the end of the book, that your murderer isn’t the strongest choice, you can change the ending with really only minor tinkering.

11.  Have your suspects tell lies and tell truths. It keeps things interesting. No one is 100% reliable, after all.

12.  Consider using “an unreliable witness.” Agatha Christie frequently had a character who everyone discounted, based on their behavior or appearance.  But that character frequently gave clues to the killer—although no one listened but the sleuth.

13.  Give your sleuth some depth.  Is there anything else your sleuth wants?  Can you see an arc for your sleuth in your story? Have you provided any conflict for your sleuth apart from the mystery that could be included in a subplot?

14.  Provide someone for the sleuth to talk to.  Crime fighting can get lonely.  It’s very helpful if the sleuth has someone to bounce ideas off of. Otherwise, you end up with your sleuth indulging in lots of internal monologue. Sidekicks can also provide a little comic relief, or offer the sleuth a different perspective of the suspects.

15.  Tie up any loose ends.  Oddly enough, there’s a very satisfying and comforting feeling readers receive from mysteries. A lot of this comes from problem-solving in a book.  A serious problem is created, then solved by the end of the book (with the reader’s help, if you’ve truly created an interactive feel to the book.) Double-check to make sure all your loose ends are tied up to help create this feeling for readers.

Are you a mystery reader or writer?  What aspects of mysteries do you find enjoyable to read or write?  Any tips I’ve left out?

Elizabeth’s latest book Hickory Smoked Homicide released November 1.  Elizabeth writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin/Berkley (as Riley Adams), the Southern Quilting mysteries (2012) for Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink. She blogs daily at Mystery Writing is Murder, which was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2010 and 2011.

Writer’s Knowledge Base–the Search Engine for Writers
Twitter: @elizabethscraig

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50 Responses to Guest Blogger – Elizabeth Craig: 15 Tips for Writing a Murder Mystery

  1. Louise says:

    Wonderful tips! I adore reading mysteries – grew up on Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham. I’ve never felt brave enough to attempt writing one, but sometimes I wish I dared, just for the sheer fun of it. If I ever do work up enough nerve, I will definitely be referring back to this list.

    • I hope you will, Louise! The only thing about writing a mystery that is tricky is just keeping track of the clues, timing, etc. And that’s easy if you jot a timeline down as you go, on a piece of notebook paper. It’s a lot of fun!

  2. Giving the reader a reason to care is a big one!

  3. Elizabeth, I love your blog site, your books and thank you for your tireless effort to make us all better writers. My first love was Nancy Drew, who I sadly found out as an adult was a franchise and written by several writers. My all time love is Agatha, read all of her I could find in print. She is the master I go to in my mind. I read and write mysteries (some with a bit of romantic or humorous elements), paranormal suspense (no demons or vamps please), and love the gamut of straight mystery, cozies, thrillers and cop novels. My first submission is being sent to Poisoned Pen Press this winter. With your talent and bent toward the genre, have you considered writing a straight mystery, or like so many of our sisters in crime, have you fallen in love with the cozy? Thanks so much for this post :)

    • Thanks so much! I was crushed, as a kid, to discover that there were many Carolyn Keenes. But Harriet Adams wrote many of my favorites, so she’s the main talent behind Nancy, to me.

      Nice to find a fellow mystery writer! Poisoned Pen is a great outfit–best wishes with them. If I wrote a different genre, I’d choose police procedural. They’re some of my favorites to read. Right now I’m contracted with cozies through 2013, but after that…I might try my hand at one. :) Thanks for commenting and good luck!

  4. Tying up loose ends is so important. All too often I see holes throughout the story that are never addressed as the story progresses. Very frustrating, especially for readers who see and remember details of the story.

    Knowing your sub-genre is important too. A few people have mentioned that my book could be considered YA for various reasons. I never considered that, but looking back I can see why they would mention that. I do not use F-bombs, rape, or abusing of children. Perhaps this is why.

    • Tying up loose ends is really important, I think. Otherwise, readers are sort of left with an empty feeling at the end of the book.

      I think if you can reach more than one group of readers, you’re really expanding your base. Good luck with it!

  5. Killer murder mystery tips :-) Perfect for writing. I especially like #11 that all suspects tell lies and truths, I think that gives the characters more depth! Thanks for the great post!

    Brittany Roshelle

    The Write Stuff

  6. Jenny Hansen says:

    Wonderful post, Elizabeth! You’ve a-a-almost convinced me that I could write a mystery someday. I don’t know that my brain works in the “whodunnit” manner, but you’ve convinced me it could happen.

    I can’t wait to read your latest – I completely did NOT guess the murderer on the last one!

    • I bet you could write an awesome mystery, Jenny!

      Oh, I’m glad you couldn’t guess it! My agent almost always guesses (which always makes me a little sad!) She couldn’t guess for “Hickory Smoked Homicide,” so I felt like I’d hit a home run!

  7. Elizabeth – Those are such great pieces of advice! Thank you. You raise a lot of good points, and it’s interesting that you’d bring up the timing of the discovery of the body. That’s a tough call, because on the one hand, it draws readers in if they get to know the characters, including the victim. On the other, you’re exactly right that readers and editors don’t want to be overloaded with backstory. I don’t know that there is one right time to include the body, but I do agree that it’s not a good idea to lag too long with it.

    • Margot–It’s so tricky, isn’t it? I do like to introduce the victim while they’re still alive and show them interacting with the suspects. I kill them pretty soon after that, though. So frequently that one chapter where the victim is alive is pretty intense! A lot of information to convey there.

  8. Dorte H says:

    Great advice – as always!

    I could add to # 2 that you should also be careful with the total number of characters in a story. As I had both a house warming party and another social event quite early in “The Cosy Knave”, I had to introduce several characters in the first chapter. Some readers found all the names a bit overwhelming, and I can see they have a point.

    • Dorte–Absolutely. I have a pretty large cast of characters in one of my books and got some negative feedback from readers. I cut them down severely for the next books. I think we all have such hectic lives now that we’re picking up and putting down our books a lot–and might not be able to remember a lot of characters.

  9. Chihuahua0 says:

    Ah, mystery writing. Good points on working on developing the sleuth.

    My earliest idea for my NaNoWriMo was a YA supernatural horror, but that got displaced. It’s on my “Novels to Write One Day” list though.

  10. Oh this is so good, and so helpful! Thanks so much, Elizabeth!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  11. Nancy Cohen says:

    Very good tips. I like number 12; that’s one I hadn’t thought of or seen mentioned before. Hmm, an unreliable witness. Have to see how I can work that into my next mystery.

  12. J.D. says:

    Thanks for the helpful tips, Elizabeth! :)

  13. I like every single one of your tips, Elizabeth. One I can add is straight from Agatha Christi who said, “everyone has something to hide.” So I try to give each of my characters a secret. Sometimes the story doesn’t lend itself to all the secrets coming out, but it sure helps the story when several of them do!

  14. Awesome list of tips, Elizabeth! I may not write mysteries, but some of these are absolutely great to have as a resource for other genres! :)

    Thanks!

  15. Thank you so much for this. I am a writer of flash fiction but I do have a murder mystery in me.

    Quite a daunting prospect but I will be starting soon.

    Not read any of your books but I shall go look them out now.

    Again, many thanks.

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  17. Joe Bunting says:

    Great points here, Elizabeth, as always. I liked what you said about timing the murder to avoid back story. It’s not just editors who hate back story. I once read a bestselling PI type mystery writer who I won’t name, and the first fifty pages were back story. I couldn’t keep going. The rest of the book might have been great, but I couldn’t make myself get there.

    • That’s very true–it just gets so boring to read after a while! It’s a delicate balance–giving enough information so the reader knows what’s going on and not doing an info dump.

  18. Terry Wright says:

    Thanks for the mystery tips, Elizabeth. I’m a thriller writer with a mystery in the works – getting my feet wet, so to speak. This is very helpful. (and your blog site is awesome)

  19. Teresa says:

    I am saving this to check my stories by. Thanks Elizabeth for sharing your knowledge and experience.

  20. Excellent tips! I write fantasy and horror, but lots of these still apply. :D

  21. Peter says:

    You said to “Double-check to make sure all your loose ends are tied up….” That includes doing your proof reading. Your phrase, “with the readers help” should be “with the reader’s help.” And I just ordered your book on Amazon. I’m looking forward to it.

  22. Victoria says:

    I love your list, Elizabeth. You’re like a mystery-writing class all by yourself!

    You know the old story about Raymond Chandler and ‘tying up loose ends,’ don’t you? Someone asked him, “So who did kill the chauffeur in The Big Sleep?” and he said, “I have no idea.” (Chandler’s plots don’t stand up under scrutiny, as you probably know. :) )

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  24. Rich Davies says:

    Great tips!

    I have written chapters of mystery novels and maybe it’s a writers thing but I found it very glaringly obvious who the murderer was. The trouble is giving aways clues but also not making it too easy.
    Best to always let someone else test read it.
    I adore Agatha Christie books, I spent hours reading them, usually trying to guess and solve it but alas, she is a good writer and the joy I felt when all loose ends where tied up, as you said, very satisfying indeed.

    Rich

  25. Thanks very much for this very helpful post! Point #7 (planting/hiding of the clues) resonated with me – I have no trouble planting the red herrings, but when it comes to the clues that are linked to the actual culprit, I feel that there is a huge flag waving at the reader “look here, look here, this is who did it!” I suppose it’s because I do know who did it… so the clues appear obvious to me. Hence the need for a first reader with no advance info!

  26. jennymilch says:

    Excellent tips! Reminds me of something Jodi Picoult said at a signing about her novel PLAIN TRUTH. Keeping the secret of a mystery from the reader is harder than it looks!

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  28. Such awesome tips! I tend to put some mystery in my novels, even though I wouldn’t call them “mystery” if I were trying to sell them. Thank you. A little mystery spices up any genre. ;D

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