Writing Mysteries for the Timid

Writing Mysteries by Sue Grafton (Editor)

Since I write romances, you might wonder why I'm reading, never mind reviewing, a book about how to write mysteries. It's like this: In a romance, the focus is on the couple, but the couple have to do something while they're busy falling in love, and in one of my works-in-progress, what my characters do is solve a murder. Since I'm a hybrid pantser, discovering I had to solve a mystery scares the bejesus out of me. I'm afraid I'll end up with a lame plot, or worse, a lame resolution that the reader saw from a mile away, so when I saw this book by Sue Grafton (actually it's a bunch of essays by different authors compiled and edited by Sue Grafton), I thought, "Great. This will help."

For those new to my reviews, I try to judge a book by how well it succeeds at what it promises. This book promises to help mystery writers, so that's my usual yardstick. If an essay only offers the kind of generic advice that's useful to authors in general, I consider that a failure to deliver on the book's promise. I am going to give this book a little more leeway, however. Since I'm not a mystery writer, I've decided to consider whether this book is useful for non-mystery writers who want to incorporate some of the elements of a mystery in their story even though they don't generally write mysteries. 

The mystery genre covers a lot of ground, so let's get started, shall we?

The first essay by Jeremiah Healy, The Rules and How to Bend Them, deals with Private Investigator stories and by "rules," he actually means conventions. Things such as The Hero Must Be Male. If your writing PI mysteries, this is at least pertinent.
Also useful are the essays by Nancy Pickard about the Amateur Sleuth and by Sandra Scoppettone on villains because she writes specifically about the psychology of murderers.
I had particularly high hopes for the essay by George C. Chasbro, which is about plotting, because as a non-mystery writer, this is what I most need help with. Sadly, it wasn't as helpful as I'd hoped because I don't have a problem finding an idea or setting up the mystery. What I'm insecure about are the steps that keep the mystery alive and delivering a satisfying resolution. This essay doesn't address that.
Tony Hillerman's essay, Building without Blueprints, is for me one of the most interesting of the book. One rather expects that mysteries need to be written by plotters. Having a careful plan for the discovery of clues, the deepening of the mystery, the resolution of the plot seems like wise and sensible way to write a mystery, but Hillerman makes a fabulous case for writing by the seat of his pants. Being something of a hybrid pantser, I felt my tension dissipate somewhat reading this. Is the advice specific to mysteries? Not really, but for a pantser trying to write a mystery, it gives permission to work in a way that's comfortable.

Because Hillerman process is similar to my own in that he discovers important details, which shape the story as in writes, I paid close attention to what he considers the basics. The essentials that he considers necessary before starting are::

  • A setting with which he is intimately familiar
  • A general idea of the nature of the mystery that needs to be solved (along with a good idea of the motive.)
  • A theme
  • One or two important characters in addition to the protagonist.
Robert Campbell's essay on Outlining is also interesting because he doesn't do a rigid outline before he starts. Instead he outlines as he goes. He says: 

I find that by the time I'm a hundred pages into a four-hundred-page book, I have fleshed out a credible plot and have a very good idea of how I will proceed, what dangers to my protagonist will appear along the way, what villainies will impede their progress, and I even have a better than fair notion about who the killer will prove to be--if the book is a standard mystery--or how the book will end--if it is a book that doesn't require the classic revelations.

Clearly, this isn't advice limited to mystery writing, but for a non-mystery writer like myself, it's liberating to know that it's not just Tony Hillerman who's willing to step out onto the ice and trust that he won't end up cold and wet. This will give pantsers the courage.
The essay on Depiction of Violence by Bill Granger is relevant to some types of mystery. While it could be useful outside the genre and thus isn't mystery-centric, I found the advice about describing violence wasn't something I'd seen a dozen other places. That alone makes me bend my rule a little further and deem this useful for mystery writers (and others.) The advice here is succinct, but the examples are extensive. Even more impressive are a couple of personal observations Granger relates from having talked to victims of violence. The way they perceive the violence inflicted on them is revealing and worth knowing for anyone planning such a scene.
Clues, Red Herrings, and other Plot Devices by P.M. Carlson. This was the essay I was looking for. I made a bunch of notes while reading this because the issues dealt with here involved how to think about placing clues and the whole hand-is-faster-than-the-eye tricks you need to write mysteries successfully. For me, this essay was worth the price of admission all by itself.

A logical story of the murder must be laid out early, of course, even though it will be revealed in a less logical order and won't be seen in full until the end of the book. Sensible as this is, those of us who fear writing a mystery for the first time need to hear this.

Other good advice you want to consider before writing the story that I gleaned from this essay include:

  • Who is the victim?
  • Who else wants the victim dead and why?
  • Outline the murder.
  • Outline how other suspects might have committed the murder
  • Who has or can create an alibi?
  • How could the murderer frame someone else?
Easy? No, but at least these questions give a writer a solid framework.

In the Beginning is the End by John Lutz is a good essay about planting clues. Real clues and clues of misdirection. Well worth reading for aspiring mystery writers.
I found some good insights in Edward D. Hoch's essay about writing short mysteries surprisingly useful. For instance, he writes:

The easiest (laziest) sort of clue is the false statement by a suspect, or a statement that reveals knowledge the suspect shouldn't have.

Yes, I'm not above using a lazy clue, because, my objective here is to write a romance, not a full blown mystery. I don't expect my readers to be too demanding on this point. Besides, lazy doesn't mean it won't work.

I don't have any need to write for children, but the essay by Joan Lowery Nixon about Writing Mysteries for Young Readers reminded me that, yes, I did read Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew when I was younger. The essay did a nice job, I think, of pointing out how these mysteries are different from adult mysteries, though the author must have felt that wasn't enough because she then fell back on generic writing advise.

Tess Gerritsen's essay about The Medical Thriller is superb. Even though I don't ever intend to write a book of this sort, I've occasionally had the need to know something about medicine, injuries, or treatments that I didn't know. The resources she lists are worth their weight in gold for any writer but I suspect are crucial if you're writing medical thrillers, and for those of us not lucky enough to be familiar with the path to becoming a doctor, her description of that path and the labels applied to each step along the way will keep a writer from making a bonehead mistake (like confusing an intern with an internist) and losing reader credibility.

Linda Fairstein attempts to do the same for Legal Thrillers that Gerritsen does for medical thrillers, but I found the advice somewhat generic. She does provide an extensive reading list of authors who do it well, however. If I discover a need for procedural details, I'm much more likely to reach for How to Try a Murder by Michael Kirkland. (Yes, it's unfair to compare an essay to an entire book, but in the interest of finding a useful resource, fairness becomes a casualty.)

As one would expect, Ann Rule writes a fascinating essay about what it takes to write about true crimes. If this area interests you, you have bigger cojones than I ever will. Rule took a two-year degree in police science so she would have a better understanding of the evidence. She recommend taking similar courses, and I can't help but think that this would be a huge benefit to anyone writing mysteries (fiction as well as true crime). Rule has ten more pieces of advice for those hoping for a career in this fascinating field, but this is a review, not a summary. If this is for you, this essay is a must read.

The book contains other essays that I found less than useful based on the standard I've set, mostly because the advice offered was not mystery-centric enough even when the examples they use are pulled from mysteries. Even so, some are more worthwhile than others, and taken as a whole, they provide something of an evolutionary history of the mystery genre, which is interesting in its own right. 

For instance, the essay about writing with a partner is not only informative but amusing, but fails my standard because it applies to writing across the board.

In a kind of appendix, the book has an extensive recommended-reading list of books a well-read mystery author will have read as well as other books on writing the contributors find useful. A couple of the links to resource web sites look like they might be treasure troves of useful information as well.
So my final opinion of the book is that, as long as you don't expect too much from it, this is worthwhile book for aspiring mystery writers with some helpful information for those of us who are being dragged, kicking and screaming, by our muse to include elements of a classic mystery.

BTW, Grafton's latest, W is for Wasted, has just been released. It's on my must-read list. Is it on yours?


  1. First, I know writing mysteries is not easy. It takes a lot of knowledge and strategies so enrolling to related courses would help. This essay contains good advice on how to work on with different types of situation in a story. Yes, clues are very important.