Author Elizabeth Craig on The Elements of Mystery Writing


Today, I am so excited to host mystery author Elizabeth Craig as my guest blogger today.  Elizabeth has a new release, a fabulous blog, and is, by far, the most helpful writing person to follow on Twitter.  If you're not following her, get to it as soon as you finish this post!  Now, I'll turn it over to over to Elizabeth.

Some Basic Elements to Remember When Writing Your Mystery

Thanks so much, Roni, for hosting me today at Fiction Groupie!  I always enjoy reading your blog and all the useful information you provide for writers.

Today I’m going to be genre-specific and talk a little about writing mysteries.  Mysteries aren’t only my favorite genre to read, they’re my favorite to write, too.  I think that’s because you get all the character development and conflict resolution of a novel with the added bonus of a puzzle to solve.

First of all, you need to consider your mystery subgenre. What types of mysteries do you enjoy reading?  If you like a faster-paced book, then consider writing thrillers. Slower-paced and less-gory?  Try writing cozy mysteries.  If you enjoy following along as fictitious detectives crack the case, then try your hand at police procedurals.  Other types of mysteries include noir and hardboiled (private investigator stories.)  Whichever subgenre you focus on, make sure you’re able to identify it in your query or cover letter.

Follow the rules:  Mysteries have to be fair. You’ll want to make sure that you’re letting your reader in on the fun of solving the case alongside your sleuth.  Clues should be in plain sight (no moments where the detective goes “Hmm. Very interesting…” and doesn’t share the information with the reader.)  The murderer should be introduced at the same time as the other suspects—there shouldn’t be any 11th hour introduction to the culprit.

Setting: Frequently, setting plays a role in a mystery novel. The setting can limit the number of suspects if it’s a remote island, for example. For a thriller, you may want a faster-paced, big-city environment. Check and see  how the setting plays a role in your book. If it doesn’t, you may want to consider tweaking your manuscript.

An Engaging Beginning: Have you started out with messy backstory that no one wants to wade through at the beginning of your book? Make sure you’ve lured your reader in from the very beginning so they’ll want to stick with you.  Think twice before using flashbacks at the beginning of your manuscript.

Have You Got A Murder that Happens in First 50 pages or so? Don’t wait until you’re half-way through the book for a body to be discovered. The sooner the investigation is started, the better (as a general rule.) And most mysteries out on the shelves today are murder mysteries. Yes, you can definitely find examples of cat burglar-type mysteries, etc., but usually mystery publishers are looking for murders in the mystery genre.

Sleuth: Is he or she interesting enough for your readers to want to spend time with? What special talents do they have that make them especially capable of solving the crime? Are they easy to talk to? What sets them apart?

Suspects: Do your suspects all have motive, means, and opportunity?  You’ll want to make sure that the suspects’ motive makes sense and is believable.  Have you given the reader a chance to meet each suspect and learn about them? Have your suspects misdirected your readers and provided some red herrings? Have they lied to the sleuth and the reader? Do they have secrets? Do they have some depth?  

Murderer: The killer will need to be fairly clever so he isn’t caught right away. Is your culprit believable but not obvious?  If the murderer ends up being the least likely candidate, have you made his motivation realistic?
Clues:  The clues need to be made available to the reader as well as the detective.  You have to be fair with your reader in providing them the clues, but make sure they don't stand out too obviously in the scene.  If they do, think about pointing the reader's/detective's attention in another direction, quickly.  Providing a distraction is a useful technique. There also needs to be more than one clue.

Red Herrings:  Make sure your red herrings don't last the entire length of the book---that's generally considered unfair.  Red herrings are a good technique to mislead your reader, but  they can be taken too far. If the entire focus of your murder was blackmail and the ensuing investigation is wrapped up with blackmail victims and scurrilous gossip: and then the real motivation ends up being revenge or obtaining life insurance money,  most readers will end up wanting to throw your book in frustration. 

Victims: You know you need at least one. Do you need two? Do you need more? (Remember that some genres, like cozies, generally don’t have a high body count.)

Element of Danger: Does your sleuth or detective know too much? Are they getting too close to the truth? Adding some action or a touch of danger can help with sagging book middles, or can provide an exciting showdown between the killer and the sleuth.

Resolution: Did you catch the bad guys in the end?  Check and see if you’ve tied up all the loose ends that you created.  Did you explain how the sleuth/police followed the clues to deduce the killer?

Need some extra help? Try checking out these sites:
Book Crossroads , which has links to online mystery writing groups, hardboiled slang dictionaries, forensic information, and legal overviews.
A Yahoo Group for writers on firearms : a good place to start your research.'s Classic 12-Chapter Mystery Formula : Reading this can help you see the bare bones of many mystery novels. You don't have to follow it exactly--it's just a guide.
Don't Drop Clues: Plant them Carefully! by Stephen Rogers does a great job covering the types of clues, how to misdirect your reader, and mistakes to avoid.

Elizabeth Spann Craig
Bio:  Elizabeth writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin as Riley Adams, the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink (under her own name), and blogs daily at, which was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2010. Delicious and Suspicious released July 6, 2010.

As the mother of two, Elizabeth writes on the run as she juggles duties as Brownie leader, referees play dates, drives carpools, and is dragged along as a hostage/chaperone on field trips.
Elizabeth Spann Craig (Riley Adams)
Twitter: @elizabethscraig

Elizabeth will be checking in throughout the day, so feel free to ask her your burning questions in the comments!  

**Today's Theme Song**
"Building a Mystery" - Sarah McLachlan
(player in sidebar, take a listen)