Category Archive: Writing Mystery

Masterplots Theater: T is for Thriller

T Masterplots Theater-4Welcome back to Masterplots Theater! Is your story about a someone on a mission to stop a murderer? Great! But do you know whether it’s a thriller or a mystery? If you’re like me, you might have answered, “It’s both — a mystery thriller!” Thing is, I’ve discovered that mysteries and thrillers are not the same, and though each can have elements of the other, it’s helpful to understand the difference. So today’s episode won’t simply be a study of one masterplot, but rather a comparison of two.

Thriller vs Mystery Plot Notes: 

The first main difference between thrillers and mysteries is something I’ve dubbed crime timing: In a mystery, the main crime has already been committed (or happens right at the beginning of the story). In a thriller, the crime (at least the main one) hasn’t yet been committed and isn’t scheduled to take place until the climax of the story, and that creates the impending feeling of doom and intense suspense that comes with the Thriller masterplot.

The second crucial difference is the hero’s goal: in a mystery, the hero (and reader) aims to figure out who committed the crime; in a thriller, the hero strives to stop the villain from committing the crime. And if the hero doesn’t yet know who the villain is, he will at least have an idea of who it could be.

In a thriller, the pacing is fast. Stuff happens in an almost relentless seesaw of suspense and scares that yank the audience’s emotions back and forth and keeps them on the edge of their seats. However, mysteries are more of a controlled slow build as the clues pile up.

The level of danger also differs. In a mystery the hero is not in imminent danger, though the danger increases as the hero gets closer to discovering the identity of the criminal. But in a thriller, the hero is in danger from the beginning.

POV is also quite distinct between these two masterplots. In mysteries, the audience/reader is only privy to what the hero knows. This makes for a lot of close 3rd person POVs in mystery novels. In thrillers, the audience/reader often knows more than the hero. This makes omniscient 3rd person or multiple POVs (including the criminal’s) the perspective of choice for thrillers.

As you may have guessed, different POVs affect plotting significantly. In thrillers, the audience often knows more than the hero and is waiting on pins and needles for bad things to happen to the less-informed hero. Knowing something is going to happen but not when is the key to suspense, which is the thriller’s calling card. Whereas in a mystery, the audience will not know more than the detective and is uncovering the clues as the hero does. That’s not to say that mysteries can’t be suspenseful, but that suspense won’t ramp up until the hero and reader have amassed enough clues to get an idea of what dangers could befall them.

Example to Study:

BookCover-i-hunt-killersI HUNT KILLERS by Barry Lyga is appropriately classified a mystery-thriller, because it’s a little bit of both genres. I used to think it was more thriller, because it’s fast-paced and a difficult book to put down. However, now I would argue it’s more mystery than thriller, and here is why…

· CRIME TIMING: Mystery. Before the first line of the book, a murder has been committed and the main character, Jazz, is watching the police inspect the scene. More murders will happen before the story is over, but there isn’t an imminent big crime that the killer is working towards, at least not to the hero’s knowledge.

· HERO’S GOAL: Mystery. Jazz aims to find out who this new serial killer is before the town starts suspecting him, the son of an incarcerated murderer.

· PACING: Ooo, this is a tough one. Though this book starts off with mystery pacing, it enters thriller pace in the last half. But if I read my own paragraph on pacing, I guess that still means this is a mystery that simply ramps up as the hero gets closer to unmasking the murderer.

· DANGER: Mystery for sure. Jazz is in no personal danger at the beginning of this story. He doesn’t even fit the victim profile! Not until his investigation brings him close to identifying the killer is his life on the line.

· POV: Mystery & Thriller. Like a mystery, Jazz’s POV is close 3rd person and we don’t know anything he doesn’t… until we encounter the killer’s POV. Though the killer doesn’t identify himself (leaving that tidbit for the end mystery solve), having insight into the killer’s mind brings this novel into the thriller realm because we learn what nefarious things the killer is up to and that creates suspense and concern around the fate of the other characters in the book.

Future Research:

When trying to think of examples, I realize I’m most familiar with Mystery-Thriller Hybrids. You can apply the Plot Notes yourself to the following films, because they all lie more on one side than the other, to see how the masterplots fuse together: SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, THE DEPARTED, and SEVEN.

For a more pure look at the Thriller masterplot, Alfred Hitchcock is your man. He’s famous for illuminating how suspense means that the audience knows more than the hero. Start with the film THE 39 STEPS.

Also helpful to note is that other masterplots, especially Pursuit and Horror, fit into the Thriller genre too.

Thank you for joining us today. We hope you enjoyed T is for Thriller and we invite you back tomorrow for our next installment of Masterplots Theater, U is for Unrequited Love.

Now for a show of hands: Have you ever struggled to decide whether you were writing a mystery or a thriller?

For more episodes of Masterplots Theater, check out the list below:

A is for Adventure
B is for Buddy Love
C is for Chosen One
D is for Dystopia
E is for Escape
F is for Fool Triumphant
G is for Gothic
H is for Happily-Ever-After
I is for Institutionalized
J is for Journal
K is for Kinsmen
L is for Love Story
M is for Metamorphosis 

N is for Nemesis
O is for Out of the Bottle
P is for Pursuit
Q is for Quest
R is for Rite of Passage
S is for Sacrifice

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Writing The Heist Novel: 7 Character Tips


The original Ocean’s 11

Heist fiction is not easy to write. It’s fast paced and twisty, and it takes a lot of characters.

Over the last two Wednesday posts, I’ve been throwing open the vault and letting out all crime writing secrets. If you need to catch up, you can get more help for your story with Tips for Writing a Heist and Picking the Loot. This week I’m talking about the characters.

Building any fictional heist crew starts with the same foundation as any other successful team: mutual self-interest and a certain level of professional courtesy. A bit of faith that the other team members know their jobs well enough not to get the rest of the group killed is a serious plus.

So here are 7 tips for creating a likeable gang of thieves.

The Italian Job

The Italian Job

1. Load up on leadership skills: The heist team is a basic pyramid structure. Someone needs to be at the top keeping everyone else in line. For me the path to creating a cheer-worthy heist crew started with a capable leader. I recommend packing this main character with all the attributes of a great boss. Make them smart, organized, and a good communicator. They should know how to delegate, how to take input from others, but be willing to make the difficult decisions.

2. Give the crew better than average looks and a lot of charisma: Who doesn’t love the idea of the sophisticated cat burglar? Having good-looking characters often plays into the story. You usually see it in the form of the decoy, or as the romantic subplot. The team needs to have enough charm to talk their way out of any sticky situation.

3. Shun the guns: This is critical for helping to create likeability. You don’t want the crew to engage in boundary crossing behaviors. No killing people.  Make sure the crooks fight with their equals, or someone perceived as stronger. No picking on someone who is smaller and weaker. If the likeable crew gets aggressive, it’s after suitable provocation.

4. Show some emotion: A good heist boss shows he cares by engaging with the team, noticing their good work and helping them solve their problems. The team mirrors this affection back toward the leader in the form of respect, playful teasing and distress when something goes wrong.

15. Establish moral limits. Everyone needs a line they will not cross. Maybe your group only targets other bad guys. It’s hard to feel sorry for victims if they’re even bigger crooks than the heist team. The team can steal for a good cause. Or revenge can be the motive. What the crooks steal and why they steal it are two huge factors in creating sympathy for the heist team. who's Minding the Mint

6. Don’t skimp on humor: A touch of awkwardness, some goofy pranks, anything from fast one-liners to someone falling out of a chair, can create a few laughs and make the characters, even crooks, seem more friendly and approachable. It’s not mandatory the story drip with the funny stuff, but a heist needs some tension breaking moments.

7. Include negatives to overcome: The nature of an anti-hero is they evolve. Don’t forget to throw in a few negative behaviors for your characters to conquer. Maybe one of your team is always watching for signs of a double-cross, it makes them jumpy and short-tempered. Later you can reveal the secret of a past partner’s betrayal and show them lowering their guard and learning to trust again.

Since I’m prone to writing stories with lots of characters, I’ve written a few posts on building large character casts. If you haven’t written anything with 20 or more characters, you might find one of my other posts helpful:  Assembly Required or The Do’s and Don’ts of Getting a Group Together.

Casting my characters was the only time I found watching films useful. That was when I learned heists and capers are surprisingly formulaic films. And they share a large number of trope characters. Have some fun, grab a stack of DVDs and a notebook. If you find a new way to make heist characters more likeable, please share your idea in the comments area.


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Writing a Heist: 5 Tips for Picking the Perfect Loot

Collection_of_Amethyst_GemstonesAs I mentioned last week, I’ve amassed a huge collection of tips on writing a heist. Now, I’m throwing open the vault and letting all my research secrets out. I hope these tips can help my fellow crime writers craft the caper of their dreams.

Today it’s all about: The Loot!
The prize in a heist story is often woven through the whole plot. Never pick the loot item without careful consideration. This item will influences the crime planning. It will impact the size of the heist team. It changes what skills the characters need to finish the job. Picking the wrong item can lead to unexpected repercussions or complications for the plot. While picking the right loot helps generate excitement and expectation with the reader.

Here are my five tips for choosing the right loot for any story.

1. Make use of recognizable items:
Using real treasures creates reader recognition, and minimizes the amount of narrative the writer needs to include. A gold bar, or a briefcase full of paper money looks pretty much the same in every situation, and even if the reader hasn’t seen one in person they’ve seen enough on TV to create a clear mental image. The work of every major painter has been reproduced enough to trigger a recognition response in most readers. Hunt museum catalogs or subscribe to Christie’s auction house to have loot inspiration sent right to your inbox.

Remember, if you pick a real item, don’t pick something too well-known, like the Mona Lisa. This makes it harder for the reader to buy into your story.

2. Steal back what was illegally acquired:
War spoils, gangster stockpiles and plundered Inca gold all find their way into heist books for a reason, they don’t require much research time. Any one can dig up the basic history of a famous stolen treasure in under an hour. Plus if the reader Googles the item, they get the benefit of feeling part of a real mystery. The Monument’s Men maintains a lost art database, you might want to look there for some inspiration.

Another benefit of using a lost historical treasure is they routinely show up in the most unlikely places, basements of libraries, the walls of demolished buildings and even flea markets. This near constant reappearance of headline grabbing finds helps build creditability. After the fall of the Romanoff Dynasty about 52 Faberge eggs disappeared. Yet one showed up just last year, mistaken as a piece of scrap metal. It’s since been valued at 25 million US dollars.

3. Portability, the kryptonite of many a good heist:
Always consider the size of the loot. Bulky items need larger teams, more complicated transportation, and create specific types of story problems. Transporting a Ming vase or an old painting is not easy. You can’t just throw it into a box filled with foam peanuts. Cutting an old masterwork from the frame and rolling it up will greatly diminish the painting’s value. Just removing a painting from the climate controls of a gallery can damage it permanently. Packing a rare painting for shipment is a huge multi-step process.

Consider weight in your logistics. You can’t board planes, or cross international boarders easily with an overnight bag full of Krugerands. For one thing gold is heavy. According to the US mint, a standard 7 inch gold bar weights in at a hefty 27.5 pounds or 12.5 kilograms.

Granted you don’t need much gold to generate a major prize. A ten oz Credit Suisse bar was selling for $12,745.00 US dollars when I checked.

4. The allotment can get sticky:
Once the team finishes the job, they divide the spoils. Taking a single painting means the team must stay together while arranging for the sale of the item. Great if you want to include lots of scenes featuring group dynamics, the fighting, the scheming and the backstabbing. Bad if your heist takes place at the end of the novel and you want to wrap things up quickly. If you plan on using a large team of thieves, several smaller items, like a bag of flawless diamonds will made the split easier. Learn more about the four Cs of diamonds.

5. The drawbacks of unconventional loot:
At one time information was a heist mainstay, but not so much anymore. Information systems change in the blink of an eye. No one loads files on disks or takes photos on microfilm any more. With digital images, wireless internet and more making information highly portable, arranging a heist to recover data is tricky at best. Also chasing information doesn’t cause that much heart pounding excitement. Turn up the heat in unique ways, like by encrypting the data.

I think it’s important to figure out the nature of the loot early in the heist planning. I asked myself all sorts of questions about logistic and group size, before selecting my item.

Next Wednesday I’ll show you how to build a heist crew. This will include tips on how to make your team sympathetic, if not downright loveable, characters.


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The Mystery of Mysteries: 11+ Elements in a Private Investigator Mystery

QuestionsI don’t know anyone who would call a private investigator mystery a cozy. Now there might be some, but I am unaware of them. However, Jinx Schwartz has a series with a snarky female PI that is tightly plotted and fun to read. Similarly, in Sue Grafton’s series, the violence is not graphic. I guess the lesson is, there’s variety in the sub-genre of PI mysteries, too. No surprise there.

In my first post in this series, I dealt with the basics of mystery writing. In subsequent posts I’ve given specific elements that appear in the myriad sub-genres. The Private Investigator/Private Eye/PI mystery has its own distinguishing features.

PI mysteries, like all other sub-genres, must have an intriguing puzzle to solve along with the detective. Red herrings are not only allowed but are de rigueur. Readers like a challenge but they must have access to the same clues as the detective. Deus ex machina, an outside intervention with no previous story connection, is not a literary device used anymore.

The PI mystery is not an emotional mystery like cozies. There is a distance due to lack of familiarity with victim and criminal. The language may seem brusque, abrupt, and non-emotional. Just the facts, Ma’am. Often loners, these detectives prefer the unattached life. In addition:

1) The private investigator is often, but not always, an ex-police officer who is for hire by individuals.
2) The private investigator is trying to solve the crime outside the bounds of the legal authorities, often in tandem, but not working together.
3) Private investigator mysteries fall into a category of hard-boiled or soft-boiled mysteries. Hard-boiled mysteries are usually set in cities, portray realistic violence, depict capital crimes, and feature serious-crime characters. Often the violence is on-stage. Soft-boiled mysteries convey a lighter tone even in the middle of serious crimes. The detective may display a sardonic or sarcastic sense of humor.
4) The urgency of the ticking clock to solve the crime(s) is more pressing than in cozies.
5) Often, the reader walks through the crime scene in private investigator mysteries.
6) Typically, there is a mistrust of and conflict with authority (law enforcement and those in charge). Conflict arises from having different bosses and interests.
7) The PI is often viewed as a vigilante righting wrongs for altruistic as much as monetary interests.
8) PI novels are often told in first person, particularly true if hard-boiled, with spare language.
9) The rules of polite society do not apply to PIs. They drink too much, sleep around (they’re mostly male), violate rules they think stupid or not applicable to them, and will do whatever it takes to bring the bad guy to justice.
10) Private investigator mysteries often feature acts of physicality by the PI, sometimes of the “Mission Impossible” variety.
11) While there is often an ethical core, PIs are not the type people you want your child to marry.

If you think you might have it in you to write a private investigator mystery, do some serious reading of authors in the genre. The tone is definitely different.  I hesitate to classify the following authors as hard-boiled or soft-boiled since I have come across conflicting perspectives. For hard-boiled, however, a few classic authors are indisputable: Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammett, and Mickey Spillane.

Try the following (listed in alpha order) and see where you’d slot them using the criteria above. As a side bar, it would appear that if you want to write a PI mystery, use a pen name starting with M or P!

Lawrence Block

Michael Connelly

Janet Evanovich

Tana French

Sue Grafton

Martha Grimes

Joan Hess

Sharyn McCrumb

Walter Mosley

Sara Paretsky

Robert B. Parker

James Patterson

Jinx Schwartz

No websites because deceased, but good reads:

Chester Himes

Ross Macdonald

John D. MacDonald

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The Mystery of Mysteries: 10 Elements of the Caper Mystery

QuestionsIn the dictionary “caper” is to “dance or skip about in a lively or playful way.” The caper mystery is the one that plays most with the mystery genre definition.

Capers fit into the cozy mystery category. Think of the movies, “Topkapi” or “Ocean’s 11.” O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief” is a classic caper short story. The TV series “Leverage” was a caper show. Humor, audacity, cleverness and adventure are hallmarks of capers.

Capers include one or more crimes that are open to the reader; they happen in plain view. Often the crooks are a bunch of colorful misfits who somehow come together and pull it off. Murder is rare in capers, but the crime is outrageous and outsized for the talents of the criminals. Typically, the planning and execution of the crimes like theft, kidnapping, or swindling is the focus, not the solving of the crime. Very often in caper mysteries, the police and other authorities are depicted as inept and bumbling.

woman hackerThe crooks are typically likable and either plan something too big, or plan too elaborately for a simple crime. The squabbling among the various ensemble members accounts for some of the tension and humor. Each person has a specific role, so they can’t just dump someone who is hard to get along with.

On occasion, a caper involves a single character who must perform all the actions an ensemble crew would, but it is more common to have a cast for the crime.

If you want to try your hand at caper mystery, re-read the cozy mystery elements from above and add these elements:

1) Plan the framing story for the caper. The motivation can be for good or for the money. It is still illicit, but the greater good might be the rationale.

2) Choose the number of crimes and decide how they are related to one another.

3) Plan the caper and the steps needed to pull it off.

4) One hustler is the criminal mastermind, the “brains” of the operation. The main character has a shady background. There can be co-brains if needed.

5) Identify the ensemble needed to pull off the caper and the special talent each has. They are likely low-level crooks.

6) Select contrastive and complementary traits for the ensemble to build in tension and humor.

7) Identify points in the steps to pulling off the caper where it could go awry. Something ALWAYS goes awry and sometimes many things do.

8) Be able to write funny dialogue and scenes that include tension.

9) The main character perpetrator is most often the POV character.

10) Create an ensemble crew the reader roots for, or at least is sympathetic to.

Plotting a caper mystery requires the author not only to understand how basic mysteries are constructed, but to layer on additional elements. I personally think capers are among the more sophisticated and difficult of all the mystery sub-genres. Just getting the tone right is a major challenge in this sub-genre. Creating likeable crooks takes skillful writing.

But maybe the caper mystery is just right for you. Try it. You might like it!

Capers for you to read:

Lawrence Block, Burglars Can’t be Choosers (and others in the “Burglar” series)

Timothy Hallinan, The Fame Thief

Carl Hiassen, Tourist Season

S.A. Stolinsky, Counterfeit Lottery

Donald Westlake, What’s the Worst that Could Happen? (and many more)


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The Mystery of Mysteries: 16 Steps to Writing the Cozy Mystery

QuestionsThe traditional mystery is sometimes referred to as a cozy mystery, as I explained in last month’s The Mystery of Mysteries post on the 12 steps to writing a traditional mystery. However, that seems to be more of a U.K. designation. In the U.S., cozy mysteries have special elements that differentiate them from traditional mysteries.

Cozy mysteries are among the most popular of the sub-genres. I suspect a large part of the appeal is that the focus is on the crime solved by every day folks like us who reluctantly participate and solve the mystery using common sense.

Also, since most cozies are series books, readers have lots of time to engage with characters across books. They can become quite familiar to fans who eagerly compete with the amateur sleuth to solve the crime first. Most cozies also let the reader learn new information since they tend to be theme-oriented.

Many of the elements of the traditional mystery appear in other sub-genres of mystery. Cozies are a variant on the theme. In the list below, the first seven elements are the same in cozies and traditional mysteries, but to make your mystery a cozy, you need to add in nine more elements.

1) Cozy mysteries are always a puzzle to solve.

2) All clues are revealed to the reader but obscured with red herrings and false leads.

3) Cozy mysteries feature a murder (most often) or a crime of great substance.

4) The victim typically is not admirable, thus the crime, if not justifiable, is often understandable.

5) The murder or other significant crime often occurs very near the beginning, in the opening pages. But not always. Cozies can introduce the murder well into the story.

6) Murders take place “off stage” so there is little or no explicit violence or gore described.

7) Cozy mysteries use plot devices to further the confusion of clues, suspects, and timelines.

8) The reluctant and very clever amateur sleuth uses common sense to solve the mystery, and is drawn into solving the crime by circumstances.

9) The villain is clever and smart but not equal to the sleuth.

10) Cozy mysteries are most often set in a small town or rural setting so you get to know residents across books.

11) Almost all cozy mysteries are a series.

12) The cozy mystery series usually has a theme or an occupation or a hobby to tie it together.

13) Cozies involve more active crime solving than traditional mysteries. Readers want more than somebody being interviewed. Cozies have more action and dangerous situations. However, they are still considered light reading in the mystery realm.

14) Whereas cozies are generally G-Rated, they have evolved to where there may be mild cursing and the mention of sex “off stage”.

15) Cozies often have humorous components and/or quirky characters.

16) Cozy mysteries often have punny titles tied to the theme/occupation/hobby of the series. My culinary mysteries for example have titles of Mission Impastable, Prime Rib and Punishment, Potluck, Cooks in the Can, and Ancient Grease.


If you want to start writing cozies, here are some cozy mystery authors to get you started. Note the elements as you read.

Multiple Series:

Sharyn McCrumb

Carolyn G. Hart

Joan Hess

Elizabeth Peters

Nancy Pickard

Margaret Maron

Rhys Bowen

Hank Phillipi Ryan

And oh, so many more!

Single Series:

Diane Mott Davidson (caterer, culinary)

Kate Ross (1820’s London)

Jerrilyn Farmer (caterer, culinary)

Julie Spencer-Fleming (Episcopal priest)

Jan Burke (reporter)

Jacqueline Winspear (early 20th century psychologist sleuth)

Katherine Hall Page (caterer, culinary)

This is just scratching the cozy surface! Search Amazon “BOOKS” with your favorite pastime + cozy mystery and see what turns up.

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The Mystery of Mysteries: 12 Steps to Writing Traditional Mysteries

QuestionsLast month, I gave you some homework to be prepared for writing your mystery. If you haven’t yet completed it, there’s still time. To write the mystery that fits your needs, you need to answer these questions.

Now on to today’s category: the traditional mystery.

Traditional mysteries are reminiscent of mysteries written during the Golden Age of mysteries in the 1920s and 30s. Prime examples of traditional mystery authors are Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and P.D. James. They, and many others, popularized the genre in Great Britain, and then traditional mysteries “crossed the pond”. Traditional “soft boiled” mysteries soon morphed into “hard boiled” mysteries in the U.S. (Think Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald.)

In Great Britain, traditional mysteries were typically set in rural areas in country homes, containing everyone from the upper crust to the scullery maid, adding in-bred suspicion of those both within and out of one’s class. A belief in the necessity to maintain order and morality runs throughout, and the mystery upsets that stability. Sleuths work with authorities to restore order and impose justice. The reader works alongside the sleuth, using the same information the sleuth has, and readers should arrive at the solution at the same time as the sleuth.

Plot devices in traditional mysteries were common. One of the most popular is the “locked room” in which it is impossible for the crime to have happened, but it did. Authors also use false identities/twins, muddled timelines, conflicting testimony, hidden motives, camouflaging the murder weapon, the least-likely-suspect, false clues, red herrings, disguises, discredited witnesses, staging/faking death to divert suspicion, co-conspirators to detract, setting a “deathtrap” to divert suspicion, amnesia, mistaken identity, clues in plain sight, “copy cat” crimes, anonymous poison pen letter, room that kills, message from the victim, and staged to appear supernatural. Of course there are others. Why not put some in the comments section below so we all learn?

Some people lump “traditional” and “cozy” mysteries into one category, but today’s cozy mysteries almost always have a theme or occupation for the sleuth that runs through the series. And most all cozies are series, but not all traditional mysteries are series. I’ll deal with specific cozy mystery elements next month.

To be considered a traditional mystery, certain elements predominate. Here are twelve steps to writing a traditional mystery:

1) Traditional mysteries are always a puzzle to solve.
2) All clues are revealed to the reader but obscured with red herrings and false leads.
3) These mysteries feature a murder (most often) or a crime of great substance.
4) The crime takes place within a “closed circle”. Suspects and victim know one another. (Sometimes they are even sequestered when the crime happens. Remember And Then There were None?)
5) The highly-intellectual sleuth is not a professional and is part of the community. Often the sleuth is of the upper class and is a well-balanced personality.
6) The power of reasoning is trusted to restore order and solve the puzzle.
7) Murders take place “off stage” so there is little or no explicit violence or gore described.
8) The murdered person is not typically admirable, thus the murder seems more justifiable.
9) The traditional mystery uses plot devices to further the confusion of clues, suspects, and timelines.
10) The language of sleuth and suspects is closer to literary than colloquial and reflects social status.
11) The villain is the intellectual equal of the sleuth.
12) The murder/significant crime occurs very near the beginning often in the opening pages.

Many of the elements of the traditional mystery are foundational to other sub-genres of mystery. Once you understand the traditional mystery, variants on the theme are easier to write. The first paragraph of this post lists the types of mysteries I’m taking apart for you. Next month: how to write cozy mysteries and how they are the same and different from traditional mysteries.

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The Mystery of Mysteries: Part 2

QuestionsIn last month’s post, I described how to pay attention to genre elements when writing a novel. Certainly I don’t mean to imply there are actual rules for how to write mysteries. I think the number of mystery subgenres is evidence enough of that!

And just how many mystery subgenres are there? Four. No, no, thirteen. No, I count fourteen. It’s obvious there are twenty-one mystery subgenres. Huh? Yep. There is no definitive answer. But how can that be?

The number of mystery subgenres depends upon who is counting, and how they count. Those inclined to analyze mystery subgenres down to the gnat’s derriere come up with more than those who lump categories with like characteristics together.

The blogger who says four calls the subgenres: cozies, soft-boiled, hard-boiled, and police procedurals. The blogger who lists 21 separates series mysteries from doctor mysteries from furry sleuths, and so on.

So what’s a writer to do? Does it really matter how many subgenres there are? Well, back in the day, it did matter. Libraries and bookstores relied on a reference source that told them where to shelve a book dependent upon the subgenre’s descriptors provided by publishers. And those descriptors were prescribed by the reference source. Choose from their list, and everybody knew where to put your book.

Unsurprisingly, Amazon (and other on-line booksellers) upended that system. If you go to Amazon to find my culinary mystery, Mission Impastable, you find several increasingly small subcategories like: Books>Mystery, Thriller & Suspense>Mystery>Cozy>Culinary. On-line booksellers want to help you find the book you want. They’ll subcategorize as much as an author wants (you tell them the descriptors).

So how many mystery subgenres are there? It probably depends on how many authors are creating newer sub genre headers.

But for the purposes of our upcoming discussions, I am going to declare, for this post, that there are Seven Subgenres of Mystery. Each month I will describe the elements of one type and how to write a mystery that fits it.

My categories are: Traditional, Cozies, Urban Fantasy/Steampunk, Capers, Private Investigator, Police Procedurals, and True Crime. Within each of these categories are subcategories with their own characteristics. Won’t this be fun?

But before we launch into the Seven Subgenres of Mystery series, let me remind you that a mystery doesn’t have to have a murder. Most do, that’s true, because, as with all novels, you want the stakes high. And life and death are very high stakes. But, if all mysteries were murders we wouldn’t need to use the descriptor “murder mystery”.

A mystery is, at heart, a puzzle to be solved. Not always a crime, but usually. Not always a murder, but very often. Who did what, when, how, and why is the task a mystery solves.

You may already know what kind of mystery you want to write. Terrific! Go for it!

But if you are unsure still, here’s some homework to get you prepped:
1) What kind of sleuth interests you most? (capable amateur, bumbling amateur, capable professional, bumbling professional, or other)
2) What are your sleuth’s special abilities/talent? Limitations that might interfere with crime solving?
3) What kinds of crimes interest you most? (murder, theft, medical, off-world, historical anomaly, kidnapping, dark psychological, or other)
4) Where would you like to set your mystery? (small town, rural, big city)

Once you have those elements in mind, writing the mystery becomes a matter of organizing it all in a logical fashion so that the reader can solve the mystery along with the sleuth.

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The Mystery of Mysteries, Part I


QuestionsIf you search for “how to write a mystery”, 43,900,000 links pop up. It’s no mystery then to conclude that lots of people write about writing mysteries.

Maybe there are so many links because there are so many kinds of mysteries. Maybe there are so many links because more people write about writing mysteries than actually write them. Maybe there are so many links because this is the hardest of all the genres to write.

Who cares? The point being, if you want to begin writing mysteries, there is lots of help out there.

And that isn’t even to mention the courses on mystery writing! Or the books! Oh, the books! I’m going to do a future post on my mystery writer’s bookshelf.

The first link I got with the search parameters above was from (Have you noticed how the Wiki people are taking control of the information highway? Now THERE’S something to investigate in a mystery novel!)

This site has 10 steps. None of them are anything you haven’t already seen, done, or thought of. Step 4: Write out the plot of your story. See how helpful?

Not to diss the site, but generic help won’t help.

Here’s Step 3: Include a red herring. But what the heck does a red herring involve? Do you need more than one? How do you plant red herrings? Can you have too many? Not enough?

One challenge for you is finding resources at your level whether you’re a neophyte or a multi-published mystery writer. When I taught kids how to write mysteries, I did begin with general principles of novels: the right number of interesting characters, a clever puzzle to be solved, and so on. Many of these Internet resources could be used with youngsters learning the essentials of fiction with a layer of mystery.

But not for you.

Of course, the first step in learning how to write a mystery is to read mysteries. Duh! Of course, Sharon, I can hear you saying. EVERYBODY knows that. And EVERYBODY knows you read the type of mystery you want to write. So if you want to do culinary mysteries (like I do), you would benefit more from reading culinary mystery authors than books about hard-boiled female private investigators.

To emphasize: You can learn elements from any mystery, but if you want to emulate a particular subgenre, identify the elements that separate, say, Diane Mott Davidson’s plot lines from those of Sue Grafton. There are similarities and there are major differences.

One of the best revision courses I took online included about 45 of us who were all writing different genres and subgenres. I wondered how in the heck the instructor was going to engage us. Culinary mysteries are sooo not fantasy. And sweet romances are 180 degrees from science fiction.

Here’s how she pulled it off. We had assignments over the six weeks, like all these courses, and the assignments were generic. For example, we all worked on opening hook paragraphs. But the genius of the class was the use of mentor texts.

Each of us had to submit a recent novel in our subgenre for the instructor to approve. Once approved, we began the homework. The “opening hook” assignment read something like:

  • Authors need to engage the reader from the get-go. There are a number of techniques to do that. For example, an opening paragraph might begin with one or more of the following: action or danger, a foreshadowing of danger, a surprising situation, a unique character, shocking or witty dialogue, a question, a strong emotion, or something totally unexpected.
  • Read the first paragraph of your mentor text to identify the strategy(ies) the author used to open the book. Make a list of what you know about the characters and situation of the book at this point. Write what questions the opening raised in your mind. How did the first paragraph “hook” you so you’d keep reading?
  • Read the first paragraph of your book. Identify the strategy(ies) you used to open the book. Make a list of what your reader will learn about the characters and situation of your book from this paragraph. What questions might the reader have about what is coming up in your book? How did the first paragraph hook the reader to keep reading? Or not.
  • Submit the opening paragraph of your mentor text and your analysis. Submit the opening paragraph of your book and your analysis.
  • Re-write your opening paragraph to reflect changes based on your analysis. Why did you make the changes you made?

Pretty good assignment, eh? I find myself to this day noting how authors do what they do in the books they write. I was re-programmed to read like a writer, not read like a reader. That means, if I want to enjoy a book, I have to turn off my analytical brain (as best I can–once re-wired, always re-wired) and read for pleasure. Then I will re-read a book to go all analytical again. If a book is well-written, I try to parse out why in that second reading.

Part II of writing mysteries will be coming up later. I’ll share some specifics of what I do and how well it works for me.

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Nancy Drew: Detective…and Writing Teacher?

QuestionsI was hooked on mysteries with my first Nancy Drew (Carolyn Keene). Who wouldn’t want to be her, zipping around in her little red car with her girlfriend, George, and boyfriend, Ned? She was intrepid, daring, smart, and very independent. In the 1950s, when I was reading Nancy Drew books, there weren’t many examples for preteens of strong, smart girls/women figuring out things as the men tagged along. She solved things without being saved. She used her wits to outwit culprits above her punching weight.

About Nancy Drew, Wikipedia says:

Feminist literary critics have analyzed the character’s enduring appeal, arguing variously that Nancy Drew is a mythic hero, an expression of wish fulfillment, or an embodiment of contradictory ideas about femininity.

It’s interesting to note that a number of high-profile women (e.g., Laura Bush, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Hillary Clinton) cite the influence of Nancy Drew on their formative years. Nancy Drew mysteries, published from 1930-2003, positively affected generations of women.

Nancy not only introduced me to action-taking women and the mystery genre, but also I learned, in a rudimentary way, how to write. Yes, Nancy Drew, writing teacher. Of course, she didn’t set out to be that, but the elements of genre writing were clearly demonstrated.

Genre fiction has been criticized for being clichéd, predictable, and hackneyed. But that might not be so bad for a youngster who reads a lot. Reading lots of genre books implants, subliminally, elements that are harder to teach out of context. In reading genre fiction, it is as if the young reader internalizes elements of fiction without being aware of it, and before having labels to attach.

Compare the internalization of fiction elements to learning to drive. In America, the majority of young children and teens have the opportunity to observe driving elements thousands of times before ever getting behind the wheel. They are easier to teach how to drive because of those observations.

Just imagine how hard it would be to explain all the components of driving to someone who had never seen it done. Adjust the mirror before engaging the engine. Huh? Put on your right turn signal far enough in advance to let others know a turn is coming. Uh, how far is that? Three pedals and two feet in a stick shift car. How does that work?

By experiencing elements of character development, for example, as recurring facets as well as deepening aspects over books, the young reader learns what it takes to give a character unique as well as universal appeal. From Nancy, I learned there need to be distinguishing traits or tics that separate characters one from another. I learned that I had to make my characters likeable but flawed so the reader can relate. I learned that in series writing, keeping characters familiar but still fresh results from testing characters in new ways. All from Nancy Drew!

Now, did I recognize that at the time? Heck, no! I was a kid reading for the mystery, thinking along with her, trying to solve it as fast as she did. But later, as I created my own nascent writings, I found elements revealing themselves there.

I am reflective by nature and reflecting on how to create interesting characters others would like to know led me to the revelation of the origins of my earliest writing lessons. Those books, and others from my youth, imprinted me, in the psychological sense, with a basic understanding of the fiction elements of plot, setting, conflict resolution, and character development.

That wasn’t enough, of course. I have taken classes, discussed character development with critique groups, and read books and articles about character development. But it all began with Nancy.

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