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.

Author: Sharon Arthur Moore

Sharon Arthur Moore is an intrepid cook, who has lived in every region of the country except the Pacific Northwest and loved every single one of them.

2 thoughts on “The Mystery of Mysteries, Part I”

  1. I’m writing a Mystery, based in New Zealand. I’m being mentored by an established writer. The first thing I had to do was re-write the first chapter and make it dynamic, and this week I’m planting my red herring. So Sharon, you’re spot on, and I’ll be reading your posts with interest!

    1. Thanks so much for stopping in to comment, and best of luck with your mystery. Wiil it be a series? I write many genres and mystery is by far the hardest. I hope you will come back for my once a month (2nd Tuesday) feature on mysteries. Congratulations on your success with that first chapter! I am eager to hear more.

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