After selling more than a hundred novels and teaching writing to
nearly as many students, Jacqueline Diamond shares her knowledge of the craft of
writing fiction in a short, entertaining book, How
to Write a Novel in One (Not-so-easy) Lesson, available for Kindle,
And on Smashwords
in multiple formats.
ďI have read [and discarded] dozens of "how to write"
books; this little gem, however, is a keeper!.ĒóOn-line
reviewer California_Peacekeeper. Five star review.
will be recommending this gem to all of my writing students.Ē--Louella
Nelson, Instructor, University of California, Irvine Extension,
Five star review.
The Dirty Dozen: 12 Ways
Not to Write a Mystery
This blog by Jackie was originally posted courtesy of Anne
R. Allen's website.
Not again. Please, not again.
Struggling to conquer my fear, I reach out and click on
the screen. No! I draw back in horror, the air suddenly heavy in my lungs.
Damn. Not another mystery novel that starts with the
villain slashing up an innocent young woman.
For my 101st published novel, I returned to a genre in
which I hadnít written for more than a decade: the murder mystery. In
preparation, I read or at least scanned the initial pages of numerous
mysteries. Dozens were bypassed based on a few pages. Even those that made
the cut to Buy Now sometimes proved disappointing.
We canít always create unforgettable classics. But we
can avoid mistakes that undermine our hard work and discourage readers.
I wonít dwell on problems common to all forms of
fiction, such as head-hopping and multiple grammatical errors. Todayís
subject is writing mysteries (not thrillers or romantic suspense, although
some of the same cautions apply).
Letís demystify it with a dozen ways not to write a
1. The blonde-dies-at-midnight opening, in which a nasty
villain stalks and murders an innocent woman in the prologue. Maybe this
still sells, but Iíve heard from a lot of readers that theyíre sick of
Of course, itís fine to start with a crime. Just make
it unusual in some way.
hi-Iím-Sally-and-hereís-all-about-my-messed-up-life opening. Cozy
mystery readers do want to meet your engaging heroine as she ventures into
a new town or career, but remember the old advice to show-donít-tell.
Put the reader into a scene. Or, if you must start by
addressing the reader directly, move into action within a page or so
rather than dumping all the back story and introducing us to a long list
Now for clichťs and other problems that can weaken the
rest of the book.
police. How many times have you read a mystery in which the detectives
fixate on the wrong suspect and ignore clues that amateurs spot almost
Todayís police are well trained in investigative
techniques. Do thorough researchóand donít rely on TV shows. I
recommend starting with Forensics for Dummies (2nd Edition) by D.P. Lyle,
MD. Itís thorough yet readable.
4. A main character with no special talents who stumbles
into clues and accidentally solves mysteriesó unless youíre very, very
funny (as with Jana Deleonís delightful Miss Fortune series). One of my
pet peeves is when the heroineís friends insist that only she can catch
the killer, yet the author hasnít established that she has any detective
For my Safe Harbor Medical mystery series, I considered
how my obstetrician hero, Dr. Eric Darcy, could legitimately help solve
murders affecting his patients. I came up with two reasons: patients and
their families trust doctors and share concerns that they might not
disclose to the police. Also, doctors have access to privileged medical
information. Although under certain circumstances it must be shared with
law enforcement, much of the time itís confidential. That doesnít
prevent the doctor from using it to help him figure out who the killer is.
5. Slapdash plotting. A classic puzzle mystery is not
the place for seat-of-the-pants writing, unless youíre willing to revise
extensively. The reader expects genuine clues among the red herrings and a
solution that plays fair. Whatís unfair? Setting up half a dozen
suspects and arbitrarily picking one at the end.
Iím delighted when readers tell me they couldnít
figure out who the killer was in The Case of the Questionable Quadruplet.
I made sure to plant clues, but used sleight-of-hand to keep the
readerís attention focused elsewhere.
6. Giving the villain nothing to do throughout most of
the book. While the main storyline involves your hero or heroine following
a trail of clues, behind the scenes the villain should be pursuing his or
her initial goal and scheming to avoid getting caught.
The result will be a better-developed plot with less
need for arbitrary twists.
7. Ignoring the police after the initial crime scene
investigation. (Iím referring to cozy mysteries, of course, since this
wouldnít happen in a police procedural.) Even though they canít
discuss an ongoing investigation, they arenít just sitting around
waiting for an amateur to solve the case.
Dr. Darcyís best friend, Keith, is a homicide
detective. We hear about his activities both from witnesses heís
interviewed and when he occasionally lets information slip by accident.
Also, my widowed heroís sister-in-law, Tory, is a PI who fills Eric in
about what steps the police would be taking.
8. Focusing so hard on the plot that the characters
remain little more than placeholders, like avatars in a videogame.
Give them issues and conflicts that enliven the novel.
For instance, Tory and Keith recently broke up after he cheated on her.
They clash frequently, and put Eric in the middle.
He has his own personal issues to resolve. These
interweave with the storyline and figure into his responses.
9. Creating a main character so dislikable or foolish
that the reader doesnít care what happens to him or her.
Your main character should be flawed, but if she
consistently lets herself be manipulated or he often drinks himself into a
stupor, readers will lose patience. Even in a humorous mystery, donít
mistake irritating for funny.
Whatever the main characterís occupation, he or she
should act the part. Example: a doctor wouldnít assume that a head
injury is minor. A police officer stays aware of his or her surroundings.
An estate attorney is very precise about the terms of a will.
10. Forgetting that murders are shocking and deaths are
tragic. While the author and reader know the book is a murder mystery and
that corpses are to be expected, the characters should react believably.
11. Showing too much. While putting the reader into the
picture is important, be judicious. Write only those scenes that pack an
emotional punch or in which something changes.
Donít be afraid to summarize the boring stuff, such as
that the heroine talked to three people who had no idea who might have
killed the victim.
12. Neglecting to find your own voice. Even if youíre
writing in a familiar tradition such as noir or light cozy mystery, do it
For me, it was a challenge see the world through the
eyes of a thirty-five-year-old male M.D. I did a lot of research and
considered each scene and development carefully. I was also glad to hear
from readers that, despite the suspenseful tone, Ericís wry observations
sometimes made them laugh, since humor is part of my natural voice.
Iíd like to add a thirteenth suggestion. As a reader,
I appreciate when the author finds an unobtrusive way to recap from time
to time what weíve learned and who might be a suspect. When I set a book
down for day or so, I donít always remember whoís who and what the
hope Iíve helped you write a mystery that readers will love, enjoy and
recommend. Now, go slay Ďem!
For more tips on writing, please see How to Write a Novel in One
(Not-so-easy) Lesson for Kindle
Learn more about the first book in Jackie's Safe Harbor
Medical Mysteries, The
Case of the Questionable Quadruplet.
Top of Page