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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, Kobo, iTunes and Nook. 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.

ĒI 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 mystery.

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 it.

Of course, itís fine to start with a crime. Just make it unusual in some way.

2. The 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 of characters.

Now for clichťs and other problems that can weaken the rest of the book.

3.  Incompetent 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 immediately?

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 skills.

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 your way.

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 clues were.

I 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 Jackie's BLOGSABOUTWRITING.

Learn more about the first book in Jackie's Safe Harbor Medical Mysteries, The Case of the Questionable Quadruplet.



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Last updated on April 07, 2023