Dr. Nicole Basaraba

Assistant Professor in Digital Humanities, TCD

Nicole Basaraba


Tips for Writing a Traditional Murder Mystery by Elizabeth S. Craig

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Welcome to Writers’ Uni-Verse-City (or WUVC for short because every university has an acronym), a place where writers/bloggers can meet to discuss the craft of writing in the Internet age. WUVC will involve independent research, setting a curriculum and hopefully finding other participants (like you – readers/bloggers/writers) to: chip in, give tips, suggest books and other materials for study, teach me the ways of the warrior writer, and offer to guest post here at Uni-Verse-City (contact: [email protected]).

I am pleased to welcome guest, Elizabeth S. Craig here to kick off the Literary Genre Blog Series running through February, March and into April, and give us a clue as to how to write a traditional murder mystery. Please enlighten us Elizabeth. 

I think mysteries are fun to write. Not only that, but they’re fairly easy to write. Although the structure of these stories sometimes scares off new writers, it’s actually the structure itself that makes the books so easy. There’s a necessary pattern of events to mysteries that ensure that a writer won’t be wondering what to write next.

Know what you’re writing: There are many mystery subgenres. Some of the most popular are police procedural, thriller, and cozy/traditional, but there are many others, including hardboiled and private investigator. There are different reader expectations, publisher expectations, and word counts for each of these genres. The differences could really be a whole post in itself. Writer’s Digest has a nice list of mystery subgenres. Since I write traditional, or cozy, mysteries, I’ll give tips on writing those…but much of this advice also works for police procedural mysteries (the difference being that police procedural investigations are performed by the pros…and they’re done by amateur sleuths in traditional/cozy mysteries).

There must be as many ways to write a mystery as there are mystery writers. I’ll just share what works for me.

Starting off: I like to start out with my victim. Who is this person and who might have wanted to kill him or her? Answering these questions will provide much of your story. Is he pleasant or unpleasant? If he’s pleasant, there needs to be a reason why more than one person might have wanted to kill him (is he two-faced? Does he have a secret life?) If he’s unpleasant, why should the reader care about his murder? Consider having one of the suspects be someone the reader will care about—and wants to keep reading to make sure he didn’t do it. Or consider having the death put the likeable protagonist in a bind of some kind…ensuring the reader keeps reading to see if it all works out in the end.

Introducing the suspects: To keep from having a lot of backstory, I like to have at least one scene where some of the suspects interact with the future victim. This gives the sleuth, and the reader, an opportunity to see and get some feeling for why the victim might be unpopular and who could be considered a suspect. It also gives the reader time to get a feel for the victim.

You’ll probably want to keep your number of suspects fairly low to keep from introducing too many characters. My current editor prefers four or fewer. I’ve written five suspects before, but I’m fond of having the most likely suspect get murdered halfway through the book.

Your sleuth: You’ll want your sleuth to be someone the reader can relate to on some level—or at least be interested in, if they don’t relate. If your sleuth isn’t a professional, consider giving a good explanation why he or she is involved with the investigation. Was the victim a relative or friend? Did the sleuth discover the body? Is the sleuth or the sleuth’s friend or family member a suspect?

Our readers are solving the case alongside the sleuth, as a sort of invisible sidekick. You’ll want to provide your readers will all the clues and information that your sleuth receives.

The investigation: Your sleuth will make the rounds and question your suspects. It makes things interesting if your suspects tell both lies and truths. Everyone has something to hide, after all—their secret doesn’t have to be that they killed the victim. Maybe they’re concealing a relationship or maybe they’re protecting another suspect or someone who isn’t yet revealed as a suspect. The sleuth will need the opportunity to hear or discover the motive, means, and opportunity of each suspect.

The middle of your book: Book middles are frequent trouble spots for writers. Sometimes we’ve lost steam or have lost sight of where we were going with our story. For a mystery writer, however, the middle of the book frequently means either another dead body or a close call. Perhaps even a close call for the sleuth. This sets off a string of more investigating and interviews with the remaining suspects.

A word about clues and red herrings: Throughout your book, you’ll want to scatter bits of information that suggest different suspects as the murderer. When these bits of information truly point to the killer, they’re clues…when they send the sleuth off in the wrong direction or when they point to a suspect who isn’t the killer, they’re red herrings.

When you drop a clue for your readers, you’re definitely going to want to deflect attention from it. You could distract the reader from the clue or make the clue seem insignificant in comparison to something else. Maybe you could overshadow the clue with a red herring that seems very important—perhaps information about the victim’s will is leaked and the reader learns she left all of her money, unexpectedly, to one particular suspect (who is in dire need of funds.)

Red herrings should be fair to the reader, too. It can be frustrating when a red herring lasts from the book’s beginning to its end and then peters out when the sleuth realizes it’s completely unimportant. It might be better to lay many red herrings and have new ones crop up when others are disproved.

Wrapping it all up: Most mysteries end with the sleuth learning the murderer’s identity and an arrest of the killer. You’ll want the sleuth to piece together all the clues to name the killer at the same time your readers do. It’s good for the sleuth to catalog the clues at some point to let the reader know if there’s anything they missed (and to state exactly what it was that made them figure out the murderer.)

Are you a mystery reader or writer? What elements of mystery writing have I left out?

Elizabeth’s latest book Hickory Smoked Homicide released November 1. Elizabeth writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin/Berkley (as Riley Adams), the Southern Quilting mysteries (2012) for Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink. She blogs daily at Mystery Writing is Murder, which was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2010 and 2011.
Writer’s Knowledge Base–the Search Engine for Writers
Twitter: @elizabethscraig

For a listing of the upcoming guest posts and genres, see this post.

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37 thoughts on “Tips for Writing a Traditional Murder Mystery by Elizabeth S. Craig

  1. All good stuff! I would only add; incorporate tension (or micro-tension) on every page. Readers want to be asking what happens next, with the characters, plots/subplots, etc. If they’re bored, they’ll stop reading 🙂

  2. Nicole – Thanks so much for hosting Elizabeth.

    Elizabeth – Such good ideas!! I think you’ve hit it on the proverbial head when it comes to knowing your subject. People want a story to feel authentic. I’d also add that it helps if the characters have realistic attitudes and motives. For instance, it’s authentic in a small town for people to know each other’s business, and that can really add to a plot. In the impersonal city, one has to create a special context for people to have that kind of knowledge of everyone’s business.

    1. Margot–The setting can really play a part in the story, can’t it? And you’re so right–small town gossip really helps an amateur sleuth to get information on the case and the suspects. In a city setting, that’s going to be harder to pull off, realistically.

  3. I’ve never written a mystery novel but I love reading them. That being said, I write what I like to read so there might be a mystery WIP in my future! I’m saving this post for the reference when the time comes. Fabulous points, Elizabeth. Thank you both, Elizabeth and Nicole!

  4. A fellow member on a forum happens to wonder about this same question. I’m going to link this there.

    Oh, and I read “The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery” recently. Had you read that?

  5. I always learn from you and save your posts. I love reading mysteries and writing them. I think a person should write what they like to read.


  6. Great nuts and bolts tips here, Elizabeth! You’re right that we have to beware of red herrings that only annoy the reader. Also–writers with literary proclivities need to remember mystery readers are looking for clues in everything, so if you wax poetic about the victim’s hair color–you’d better make her hair color play an important role in the plot. If there’s time wasted with extraneous details in a mystery, I feel like screaming.

  7. I LOVE mysteries! I’ve thought about writing one, but it does scare me. Putting together a puzzle like that seems tough to do, but I think I’ll have to try it sometime. I write historical fiction now and might just work in a little mystery down the road. Thanks for some great tips, Elizabeth!
    Nicole, thanks for bringing Elizabeth into this series!

  8. I love reading mysteries but have never considered writing one. Wonderful post and I learned a ton that I could see useful for a lot of other genres to about building in subplots and scattering hints throughout! Thanks to Elizabeth for the wonderful details and to Nicole for hosting!

  9. Mysteries are so much fun to read. Thanks for such a detailed post that breaks down the book. I think the subplots, red herrings, and realistic characters (including their actions) are big keys for a mystery. Great job Elizabeth, and thanks to Nicole for hosting!

  10. Elizaabeth, I’ve just begun one, I’m glad you posted this. Mine is more police procedural. But to make it different, his wife who was murdered in their home is a ghost who will eventually help him solve the case.

      1. It’s great timing to read these informative post when you just started writing. Could potentially save you some time. Sounds like a great premise. Stay tuned for the blog series as there will also be posts on Horror and Crime fiction

  11. I was recently struggling with why my bad guy was killing people – I figured there had to be a logical reason. And then I realized, no, he’s messed up. Just because it makes sense to him, doesn’t mean it has to make sense to non-killers. Sign. What a relief.

  12. First off, thanks Nicole for pointing me to this post (from the recent “Villains” blog comments).

    This is a wonderful way of laying out a mystery, Elizabeth. Thank you for sharing your insights. I love cozies, and my favorites follow what you have outlined here. “Red herrings should be fair to the reader” really resonated with me too. As a writer, it’s a balance I’m working on. 🙂

    1. Oops! I’m sorry, Nicole… I referenced the wrong blog post (“Villains”) in my above comment. It was the “Oh, You Write THOSE Books” post. (It’s been a long day…)

      Anyhow, thank you again for telling me about this one from Elizabeth S. Craig. 🙂

  13. […] Feb. 1: Elizabeth Craig on Mysteries. Elizabeth writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin/Berkley (as Riley Adams), the Southern Quilting mysteries (2012) for Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink. She blogs daily at Mystery Writing is Murder, which was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2010 and 2011. You may also know her from the “Writer’s Knowledge Base” and her amazing posts of writing links “Twitterific”. […]

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