Mystery is a cerebral genre of crime fiction, and as such demands a lot of strategic writing from the author. The challenge of setting the scene with action instead of backstory is particularly difficult in this genre, because it must absolutely begin with the crime that will be solved during the course of the book.
Today, we have Lois Winston on Daily (w)rite, who leverages her experience as a former literary agent and her career as a mystery author to come up with some excellent advice.
1 What type of mystery do you want to write?
Do you know what you’re writing? Different mystery sub-genres have different conventions and reader expectations. Don’t sabotage yourself by targeting the wrong audience with the wrong book.
Mystery sub-genres include:
• cozy mysteries
• amateur sleuth mysteries
• detective mysteries (soft-boiled, hard-boiled, police procedurals)
• romantic suspense
Click here for genre definitions.
2 Should you write a limited series or ongoing series?
• Story arc and characters’ goals, motivations, and conflicts develop over a set number of books. All are resolved at the end of the last book in the series.
• Episodic stories that resolve at the end of each book but include the same main characters throughout the series.
• Plots are independent of each other but can tie to previous books.
• Characters introduced in one book may return in later books.
• Main characters usually grow throughout the series, sometimes experiencing life-altering changes.
3. Develop a character who can carry a series over multiple books.
• Set long-term goals for your protagonist.
• Place her in different settings to keep your series fresh.
Throughout my cozy amateur mystery series, Anastasia’s moonlighting allows for different locations where she stumbles across murders and where I can introduce different ways in which she solves them.
Even though each book ends with the reader learning whodunit, you want your reader wondering what happens next in the character’s life. One way to do this is introducing new characters throughout the series. In Revenge of the Crafty Corpse, the reader meets Anastasia’s deceased husband’s previously unknown half-brother. In Drop Dead Ornaments, I give Anastasia’s older son a girlfriend and create a plot involving her and her father. There’s also the mysterious Zack Barnes, photojournalist and possible spy, whose presence grows with each book.
4 Give your amateur sleuth a job conducive to discovering and solving murders.
The amateur sleuth needs a career where she isn’t chained to her desk in a cubicle all week, then goes home to spend her evenings with only her cat for company.
• Give your amateur sleuth a job that allows her to investigate murders and interact with witnesses and suspects.
• Give her family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers for additional plots in future books.
• A amateur sleuth who travels for her job keeps settings fresh and interesting from book to book.
For example, Anastasia has solved murders at the magazine where she works, on the set of a morning TV show, at a convention center, on a cruise ship, at a conference, a rehab center, and in her hometown.
5 Create your sleuth’s world.
• A real town or city
• A fictional town or city
• A fictionalized version of a real town or city
My books are mostly set in and around New York City and its New Jersey suburbs. Some authors use a real town or city but change the name. Others create completely fictional locations. Your setting should become an integral part of your series. If you decide on a fictional location, make it a place your readers will want to continue reading about in future books.
Give your town/city unique characteristics. Is it:
- A college town?
- A shore town or one nestled in the mountains?
- A tourist destination?
- A commuter town near a big city?
- A town with only one industry?
For fictitious locations, create a map to use as a reference while writing your books to avoid errors in future books.
For books set in real towns/cities:
• Do extensive research regarding the location. Don’t rely solely on Google Maps.
• Don’t have the murder occur in an actual business. (It’s okay to have your sleuth stop at Starbucks, but if you want the victim to succumb to a poisoned latte, use a fictitious coffee shop.)
6 Cupcakes, crafts and cats
Three of the most popular sub-genres of cozy mysteries (with or without a paranormal element) are:
• Culinary cozies
• Crafting cozies
• Pet cozies
Culinary and crafting amateur sleuth cozies generally include a recipe or craft project. In pet cozies, the pet becomes a secondary character in the series, one the sleuth will often view as almost human. Sometimes the pet plays a role in solving the mystery.
Even non-pet cozies often feature pets, especially cats and dogs. In my series, Anastasia’s mother owns a cat. Her mother-in-law owns a dog. Both animals mimic their owner’s personalities. Anastasia has inherited Ralph, a Shakespeare-quoting parrot who squawks situation-appropriate passages from The Bard.
When I began writing the Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries, I did some research into crafting mysteries. All either featured a craft shop owner, a crafting club, or a crafter, and all concentrated on a single craft. I decided to buck the single-craft trend by making Anastasia the crafts editor at a women’s magazine to feature a different craft in each book.
7 BFFs and sidekicks
Most cozy and amateur sleuth series will have a sidekick who becomes Watson to your protagonist’s Sherlock, such as:
• A coworker
• A relative
• A best friend
• A love interest
The sidekick often provides character traits that complement the amateur sleuth in a cozy mystery. In Anastasia’s world, her sidekicks alternate between her best friend and her tenant-turned-love-interest, Zack Barnes.
8 All the other characters
Juggling the number of characters in your amateur sleuth’s world is a balancing act. Too few characters won’t give you enough possibilities for plots to keep your series going. Too many may confuse readers.
• Not every character you create needs to be in each book.
• Some characters may play a major role in only one book or pop up sporadically in future books.
• Resist the urge to force characters into a story because you introduced them in previous books.
Bring a character back only when it makes sense to the amateur mystery narrative.
When I received a note from a reader wondering if I’d ever bring back Tino Martinelli from Decoupage Can Be Deadly, I was in the middle of writing Handmade Ho-Ho Homicide. I realized Tino was exactly the character I needed to round out that book’s plot.
9 Keeping it all straight
If you plan to write a series over many years, it’s essential that you keep accurate track of all series details. Don’t rely on memory. Create a database. Each time you add a character, mention a characteristic, or describe a location, add it to the database. Routinely refer to the database to avoid errors.
Some items to include:
• Physical descriptions of characters
• Setting descriptions
10 Will your characters age?
• Will your characters age a year between each book, or will each book take place days, weeks, or months after the preceding one?
• How will aging affect the characters’ world?
• If your sleuth has teenagers, will they go off to college in future books?
• Is your sleuth nearing retirement age?
• Will your sleuth have to deal with aging parents?
• Will you incorporate technological advances and current events into future stories?
11 Keep track of time.
It’s far too easy to lose track of the time elapsing in your story as you work on it, especially if you tweak or shift scenes. Avoid mistakes with a scene calendar for each book.
• Print out blank calendar pages.
• Decide on the month and day your story will start.
• Record the scenes that occur on each day.
12 Avoid reader confusion.
You don’t want to confuse readers who pick up a book from the middle of your series. However, it’s not necessary to provide each character’s complete biography and description the first time they appear in each book.
• Don’t info-dump.
• Carefully worded phrases at appropriate times prevent reader confusion.
Now, settle butt in chair, fingers on keyboard, and start writing!
Do you read or write amateur mysteries? Have you ever written an amateur sleuth mystery? Would you have questions for cozy mystery writer Lois?
My literary crime novel, The Blue Bar is on Kindle Unlimited now. Add it to Goodreads or snag a copy to make my day. The sequel, The Blue Monsoon is up for pre-orders! And if you’d like to read a book outside the series, you can check out You Beneath Your Skin. Find all info about my books on my Amazon page or Linktree.
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