Writing the Cozy Mystery: The Suspects

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraigfile000557708328

This is the second in my cozy mystery writing series.  Last week I focused on writing better sleuths. Today, I thought I’d take a look at another vital element for a solid mystery: good suspects.

How many suspects?  Fewer suspects can be easier for readers to keep up with, but can also mean that the murderer’s identity isn’t as much of a surprise.  If you have more suspects, you can more easily maintain the element of surprise at the end, but you have to be careful not to confuse the reader.  I usually prefer 5 suspects, killing one of them during the course of the book.  If you choose to have a lot of suspects, you can reduce confusion by making sure their names are very distinct or by giving them a casual reintroduction when they appear “onstage” again in the story.

How to introduce the suspects?  I do this a couple of different ways.  A quick setup is to have our sleuth witness interactions between the victim and the suspects before the victim dies.  This can be especially helpful when the sleuth is trying to figure out who the suspects are after the murder.  Another way of handling this is to have a couple of people provide information about likely suspects in the case (non-suspects as informants). It may also be useful to have suspects implicate each other.

Pacing and location of suspect interviews:  This, to me, is an unexpectedly treacherous thing.  We can either really bog the story down or fly through the interviews too quickly.  I think it helps if we have very different settings for each suspect interview to provide variety and avoid that sense of sameness and if we weave subplot through the interviews so they’re not all back to back. That’s going to be a matter of personal preference for the writer, though. A couple of nice resources on subplots: Allen Palmer’s “The One Subplot You Really Need” and Amanda Patterson’s “Six Subplots that Add Style to Your Story.”

It’s best for pacing and for the length of the story for suspects to generate false leads (red herrings) or act as unreliable witnesses.  Each suspect could tell a lie and a truth and then our sleuth could figure out which is which.  The lies could be alibi-related, or they could even be accidental lies…simply incorrect information or hearsay.

The interviews don’t need to be merely business as usual clipped exchanges, either.  These stories are very character-focused. It helps if we learn more about the suspects’ characters or the victims. If we think about making our story more engaging. If the interviews also reveal more about our sleuth or sidekick.

Suspect as a second victim.   As I mentioned earlier, I do like eliminating one of the suspects, usually halfway through the book. I frequently choose to murder the suspect who seems most likely to have murdered the first victim.

Suspect motives.  If possible, I like to ascribe a variety of different motives in the story. My editor at Penguin liked that, too.  She would have me make changes if the motives were too similar.

Need help with motives?  Camille LaGuire has a nice list in her article “The Big Wheel of Crimes and Theories” and Margot Kinberg has collected some interesting examples of motives for the second murder in our books in her post “I Know That I Will Kill Again.”

This was another mystery-related post, but I hope there is information in there that other genres will find useful, as well (check out those subplot links).  What have I missed?  Any questions or thoughts from mystery writers or readers?

Tips for better suspects in a mystery novel: Click To Tweet

Image: MorgueFile: Nino Andonis

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23 thoughts on “Writing the Cozy Mystery: The Suspects

  1. The Big Wheel of Crimes and Theories? Like Wheel of Fortune – just spin the wheel?
    I like the idea of suspects implicating each other.
    The original CSI always had great twists with the suspects. Might be another place to get ideas.

    1. Alex–That’s exactly what it’s like! It’s part of a story game. :) Very creative on Camille’s part (and I hope I’m not distracting her again from all the other things she’s doing and dragging her back to work on her game some more!)

      Good idea about using CSI for inspiration.

  2. What a perfectly timed series! My stories always have an element of mystery to them, but this is my first time writing a straight-up murder mystery. Am a complete novice, so am devouring your advice! Thank you so much for these brilliant insights, Elizabeth.

  3. I really like this ideas, Elizabeth! I especially have to keep in mind your reminder not to let suspect interviews bog down a story. It’s much more effective, I think, to have a suspect do something incriminating, and have the sleuth find out, then it is to ask an unending series of questions, if that makes sense. And one of the things about different settings for different interviews is that it allows you to differentiate the suspects. That’s especially important, I think, if they’re similar in other ways. Gives the reader a way to keep them separate.

    1. Margot–I like your idea of mixing things up a little and having a suspect do something incriminating and have the sleuth discover it.

      And good point about settings helping to differentiate the suspects. When we’re introducing 5-6 or more (including the victim, informants, etc) new characters in each story, it’s so important for the reader not to get confused.

  4. I wish I wrote cozy mysteries, Elizabeth. Your advice is so good. But thank goodness, I can apply a lot of what you share about writing to my own books. I still think you have a nonfiction book in you.

    1. Teresa–I’ve seen far fewer and many more but on average I think 4-5 suspects appears to be the standard. Five is definitely my personal preference, but I’ve adjusted that for editors and the trad pub books from time to time (although it made me a little anxious when I deviated from my usual pattern, ha!)

  5. I like how Rex Stout had Nero Wolfe describe the 3 foundations of motive: “Who is safe, solvent, or satisfied?” He knew that all motives boil down to money, eliminating a danger, or gaining a benefit not to be had any other way.

    The variations, though, are endless.

    One recommendation I have for those looking to write their first cozy: don’t get fancy. Fancy is right hard to do.

    Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians” — 10 people on an island. All end up dead. Whodunnit? You cannot do this until you’re Agatha Christie.

    A list of suspects that’d fill Madison Square Garden, like in most of Chandler’s books? Again, not Chandler? Don’t do it.

    Unreliable narrators is also devilish hard to do.

    Keep it simple, and just put your own flavor on all the usual suspects.

    Now I’m looking forward to the post on staging (almost) perfect crimes.

    1. Joel–I’ll second that. Plain is good. And readers typically like the very, very plain, uncomplicated ones.

      I’ll second your unreliable narrators, too…can be a reader turnoff unless it’s done super well. Even when it *is* done super well, sometimes readers don’t like it (Girl on a Train, Gone Girl, etc.)

  6. Great post! I love the idea of different motives – too much similarity makes it hard for the reader to keep them straight and decide who they think it is.

    My favourite line is this … I usually prefer 5 suspects, killing one of them during the course of the book. Totally made me smile at the bloodthirstiness :)

    1. Jemi–I think you’re right–it helps distinguish the suspects from each other. A good thing!

      I’ve said that in talks before, at libraries. :) The audience gave a sort of nervous laugh. The sad thing is that I don’t even think about how it sounds because I’ve been doing it for so long!

  7. Late to the dance this comment cycle;but, thanks for the point to the excellent post by Margot. I love the title and key thoughts she spurred in my little brain.

    Great job both. I’m always weak on framing suspect and rather just have the emerge. I’m not wringing enough narrative tension out of them. I’d missed that!

    1. Jack–Margot posts daily and does the most incredible posts. I’ve learned a lot by reading her blog because she has this amazing memory and can give examples across mystery subgenres, pulling themes together.

  8. Hi Elizabeth – fascinating to read your post, and then the comments with your additional notes … if I ever write a murder mystery – I’ll come here for reference … cheers Hilary

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