Category Archives: Mystery Writing Tips

Unpleasant Characters in Mysteries

Screaming ape in the background with teeth exposed and the post title, "unpleasant characters in mysteries" superimposed on top.

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

Unpleasant characters are tough for any genre.  But for mysteries, they present special challenges.

My editors from Penguin would often bring up concerns they had with unpleasant characters in my manuscripts.

My feeling is that unpleasant characters are incredibly useful in mysteries. They provide motive.  They provide realism. They can even provide humor.

Although I find these characters helpful, I do recognize the pitfalls.  Unpleasant characters are tricky for mysteries (and, likely, for most genres). Continue reading Unpleasant Characters in Mysteries

Weaving Backstory into Mysteries


Hill Country Siren is a thriller from author Patrick Kelly.

by Patrick Kelly,  @pkfiction

For two and a half years I slaved over my first novel, arranged and rearranged the plot, constructed and deconstructed the characters, and polished each sentence twice. Then I gave it to my editor and waited . . . anxiously . . . for three weeks.

Her response came.

She loved the story and my writing but had some “meta-feedback.”

First suggestion: Delete the first five chapters.


My baby.

What about my hero? Readers need to know where he comes from, why he’s here, and all about his relationship to the other characters. They care about these things.

Ah . . . actually . . . they don’t, at least not yet.

I need to SHOW readers the backstory, not TELL them (Heaven forbid I should tell them . . . SHOW don’t TELL).

Ah . . . actually . . . don’t do that, either.

Hill Country Siren is a thriller from author Patrick Kelly.

What readers care about up front is THE FORWARD STORY not the backstory. They want to know what the story is about, and they want to be hooked, early.

Get to the forward story fast and weave the backstory in as you go.

To study how one successful author handled backstory, I suggest you read (or reread) the first chapter of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

I counted forty instances of backstory in the first chapter, which seemed like a lot, but Collins integrated it into the forward story so well that millions of readers (repeat-millions of readers) gobbled it up and went on to read the entire series. Continue reading Weaving Backstory into Mysteries


Are you immobilized by pre-writing? by Elizabeth Spann Craig

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

In the past month, I’ve had three writers reach out to me.  They were all writing mysteries for the first time.

They asked me about outlining with arcs and three-act sequences and character development sheets.  Two writers reported feeling extremely overwhelmed and frustrated to the point of being immobilized.

I suggested that they might be overthinking it, at least when writing traditional mysteries. That’s because mysteries provide their own structure–a very familiar structure that avid mystery readers both know by heart and expect to encounter.

In fact, when we deviate from this structure or pattern, readers usually let us know about it.

I explained my own, very simple process:

I start out by writing the back cover copy. There are a couple of reasons for this. One, it gives me a global view of my story and its set-up. For another…I already have a cover for the book a year before I write it (I like working ahead with my cover designer). So there’s a print cover with copy all ready to go.

Then there’s a simple outline.  Nothing fancy.

Here’s the structure for a cozy mystery (if you fill in the blanks with your own characters, victims, suspects, it becomes a very basic outline):  Continue reading Pre-Writing

8 Tips on Writing Dual-Time Mysteries

by M.K. Tod, @MKTodAuthorTodMK-TimeandRegret-22790-CV-FT

What do The Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig, The Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian, The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro, and The Lost Sisterhood by Anne Fortier have in common? Answer: they are all dual-time mysteries. I love reading stories like these. But writing one proved to be a significant challenge and demanded a different approach from my previous historical novels.

So what did I learn? Below are eight tips for crafting this type of story. Continue reading 8 Tips on Writing Dual-Time Mysteries

Mysteries as a Reader and a Writer


by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

What makes a solid mystery?   What is it about murder mysteries that draws readers to the genre? How good are mystery writers at picking out the killer as readers?

Today, I hope you’ll join me at Benjamin Thomas’s excellent blog, The Writing Train, where I discuss these questions and others…including why Scooby Doo could be counted as one of my major influences.   :)

Hope you have a great weekend.