On Friday evening, a friend of mine asked me some questions about mystery writing while I was at the Brownie Scout sleepover. Naturally, since this is my favorite thing to talk about, I was happily prattling off all kinds of info when it occurred to me that my non-writing friends aren’t ordinarily that interested in the process of writing. They’re incredibly supportive, but not usually asking the kinds of questions that my friend was asking.
I’m slow on the uptake, I’ll admit it. Especially in conversations. “Oh! You’re interested in writing.” Which was wonderful. Because if I could convert everyone into becoming a writer, I’d do it. The world would be a happier, if odder, place.
My friend wanted some ‘starting out’ information about writing. My mind really boggled. There’s such an incredible amount of information out there. Where do you start? What’s useful?
I think it’s good to do some research ahead of time. Some. Not enough to stifle the creativity. Not enough to feel like the process is too daunting. But enough so your first attempt isn’t way off course.
What genre do you want to write? What do you read? What do you like to read? Is it different from what you feel like you should be reading? You might even want to focus in on a particular subgenre—a paranormal mystery. An apocalyptic sci-fi. It would definitely make it easier to query later on because agents and editors want to know what kind of book you’ve got.
In that genre, what is the usual word count range? For a ballpark idea on what you should think about shooting for, try this article. Why is this useful? You need to think about whether your idea is sustainable for 75,000—95,000 words (which is likely the range of most adult books.) And you want to stop yourself before you write too much material. More usually isn’t better, as far as agents and editors are concerned.
Where do I start? At the beginning….or not. There’s no rule that you have to start at the beginning if that’s the part that’s tripping you up. Skip the beginning and move on to the next scene. You could even write the ending first.
Set a small, attainable goal. Otherwise, it’s like a New Year’s Resolution that ends up getting ditched. Even 10 minutes a day is good, as long as you’re looking at your manuscript and writing.
Don’t worry about agents and editors until your book is done—unless you’re writing nonfiction and want to send out a proposal for your project before writing it.
Aspiring mystery writers—and other genre-writers (since some of the info isn’t genre-specific)—here are some links I’ve thought were helpful in the past. Most of them I would only use if you get stuck. If you try to read a whole bunch of information before writing, it can really mess with your mind (at least, it does with mine.) Obviously, take what you need and ignore the rest. There is a formulaic aspect to writing mysteries, but we all infuse the process with our own personalities on paper.
Tripod.com's Classic 12-Chapter Mystery Formula This can give you an idea of what plotting a mystery is like if you’re not really sure where different elements come in. It’s by no means a Bible…and the word count is usually higher than 60,000 words.
Write That Novel , which has useful, printable sheets for characterization, plotting, storyboards, etc.
Book Crossroads , which has links to online mystery writing groups, hardboiled slang dictionaries, forensic information, and legal overviews.
Twenty Mystery Writing Rules
Writing Clues: Help for mystery writers
Don't Drop Clues: Plant them Carefully! by Stephen Rogers does a great job covering the types of clues, how to misdirect your reader, and mistakes to avoid.
Suite 101 covers planting clues in different ways: tucking them in a paragraph, heightening the drama, clues of omission, missing weapons, and clues from real life.
Author Sandra Parshall's website explains how "Clues Drive the Mystery Plot."
The Christie Mystery website demonstrates how Agatha Christie used clues and other plot devices.
Stephen Rogers writes a different article on red herrings and how to use them effectively.
Hope these help and good luck with your writing journey!
Elizabeth Spann Craig
Pretty is as Pretty Dies—August 2009, Midnight Ink
Delicious and Suspicious—May 2010, Berkley Prime Crime