So You Want to Write a Mystery?

Presented by Beth Anderson at a Chicago Writers’ Conference

The traditional genre description of a mystery is this: the story is about one or more aspects of the commission of a crime, which is usually, but not always, murder. There are many sub-genres within the mystery world though, each of which has its own elements that distinguish it from all other sub-genres.

Let’s begin with discussing the different sub-genres, because one of the things you need to decide first, before you start writing, is exactly the type of mystery you’re writing—partly so you can describe it easily in a query letter, but also because you want to know how to get where you’re heading so you won’t go too far off-track and start mixing your sub-genres.

Even if you’ve written a stunning book with a good plot, great characters, and no grammatical errors, mixing your sub-genres might get you a fast rejection from traditional publishers. In independent publishing houses, they allow you to mix genres and people seem to love them, but traditional publishers are looking for traditional mysteries written in the good old traditional way.

In this way, the mystery world isn’t too different from the romance world. There are sub-genres within both. In romance, they’re called lines. In mystery, they’re called…well… sub-genres. In romance, you always need to know which line in which publishing house you’re aiming your story, because they each have their own guidelines.

In traditional mystery writing, certain publishers want one type of mystery, some another, so do your research and make sure you know ahead of time where you want to submit so that you can target your potential first market—the publisher, or the agent who will take you to that publisher.

Let’s take a look at the different genres and sub-genres.


Cozies are for the reader who wants to curl up with a cup of tea and read a story that’s not terribly gory. Most of the early British mysteries were cozies; for instance, Agatha Christie. Actual violence is offstage and if you get a glimpse of the corpse, it’s a quick one as he’s photographed and then hauled away in a body bag.

Quite often in a cozy, the corpse is someone that several people want dead. I had a corpse like that in Night Sounds. You never saw him onstage but just about everyone he knew had a good reason for wanting him dead, and any one of several people could have made it happen.

Cozies sell well because they’re generally fun and faster and easier to read. They may be scary, full of tension, and they should be, but they shouldn’t contain anything truly revolting because the market for these books is clearly defined. They aren’t interested in gore.

Amateur Detective stories are usually cozies. Those usually center around a person who stumbles over corpses or illegal activities by accident time after time, to his/her vast surprise, and this protagonist might be well known in his/her neighborhood for solving crimes.

Think Murder She Wrote or Diagnosis Murder. Those are cozies. Just remember, the big thing with cozies is that there is no gore, no guts spilling over the countertop, just a nice, quiet, dead corpse, if you see one at all. You’ll often find cats or puppies in a cozy, because cozy readers really love pets, and you’d better not kill one in your book or you’ll lose your reader right then and there.

Some authors take offense to the term ‘cozy’, but it’s not offensive or demeaning in any way. It just defines a certain type of mystery.


If the detective isn’t an amateur, he’s doing it for money, and if he’s doing it for money, he’s usually a hardboiled kind of guy (or woman). Hardboiled is the exact opposite of cozy. You won’t find any cats in this one. This type of guy keeps a phyranna or a python, if he keeps anything.

He’s the one who runs through the alley dodging bullets, jumping over trash cans, climbing up the outside escape stairway, beating up two guys who are trying to stop him before he jumps from the top of one tall building to another, breaks a wrist in the process but still continues on, chasing the perp till he catches him. He stops for a Jack Daniels after he’s done and the perp is arrested. Then, and only then, he might see a doctor about his wrist.

These guys are larger than life characters, more freewheeling, tougher, some may say more loveable, but they’re probably not the kind of guy you want your daughter to bring home for Thanksgiving dinner. They cuss, they drink, they know their street people well, they like their women hot and their crooks cold.

In both of the above examples the detectives are not really true to life, but that’s what makes them so interesting and so much fun to read, each in their own way.


Usually the main character is a policeman or woman. Think Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. The structure of police procedurals is a prescribed format, in which a cop with megatons of integrity outwits or outruns the perp. In these, you’ll use a lot of investigative terms and regulations, and in the process, teach the reader more than she ever thought she wanted to know about police work—if you do your research, and for this type of book, you must.

There are loads of good research books on law enforcement procedures. Writer’s Digest has some good ones, The Howdunit Series. You can find them everywhere, or order them online.

If you’re doing a serial killer type of police procedural, John Douglas, among others, has written quite a few books on profiling and apprehending this type of criminal. I have a shelves full of different police procedure research books, from Fundamentals of Criminal Investigation, which cost me almost $90 for one book, all the way back to Time-Life books on Criminals Throughout History. Look around, you’ll find what you need.

But do find them, because there’s nothing worse, to a die-hard mystery reader, than when the writer has mistaken a revolver for a pistol. Barbara D’Amato has gone on ridealongs with Chicago cops while doing research. Some towns will let you do that. Mine will, and also, when I wrote Murder Online, I spent the afternoon at Area One Headquarters in Chicago, picking up a lot of authentic tidbits of information I’d never find anywhere else. Make sure you check every detail out if you do this type of book. Or any for that matter, but especially this type.


Big, Big, Big on the market. These are often six-figure advance books, folks. As with the police procedural, accuracy in a legal, medical or historical mystery is crucial to weaving a believable plot. You have to do some serious research to be able to write one of these and make it believable if you’re not already a lawyer or doctor or historian.

These books are loaded with legal and medical or historical terminology, although as with anything else, this shouldn’t be overdone because you don’t want to irritate your reader. If you’re a pro at any of these jobs and can toss out the jargon naturally, you’ll be okay. The lay person is going to have a tougher time at this and dialog is the main place where he’s going to fail if he’s going to.

So be aware, if you’re not a pro at one of these professions, better allow yourself lots of time for editing your dialog till it sounds perfect to someone who is a pro, and have one check it. Remember, the editor who may be interested in this type of book has read hundreds of them, maybe more, and this editor will spot phony dialog in a heartbeat. So be aware of that and have it checked out first.

To add to all of this, the main sub-genres we’ve just discussed have split out into sub-sub-genres. Confused? Don’t be. That simply means using careers like quilting, gardening, cooking, dog sled racing, cleaning establishments, and other main elements, which have become a big part of the cozy scene.

Police procedurals have also split out, now featuring different types of law enforcement agencies, for instance National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, etc.

Now we come to some new sub-sub categories, which aren’t strictly traditional mysteries as we’ve discussed them above. How about the Woo Woo category, which contains supernatural elements? My upcoming book, The Scoutmaster’s Wife, is one of those.

You have to be careful with supernatural elements so that the book will be believable. Remember, your mystery reader is pretty sophisticated about normal mysteries and a paranormal mystery will have to be able to make that same reader suspend disbelief in a big way.

Not easy to do, which is why I wanted to do it. Just writing it and making sure I got it right so it would be completely believable scared me, but the way I wrote it, the supernatural things just are what they are. I believed them when I wrote the book and I think that has made it come across as believable. One of the tricks to writing this type of book, I believe, is to not overdo the drama.

A few notes, in case you’re just now deciding whether your book is a mystery or a suspense. At the outset, there are two big differences. A traditional mystery is shorter, the norm is around 70 to 75,000 words. And in a traditional mystery, you don’t normally know who the killer or perp is until close to the end of the book.

A suspense, on the other hand, has a much higher word count, anywhere from 85,000 words up to over a hundred thousand, depending on how long you’ve been writing and for whom. Understand this: publishers are reluctant to allow a high word count on any book by any unknown writer because each page costs the publisher more money.

Also, in a suspense, you normally (but not always) know who the perp is from almost the beginning, and the book is involved with following both perp and detective through the process of catching the perp.

In addition, suspense is also split out into more sub-sub-genres. Female in Jeopardy, femjep, which was big a few years ago, is pretty much out of favor now because by and large, people don’t really like to see women in serious physical danger anymore. Nowadays, they expect women to be stronger and smarter than any villain, so make sure your suspense protagonist is sharp and strong. Actually, that’s good advice no matter what you’re writing.

Then there’s Romantic Suspense, which quite often contains a scenario where the heroine is never sure, until the last moment, whether the man she’s attracted to is the hero or the villain. Those books can contain sex, depending on the publisher, and they will be promoted as Romantic Suspense by the publisher so that the reader will know what she’s getting. The market in women’s fiction is currently pretty good for romantic suspense because no matter what, people love romance.

Big name romance authors can normally get by with hotter and longer sex scenes in a romantic suspense because that’s what their established readers have come to expect. A beginner should be sparing with them unless requested to add more by the editor.

A lot of what you do here depends on who—thinking ahead to your long term career goals—you want your eventual market to be. If you want mainly women, by all means hang a lot of romance and hot sex in there, but if you’re aiming for the mainstream market, be aware that most men don’t voluntarily read books promoted as romantic suspense. I didn’t say all men, but I do say most.

Also be aware that in a category romantic suspense, as in a Harlequin Superromance, romance takes precedence, with a very strong suspense subplot.

In mainstream/single title romantic suspense, suspense takes precedence. Your own sense of pacing, along with your publisher’s guidelines, will determine how much of each element you should have. But generally speaking, just so you know, you don’t want sex between the protagonists to be your main focus in any mainstream mystery or suspense novel.

Pure suspense is a longer book in which the reader knows almost from the beginning who the killer is, and the suspense comes from trying to keep the hero or heroine (maybe both) from getting killed while they figure it out. The stakes are very high, uncertainty is constant and enormous and has to be kept that way throughout the whole story. These are selling well and probably will for a long, long time.

In pure suspense novels, romance is allowed, but don’t try writing any of those eight-page detailed love scenes in this type of book if you’re aiming at the mainstream audience because for one thing, if you do and it’s bought, it’s going to be promoted as romantic suspense, and your market will be mainly women.

That’s not all bad, because women buy the majority of books. But if you want the word “romantic” left out of your promotion, leave the romance out of the book, or only have a hint of it. In other words, if you want to hit the mainstream market, your suspense novel shouldn’t be full of one hot and heavy love scene after another because to a traditional suspense reader, the sex distracts from the plot. I’ve heard them say this time and again, although there may be exceptions. It’s up to you to decide how big you want your reading audience to be.

By and large, the exceptions are brand name romance authors who have branched out into mainstream suspense, ala Nora Roberts. There are quite a few big name former strictly romance authors who are doing this now, but they’ve made their bones. Their names are already built and their names will sell the book both to publisher and public.

So you can let them have sex, but don’t let them have overly graphic sex.

Next we have thrillers, which can be considered either general fiction or crime fiction, depending on the plot. Steve King is a master at this category, but there’s plenty of room for more because the American public loves thrillers and the good ones out there are making big money.

To further complicate this issue, consider Jurassic Park, a thriller for sure, although the villains are prehistoric animals. This would fall under general fiction, not mystery, if you’re looking for it in the library.

The main thread to watch for in a thriller is that an extremely high level of mind-blowing excitement is maintained all the way throughout the novel—with small dips from time to time to allow the reader to catch his breath. If you can do that and keep doing it for five hundred pages or so, you’ve got the potential of having yourself a major bidding-war blockbuster.

Thrillers also make great movies because they’re so visual, and publishers love books that have a high chance of becoming a movie because it increases their book sales. So in writing one of these, keep in mind the level of sophistication of your potential readers, and realize that these books will appeal to the mainstream reader even though they’re basically part of the mystery genre.


There are definitely two schools of thought on plotting mysteries. Most authors do some sort of outline. A few can do without them. Steve King can write an entire novel without having an inkling where he’s going with it, but how many of us are Steve King? Most of us need at least a general outline. I always plot my books ahead of time, although no longer in exact detail because I’ve learned over the years that there are always going to be changes in the middle of the book here and there. I do know my beginning and my ending, always.

Changes are expected as new characters pop up unexpectedly and refuse to leave the story. I don’t argue with them if they have a good reason for being there and they unmistakably enhance and advance the plot. So my beginnings and endings always remain basically the same as when I first conceived the story. The middles will sometimes change as new things happen and new characters pop into the picture.

One of the big reasons why, if you’re new, you should plot ahead of time, especially in a mystery, is so that you’ll know where the conflict and plot highs and lows are. This is called pacing, and the way you learn pacing is by knowing where your plot points are, then adding or subtracting content accordingly.

In other words, after a run of high excitement, and these should show up regularly in your book, there should be a stretch of story where your reader can catch his breath. In these places, you can drop in something that’s going on in your protagonist’s personal life, which you should already be aware of if you’ve done a thorough character background on all of your lead characters.

As an aside, I highly recommend you do this whether you plot your book or not because then you’ll know if a given movement or choice is characteristic of that person, given his background.

Another reason to plot a mystery is that they’re so intricate. You don’t want to leave yourself wide open to contradicting or repeating yourself from chapter to chapter. You also need to decide where to drop in your red herrings, and this is where an outline comes in mighty handy. I plot the story and then go through it backward, deciding what to drop in to misdirect the reader, and where.

Outlining will give you a better idea of the causal relationships between characters and events. Causal relationships are ones which cause the chain of events which will eventually build to the climax of your story.

For instance, a young woman, previously unknown to the family, shows up when the will is read and inherits a valuable diamond necklace from her grandmother. Her cousin, who always coveted the necklace and had been led to believe, by their grandmother, that the necklace would be hers, decides to contest the will. During this process, the cousin discovers that (a) the one who inherited the necklace was apparently not really a legitimate blood granddaughter, (b) the will seems completely out of whack and doesn’t at all sound like something her grandmother would have done, which now also makes her suspect the attorney, and (c) the attorney’s wife is publicly threatening to divorce him because of his presumed relationship with the young woman who inherited the necklace. These are all causal relationships, which set up conflict to begin with, and escalate the tension all through the book.

On the other hand, you might not want to plot the book and just go with it and see where it takes you. That’s up to you. But I will tell you, I’ve spoken to many authors who tried it that way first, and eventually most realize that having at least some sort of basic outline will save them months of rewriting time.

Whether you do or not is your choice, but be aware that rises and falls of the mystery plot have to occur, and you have to remember them all, as well as all the other elements of writing you have to remember as you go along.
Also your rises should, as you go along, rise even more with more conflict, more at stake, and more misdirection, until you reach the final solution and climax.


Here’s one way to start your mystery novel. Create a background that will grab attention, and right away point out the pitfalls of that background. That’s how John Grisham did it in The Firm. A young, fiercely ambitious new attorney grabs a plum job with little effort, but quickly realizes something not quite right is happening beneath the surface.

You don’t always have to start with major action. You can start with your protagonist having an internal battle over something important. That internal battle can be a relationship dynamic which can lead to either love or death. But the action should start soon, even if you don’t exactly open with it.

That’s how I opened Night Sounds, with a relationship that zapped the protagonist within a couple of paragraphs when he definitely wasn’t expecting it, and it was soon obvious that it was one which could lead either to love or death. I opened Murder Online with a mother receiving a phone call telling her that her daughter had been murdered in Chicago. Both highly emotional scenes, both effective.

The Story Arc:

That, again, is your plotline. Think of a bell curve, which rises gradually to the apex, and then, topping out, descends. Keep in mind, too, that there are mini-arcs and mini-climaxes within the novel as your red herring sends your protagonist off on a chase he’s sure will lead to the killer, but of course it doesn’t, at which time he’s off again, chasing another and another until it begins to dawn on him what the solution really is. So think of the red herring chases as mini-arcs with mini-climaxes, and eventually you come to the real thing.

The McGuffin:
In a traditional mystery, the knowledge of who committed the crime, and why, is the McGuffin. That’s what your protagonist is fixated on. That’s his McGuffin. A McGuffin can also be an object, like a stolen necklace, a missing document, stolen counterspy secrets. Your protagonist might be searching for whatever the object is. In that case, that’s his McGuffin.

The McGuffin is, simply told, what your protagonist wants to find that’s important enough to him to build a great story around. “McGuffin” is a mystery buzzword, but basically it’s the same spine or plot skeleton that you’ll find in any good fiction. It’s determining what it is the protagonist wants, and wants badly.

As an example, in Murder Online, Marty’s McGuffin is wanting to find what he knows is a deadly serial killer who will kill again while he still sticks to known police procedures. Claire’s McGuffin wants to catch her daughter’s killer no matter what she has to do to find him. There’s conflict right there, born of two separate and opposing McGuffins, both of which conflict and circle around each other throughout the story. All of the characters, including the killer, have their own McGuffins, what they want, and all must intertwine with, but conflict with, the main protagonists’ own McGuffins.

In Night Sounds, Joe’s original McGuffin is wanting to make it big in the music field—until the night he meets Zoey. After he becomes highly emotionally involved with her, though, he develops another McGuffin, wanting to find the killer, because he soon discovers not only is she a prime suspect in the murder of her former lover, so is he now.

At that point, Joe has two McGuffins, both vitally and equally important to him, both of which circle around each other within him because he can’t be free to make it big until the crime is solved.

Zoey’s original McGuffin is survival, because she’s suspected of the murder. As Joe comes into the picture, her McGuffin is still survival, because now she sees Joe as an escape from her past. All of these McGuffins circle around each other all throughout the book.

You can see from this that your protagonists have to want something, and in order to create and hold excitement and interest all through the story, it has to be a life or death situation. Without all the fancy buzzwords, what they each WANT will be the spine, or the skeleton, of your novel.

What everybody else in the book wants are your subplots, and they must enhance or thrust the main plot forward in a way that really counts or they don’t belong in this story because remember, what your main characters WANT, and how they get it, IS your story.


One thing you don’t want to do is have a huge rise and then a sudden drop to the end. You don’t want to have your protagonist just point at the butler and say, “He did it,” and then type THE END. Take it slow here. In a traditional mystery, have your protagonist learn a little, than a bit more, then more and more, always remembering to misdirect whenever you can because this is what provides excitement. Then you have your letdown, or one of your low points, when the misdirections come to light and your protagonist has to realize he’s still no closer than he was at the beginning to solving the mystery.

As you get past the middle of the book and closer to the end of the story, you reach a high point where things begin to fall together little by little, piece by piece, clue by clue, and now misdirections or red herrings become less and less important. At this point, and only at this point, you to go after the solution.

Let the solution unfold little by little, and at the point where at least one of your protagonists is sure he/she knows who the perp really is, and why, that’s the high point where the light bulb goes on in his/her head.
Now the reader’s descent into rationality and clarity has begun, step by step, as the true clues begin to make sense and he gradually zooms in on the real perp along with the protagonist.

Your supporting or secondary characters will flesh out your story and are often funny or weird, wild characters, and help make the story fun to read—as long as everything they say or do forwards your main protagonists’ story. If it doesn’t, pitch it or keep it for another book, because your focus is always what your protagonists want, how they get it, and nothing else.

The important thing to remember here is that what I’ve described is pretty much standard procedure in mystery novels, no matter what the sub or sub-sub-genre. Your traditional mystery readers expect certain things to happen at certain times. They’re used to the rhythm of the story arc and they’ll become unhappy if you deviate from it. In fact, the editor might reject because of that if you’re submitting to a traditional editor. Independent publishers may grant you a lot more leeway, but what I’ve tried to give you here are some ways to attract a traditional agent and publisher.

1. Create a McGuffin. How many McGuffins can you dream up? Whole books can be created out of one McGuffin.
2. Write an opening line that would make you want to read on.
3. Write a paragraph from one of the following sentences:

  1. Boy meets girl in the middle of a robbery.
  2. The mother of the house is arrested, then disappears, and nobody knows why, or where she is.
  3. A body is discovered in the Rectory.
  4. A blackmail letter is received.
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