Tag Archives | how to write a mystery

Challenges of writing a cozy mystery with Elizabeth S. Craig!

Woo hoo! End of week 2 of all things mystery. Hope you’ve found some great reads! And now for some great writing tips!

Today let’s welcome Elizabeth S. Craig. You know her – the one who tweets all the writing and industry posts and puts them all together in a searchable data base? The one who also put together a spreadsheet of all the freelance cover designers, editors and formatters? And don’t forget all the cozy mysteries she’s authored!

Cozy mysteries are fun to write, have dedicated readers, and are popular with publishers. Cozies, sometimes called traditional mysteries, are a subgenre in a large field of mystery subgenres. They’re primarily defined by their use of an amateur sleuth, lack of gore and profanity, offstage murder, and focus on the whodunit puzzle. These mysteries are frequently (not always) humorous, character-focused, set in small-towns, and are part of a series.

But there are challenges in writing them.  I’m going to cover six common challenges for writing traditional mysteries and some ideas for getting around them.

Challenge #1: Incorporating a popular hook or theme into your mystery without having it take over the book. If you’re writing a cozy mystery for traditional publishers, then you’re probably going to have a theme for your books. Popular themes for cozies include crafts, hobbies and food. These themes are intended to add flavor to a book without completely overwhelming the mystery. You can better keep your theme in the background if you use it as a tool for telling your story.  Consider using the hook to set up the murder (a conflict at the guild meeting), or to introduce interesting or unusual characters (who gather together at an event that the hook makes possible.)

Challenge #2—Working with amateurs. In cozy mysteries, the murders are investigated by a gifted amateur.  What this means for the writer is that you’ve got to come up with a brief and plausible reason for this sleuth to get involved with a murder investigation.  If the sleuth has a stake in the outcome, then the reader will, too. Did he have a personal connection to the victim?  Is the sleuth a suspect?  Is someone close to the sleuth a suspect?

Another problem the mystery writer will face while working with amateurs is that they won’t have access to all the information that the police will have at their disposal. You’ll want to make sure that either the sleuth is able to obtain insider info from the police (time of death and method is really enough—an overload of details isn’t needed) or else you’ll need to make sure the sleuth already knows the basics…maybe he discovered the body and saw the knife sticking out of the victim.  No forensic data needed.

Challenge #3—The number of suspects.  A cozy mystery will run about 75,000 words.  Suspect numbers can get a little tricky. You’ll want enough suspects to ensure that the killer’s identity is a surprise, but not so many that the reader forgets who they are. I usually like five suspects, killing one in the middle of the book. One of my editors prefers four or fewer.

Challenge #4—Making it fair while keeping it a mystery until the end.  The clues need to be scattered throughout the book, but the reader doesn’t need the equivalent of a neon sign pointing out the clue. Find a way to lay the clue but to distract attention from it—maybe another suspect arriving on stage? A sudden argument between the sleuth and another character? Or even a red herring that seems like a more important clue (the discovery of a will, etc.)

Red herrings should also be fair to the reader. It can be frustrating when a red herring lasts from the book’s beginning to its end and then peters out when the sleuth realizes it’s completely unimportant. It might be better to lay many red herrings and have new ones crop up when others are disproved.

Challenge #5— Working within the strict genre guidelines while ensuring the story is engaging. These stories are fairly gentle, although they should be fast reads.  This contradiction is a challenge to work with.  Unlike other mystery genres, you won’t see a high body count, forensic investigation, or sex and profanity.  Instead, you’ll need to keep the readers engaged through the puzzle itself and the characters. The people populating your story need to either be characters the reader wants to spend more time with or else need to be people that the reader is intrigued by and wants to learn more about.

Subplots can help to move things along and add more flavor to the book. Where your reader has to wait until the end of the book for the mystery to wrap up, you could have a subplot go through an entire, satisfying arc before reaching the novel’s conclusion.

Challenge #6–Keeping it fresh.  If you’re writing cozies, you’re probably writing a series. The important thing with series writing is to keep the readers engaged and your stories fresh.  We’ve all read series where the author has recycled an old plot and stock characters. There are different ways to keep your series from going stale.  One is to have your main character grow through the series (personally or professionally or both.) You can also experiment with secondary characters—bringing in new characters to interact with your protagonist and either antagonize or support him.  Writers could introduce a completely new element with each book—a new setting, new relationship, or a new challenge facing the protagonist.

Do you write or read mysteries?  What challenges do you see for writing one?

She’ll be giving away one of her books so please tweet and comment for a chance to win!

Elizabeth’s latest book, Hickory Smoked Homicide, released November 1 and her next book, Quilt or Innocence, releases June 5. Elizabeth writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin/Berkley (as Riley Adams), the Southern Quilting mysteries for Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink and independently. She blogs daily at Mystery Writing is Murder.
Writer’s Knowledge Base–the Search Engine for Writers
Twitter: @elizabethscraig



Comments { 24 }

Unreliable narrators, mysteries, and Shutter Island.


Because of opening images in the trailer for Shutter Island, I was convinced it was a horror movie. So I refused to watch it. But I kept hearing that it wasn’t horror. So I watched but with really low expectations. And guess what? I loved it.

So, here’s my take away after watching the movie.

When writing an unreliable narrator, you must present the character as stable and confident to win the belief of the reader.

  • Unless you want the reader to know your character is unreliable.
  • In this movie, I was totally fooled.

Use weather and setting to create the mood and it must be an intricate part of the plot.

  • The Marshall couldn’t get off the island due to hurricane winds. The winds increased and escalated the tension.
  • And it had to be an island so the criminally insane could not escape the island. This added high stakes, since there was no escape into the frigid Atlantic waters.

 You must have clever clues the readers don’t know are clues until the end.

  • When the Marshall arrives, the guards look stern – well, duh, the Marshall is really their most violent and dangerous criminal.
  • The Marshall had to hand over firearms without explanation.
  • The head doctor could not hand over any information on the staff. (I just thought the guy was a complete wacko and was hiding a terrible secret about the island.)
  • The psychiatrist left that morning on the ferry. (I was further convinced of nefarious ongoings, but really, the psychiatrist was playing the role of the Marshall’s assistant.)
  • One inmate scribbled on a napkin for the Marshall to run. (She knows he’s a criminal, but I thought it was further proof the island was a terrible place.)
  • These kinds of clues were sprinkled throughout the entire story.

The evidence that points to the “false” mystery needs to be explained in the “real” mystery.

  • The medicine they gave the Marshall for his headaches we were led to believe were hallucinatory drugs. But it was really just aspirin.
  • Toward the end, the Marshall experienced more hallucinatory dreams and real hallucinations. That’s because for this experiment, he was off his heavy meds.
  • The little girl who appears in his flashbacks from the concentration camps, stating why didn’t you save me, is really his daughter and his guilt.

At some point, you need to create doubt in the reader’s mind.

The Marshall sees his partner dead on the rocks below a cliff, so he climbs down but then can’t find the body. Then he sees a light from a cave and finds the person who explains and confirms the Marshall’s “suspicions”. (At this point, I told my husband that the Marshall was either really hallucinating or it was bad script writing. Well, he was really hallucinating, but, even then, I had my doubts.)  

Create empathy for the main character throughout intense action.

  • The Marshall experienced intense dreams and flashbacks to his military days of freeing concentration camp victims.
  • Throughout the movie, his wife “helps” him. We see his pain and love for his wife.

 Big surprises and revelations.

  • The head doctor (bad guy) turned out to have the most empathy for the Marshall. Throughout this experimental role play, the doctor was trying to save the Marshall’s life.
  •  His wife, who we believe was murdered in a fire, really murdered the Marshall’s children.
  •  And the biggest surprise – the Marshall turned out to be a patient. (I only figured this out like two minutes before they revealed it.)  The Marshall had created a fictional world to escape the fact that he killed his wife and he had lost his children.

Sorry for my longest post eva, but this movie (based on a book) had so many great craft elements. And I promise, my next post will be super short. Have you read a book or watched a movie that absolutely did everything right? Hard to find, I know. Now if you haven’t seen it yet, go watch the movie to find out what happened at the end.

Comments { 12 }