The Art of Murder (Writing)

Sheila Lowe gives us this good advice about writing mysteries.

Who doesn’t love a good mystery? With six of the top ten hardcover fiction books on the New York Times bestseller list in the mystery/crime genre, clearly, many readers do. And since my own mystery series has been published over the past four years, I’ve learned that a very large number of people are interested in getting their own mysteries published, too.

I’ve heard it said that there are three rules in mystery writing...but nobody knows what they dum bum.

Seriously, all fiction requires plotting, characterization, setting, dialogue, and point of view, but the mystery genre has some other special requirements of its own. Before you even get to those things, though, you’ll need to know what subgenre you are writing. Subgenre affects who your audience—your all-important market is going to be. The subgenres include soft-boiled cozy (traditional) mysteries, medium-boiled psychological suspense, and hard-boiled gritty noir, police procedurals, thrillers. Who knew it could get so complicated?

In cozy mysteries there is little or no on-scene violence, bad language or, heaven forbid s-e-x. Cozies feature an amateur sleuth who is an ordinary person, such as Jessica Fletcher of Murder She Wrote, or Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. The sleuth knows the people who are involved in the mystery and the story is typically set in a village or a small community where there is a limited pool of suspects. There’s generally a puzzle that has to be solved in order to get the bad guy or gal, which is why cozies are sometimes known as “locked room mysteries.” For example, how did the killer do his deadly deed when the door to the room where the body is found is locked from the inside and there are no other exits?

Police procedurals have a protagonist who works in law enforcement, usually a police detective, such as Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch. The detective follows police procedures (or doesn’t, and gets his butt kicked by his superiors as a result), and often has personal problems to deal with, such as alcohol or drug abuse, several troublesome ex-spouses, and run-ins with authority figures in the department.

Thrillers are fast-paced, action-oriented, and tend to be more graphically violent. Think Jason Bourne. The reader may know from the outset who the bad guy is—a spy or terrorist, perhaps—and we might see him plotting some horrible crime that is going to affect an entire population. The larger scale plot is the polar opposite from the setting of the cozy.

In stories of psychological suspense, character is emphasized more than plot. Thus, there may be less physical action, but a closer focus on who the various characters are and their reasons for doing what they do. My own Forensic Handwriting Series falls into this subgenre. My protagonist, Claudia Rose, is drawn into each plot through her clients. She doesn’t solve crimes with handwriting analysis, but she does learn about the motivations of the various people who populate the stories.

Once you’ve figured out your subgenre, you’ll have to figure out the crime, the precipitating event. Then, there are the subplots, the suspects, and the red herrings you’ll plant, making sure there is tension on every page. But those are subjects for another blog post.

--Sheila Lowe


Rebecca Buckley said…
Good information! And since I'm readying myself to write a mystery this came just in time. Great!
Kit Sloane said…
With all respect to Sheila's genre rules, I think it's important to NOT stick too closely to definitions of genre. You'll likely end up writing a formulaic plot and a generic story that could be told by anyone. Write your story and then see if it falls into a category. If it doesn't, call it "offbeat" and see what happens. Offbeat, meaning NOT following the "rules," stories are the only ones that lots of people read.

Sometimes there IS something new under the sun!

Kit Sloane, who often doesn't include a body in her stories, and is published by a great Indie press that doesn't care!
Sheila Lowe said…
Kit, they're not my rules, I was just summarizing what the general "rules" say.
Rebecca, best of luck! Writing the book is the first step, selling it is next, and then comes the biggest challenge of all: marketing it!
Hey, Rebecca, it's always a good idea to learn the rules first, then as Kit says you can change them to suit your mystery.

Sheila, thanks for visiting me again today. I think both you and Kit will be at Bouchercon, am I right? Me too.
Sheila Lowe said…
Yes, Marilyn. I'll look forward to seeing you in San Francisco next week!

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