7 tips to write a mystery novel

During the Industrial Revolution, urban populations started to grow. This brought about the founding of police agencies in big cities in order to investigate crime. There, literature found a new niche, and the first mystery novels emerged. We are talking about a genre that focuses on solving murders. Although it could also focus on the investigation around a disappearance or any other mystery.

If you’re working on a literary project within the mystery genre, whether it’s a short story or a novel, you’ve come to the right place. Next, we are going to list 7 tips to apply when writing a mystery novel.

If you have an idea or an undeveloped plot in your mind (or in your computer), don’t hesitate to contact us. We are ghost writers: we write fiction on request.

1 – Finding a source of inspiration

Many times, mystery novels come from true stories, such as In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, considered one of the first non-fiction novels in history. Other books are slightly inspired by media cases, for example Hurricane Season, by Fernanda Melchor, which is based on an article about a body discovered in a Mexican town.

It’s also possible to find inspiration in literature itself. For example The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), by Edgar Allan Poe, is based on one of the first published mystery novels: Mademoiselle de Scuderi (1819), by E. T. A. Hoffmann. 

Of course, sometimes finding a perfect idea for a novel is even simpler. Any daily life issue could trigger a crime in your story: a family secret, an infidelity or a shady business.

2 – Confusing the reader

Mystery follows its own rules. And one of them is misleading the reader whenever possible. This implies leaving a few false clues throughout the book. As a result, the map that leads the reader to the solution is confusing.

Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, was an expert on false leads. Let’s see an example:

“At that instant I was aware of a bushy black beard and a pair of piercing eyes turned upon us through the side window of the cab.”

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), by Arthur Conan Doyle

This is just a distraction: Doyle makes the reader think—and Holmes, of course—that the bearded butler of the Baskerville mansion is the one chasing them, when in fact it’s the murderer wearing a fake beard.

(However, fake leads should be moderately distributed. We also need to leave real hints!)

3 – Reading many mystery novels

Picture: MaxPixel

When we delve into writing a specific genre, the best advice we can follow is reading many books belonging to the genre. Some of the best mystery books of all times that you have to read are the following:

  • The Valley of Fear (1914), by Arthur Donan Coyle
  • Murder on the Orient Express (1934), by Agatha Christie
  • The Analyst (2002), by John Katzenbach
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005), by Stieg Larsson
  • Think of a Number (2010), by John Verdon
  • The Girl on the Train (2015), by Paula Hawkins
  • The Couple Next Door (2017), by Shari Lapena
  • The Outsider (2018), by Stephen King

4 – Building characters with motivations and conflicts

Every mystery novel needs a main character who conducts the investigation. It doesn’t have to be a policeman or a detective, but it should have certain skills and qualities, such as emotional intelligence, intuition and the ability to think logically. However, the protagonists cannot be perfect: they need to be equipped with contradictions to be credible.

But it’s not just the main character who needs to have these traits. In fact, there’s a famous quote of uncertain origin (some attribute it to John Berger; others to Borges; a third group to Kurt Vonnegut) about this: “There are no secondary characters.”

This means that a good supporting character has to be created with the same care as a main one: with motivations and conflicts. And, in a mystery story, we’ll probably need to create a lot of secondary characters to make the investigation as intricate as it needs to be.

5 – Having a map of the crime

Picture: Pexels

Surely you know this Hollywood cliché. The detective is looking at an evidence board: a cork board full of photos, maps, sticky notes and newspaper clippings. We saw it in countless movies, from The Usual Suspects to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and also in TV shows ranging from The X-Files to Breaking Bad, and The Simpsons (but what haven’t we seen in The Simpsons, right?).

Of course, we are not saying you should make your own evidence board in your home kitchen (or are we? Actually, each writer has their own techniques and routines for writing). What we do recommend is that you have a map, either in your head or on a device, to be absolutely clear about your characters, the chapters and the timeline of the actions in your story.

6 – Being credible

Speaking of Hollywood…

We are used to mystery TV shows and books that follow certain stereotypes. We see high-speed chases throughout the city, police partners with different and conflicting personalities (the classic “buddy cop” subgenre), and interrogation rooms with very strong lighting.

We are not saying you shouldn’t use these resources in your story (after all, they work!), but you shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that you need to convey plausibility: readers must feel that what you are telling is a credible story. For example, if the setting is a small town in a developing country, we can’t have DNA results 24 hours after testing, because that’s not credible.

7 – Knowing the ending before starting to write

It’s hard to set off writing a crime novel without knowing the ending beforehand. It could be an interesting experiment, though maybe the results aren’t the best. In any case, this doesn’t mean that we have to know every plot detail before we sit down to write the first chapter.

Famous novelist of psychological thrillers Patricia Highsmith said that she could only see three quarters of her novel when she began a new book: the first two and the last. She tried not to think too much about the third part: it just flowed. She believed that it was at that moment that the illogical behavior of the characters took place, which broke the logical rhythm of the plot.

Some final words…

Finally, we want to remind you that this is only a list of recommendations. We also have a maxim: there are no rules or recipes when writing a book. We encourage you to trust your own judgment!

We hope these 7 tips for writing a mystery novel helped. Do you know others?

Translated by @florabosch

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