Seven Mystery Writing Tips

Peter Abrahams aka Spencer Quinn

1. In plotting a mystery it’s good to know at least the bare bone sequential details of the actual crime. For example, Jenny hires hit man Tommy to kill her cheating husband Robby but unknown to her Tommy subcontracts the hit out to his drunken buddy Buddy who mistakenly kills Willie, another cheating husband who happened to be cheating with the same woman Robby was. Buddy goes missing and his wife hires a P.I. to find him. Buddy’s wife and the P.I. fall for each other. Willie’s body turns up, the cops are called in, and our story begins.

2. But what if you have trouble coming up with all that, and days and weeks are passing and you want to actually be writing but all you have is Willie’s body turning up and your main character, an antisocial and violent police sergeant named Victoria Shklovsky? My advice: start writing. But be aware you will now be writing a novel and solving your own case as the same time. The risk of going down wrong roads is very high. The biggest risk of all is that the challenge of writing a coherent story will be so great you’ll feel satisfied with just meeting that goal– but all you’ve done is reached the first floor in the Tower of Mystery. Just about all my books have been written using some combination of completely knowing the crime and solving my own case. Sometimes you stumble into something very helpful: the voice of Chet in the Chet and Bernie mysteries, for example.

3. Some of the talents you need for this job are hard to make stronger, but everyone can write better prose. Pick the exact right word! Ever heard of rhythm? Read your stuff very carefully. If something bothers you even the teensiest, slam on the brakes right there and fix it. Maybe the problem is ten pages before, where the set-up isn’t quite on target. Fix! And worship the God of Verbs.

4. There are two minds involved in writing mysteries – and any fiction: the mind you harness and the wild mind. The big ideas – the ones that make the reader gasp, or at least turn the page – come from the wild mind. The wild mind resists being on the clock. But you need it! You need it now! Relax. The wild mind shies away from the needy writer. But it likes long showers. There’s something amniotic going on. Ocean swims are even better. Music can be good. A drink (1).

5. There are going to be clues in a mystery. I like where something everyday – a cocktail umbrella – turns out to be a clue, and where something cluey – a spent cartridge – does not. Try not to make your story a plodding trek from clue to clue. You’re supposed to be turning up the heat. Some of the best clues aren’t clues at all – but a word unsaid, a sudden mood change, a spring in the step of a supposed mourner.

6. Here are the blueprints to the Tower of Mystery. First floor: plot only. Plot is the sine qua non of mystery writing, and many many readers are satisfied with a speedy, suspenseful plot and nothing more. Second floor: interesting characters begin to appear. Third floor: now we encounter mood, tone, atmosphere, sense of place – in other words, a world. Fourth floor: “All out for quality prose!” Fifth floor: thematic material. The story is about more that solving a crime. Here the mystery novel meets the literary novel. Advantage mystery in my book, because fifth floor mysteries do everything the literary novel does but at bullet train speed.

7. Friends and editors. A smart, well-read, mystery-loving friend who is willing to be honest can be very valuable to the mystery writer. Here’s who can tell you that something you love on page 132 was done two years ago by X and Justin Bieber will be starring in the Hulu version. Try getting the friend to tell you your story in their words after they’ve read it. This can be an eye-opener. Friends like this are scarce, due to their natural reluctance to damage the friendship beyond redemption. And all for this crazy notion of yours! As for actual editors at actual publishing houses where you have actual contracts: Don’t send them the manuscript if there any problems in it at all that you’re aware of, with the thought “I’m so done with this, maybe she’ll fix it.” Put yourself in her place. Send her a story so polished she’ll be squinting from the glare.



SPENCER QUINN is the bestselling author of the Chet and Bernie mystery series, as well as the #1 New York Times bestselling Bowser and Birdie series for middle-grade readers. He lives on Cape Cod with his wife Diana—and dogs Audrey and Pearl.