Writing a Murder Mystery? Here are 5 Top TipsJun 12, 2022
From the desk of Emylia Hall.
Writing a murder mystery can be baffling and thrilling in equal measure. There was a moment while writing my second crime novel when I looked down at my notebook – with its lists of questions, criss-crossing lines and character names staring blankly back at me – and felt well and truly stumped.
You see, I knew whodunit, but I didn’t know how on earth my sleuths were going to figure it out. At that moment I felt like a wearied cop, working late, staring at the board in the Incident Room, knowing that the answer was there somewhere – but agonisingly out of reach.
Of course, the job of an author is a whole lot easier than that of an actual detective – amateur or otherwise. As writers, we can cook up means, motive and opportunity any way we like. We have limitless resources to throw at a case (though it might not feel like it, as the laundry piles grow and the children whine and the day jobs clamour and the writing time shrinks…). We can conjure new prime suspects out of thin air.
All things considered, solving a fictional crime should be a doddle. But, of course, it isn’t.
My induction into writing a murder mystery
I consider myself a rookie when it comes to writing murder mysteries. My debut crime series is set to be published in May 2023 by Thomas & Mercer, and while readers of my previous novels will probably recognise plenty of crossover – there’s mystery and secrets in those other books too – it’s my first foray into detective fiction.
The Shell House Detectives, the opening book in this Cornish coast-set series, flowed pretty easily. I know, that’s an annoying thing to say, I’m sorry. But while there were undoubtedly other parts of the novel that required more work, the plotting was quite straightforward.
Perhaps that was because I spent about two months planning it before getting into the writing. The overall shape of the story was there from the beginning, and largely – give or take the addition of a character or sub-plot or two – it stayed that way.
Embracing the process
The next novel, however, the second in the series – The Harbour Lights Mystery – has proved altogether harder to get to the bottom of. My editor gave it the initial thumbs up based on a couple of paragraphs which effectively set things up by offering an intriguing case for our sleuths, plenty of atmosphere and characters that sounded like they’d be fun to follow. I followed up with a two-pager, which offered more in the way of plot beats, but still didn’t show how it all came together.
You see, at that point, I had no clue; not on the detail anyway. And when it comes to writing a murder mystery, that’s where the best kind of devils reside.
As I write this, I’m working on my second draft of The Harbour Lights Mystery. I can now look back on the first draft with a combination of fondness and relief. I spent about five months on it, hitting plenty of dead ends along the way.
But the eternal student in me was nevertheless fascinated by the process – I don’t think I’d ever heard the cogs whirring in my writing brain quite so loudly. I enjoyed the feeling of industry; the puzzle of it all.
As soon as I’d made the ‘crack the case’ analogy (and fancied myself in a riverside beer garden with Inspector Morse – the TV version, mind, because John Thaw played him as a greater charmer than Dexter’s original) – I leaned into the bafflement of the whole thing. I welcomed the head-scratching, the marker pen scrawls, the wild theories proffered then dismissed.
After all, where’s the story – or indeed the satisfaction – if it all comes too easily for our sleuths? Or indeed us writers.
5 tips to remember when writing a murder mystery
While there’s doubtless joy in the befuddlement, it can always be helpful to have some mantras to guide you. So here are 5 tips for writing a murder mystery:
- A murder mystery’s answer (always) lies in character
- It’s okay not to know everything when you start writing a murder mystery
- Beware the line between duping and misdirecting
- Don’t withhold for withholding’s sake
- Keep asking questions of your plot – even when you think you’ve nailed it
1. A murder mystery’s answer (always) lies in character
In Louise Penny’s first Chief Inspector Gamache novel, Still Life, she writes:
Crime was deeply human, Gamache knew. The cause and the effect. And the only way he knew to catch a criminal was to connect with the human beings involved.
—Louise Penny, Still Life
It’s very possible to write a first draft of your murder mystery without fully connecting with the human beings in the novel, but it’s hard and unsatisfying work on a lot of different levels.
Let’s talk about one particular aspect of writing a murder mystery: plot. Simply put, plot arises out of characters doing things – and unless you really know those characters, how will you know what they’re likely to do? The deeper you know the people in your novel, the more alive they will feel, the more nuanced they will seem, the more their motivations will be apparent. Plus, the opportunities for them to DO STUFF – good stuff, bad stuff, everything in between – will be just as plentiful as in real life. You’ll also be less likely to find yourself staring at the flashing cursor, thinking ‘what now?’.
While I knew who The Harbour Lights Mystery murderer was from day one, I’m only really getting to ‘know them’ as I work on the second draft.
Several pages of first-person freewriting in my notebook has helped me get to this point: I now know I can return to, and animate, their segments, with better ideas for their behaviour. The same goes for other characters – one of which, my delightfully (ahem) straight-talking husband told me ‘smelt like a red herring from the off’. I couldn’t argue, as they drop away in the first draft, simply because there’s nothing much for them to do.
This time round, I’m working harder – as Inspector Gamache would have it – to connect with my characters as human beings. And more and more possibilities are opening up as a result.
When you’re writing a murder mystery, deepening your characters always pays off. As guest writing coach Mark Billingham wrote in his blog for us:
Give your readers characters they genuinely care about, that have the power to move them, and you will have suspense from page one.
2. It’s okay not to know everything when you start writing a murder mystery
I don’t know about other murder mystery writers, but I felt a pressure to really nail the plotting in advance – even though that’s not how I’ve approached any of my previous novels. I’ve always equated detective fiction with plot (with a capital P), and therefore my reasoning was that plot should lead the process. I’m only realising now the fault in that logic.
In the excellent Howdunit: A Masterclass in Crime Writing by Members of the Detection Club, Golden Age writer J.J. Connington likens the whodunit plotting process to the composition of a chess problem.
In both cases the constructor begins at the end and works backward. The chess expert, having hit upon his checkmate position, has then to devise moves leading up to it, and has to place on the board a pawn here or a piece on some other square, in order to block certain moves which might otherwise be made.
It sounds like an incredibly orderly and considered process, put this way. Perhaps too much so?
Elsewhere in Howdunit, editor Martin Edwards writes:
Anthony Trollope famously damned Wilkie Collins’ fiction with faint praise, saying “The construction is most minute and wonderful. But I can never lose the taste of the construction.”
It’s worth remembering that it all depends on the finished result. That’s why identifying as a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’ is in many ways only helpful if it helps us hold our nerve through the process. As Zadie Smith says in her 10 tips of writing, ‘All that matters is what you leave on the page.’
In my current work-in-progress I knew the beginning, I knew the midpoint, and I knew the ending – more or less. But there were whole swathes of that first draft where I was doing an E.L Doctorow: ‘Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ I felt like I was getting it wrong, because I could only ever see perhaps two or three chapters ahead.
But while the fog was unnerving, I did keep my eyes on the road and my hands gripped tight to the wheel. Crucially, I made sure my attention didn’t waver; when I wasn’t writing, I was freewriting in my notebook (headings like ‘What’s going on with Phil?’), flattening out double-page spreads and doing more of those Incident Room boards that probably don’t exist in real life but help show all the elements of the case, and certainly helped a great deal while I was writing this murder mystery.
Looking back, it wasn’t wrong. There is no wrong way to approach the page. Of course, I could now outline my plot as if it were a series of smart chess moves. Only I would know that it wasn’t conceived that way – that there was a little bit of mayhem to go with the murder.
3. Beware the line between duping and misdirecting
Perhaps more so than with any other genre, readers of mystery novels often approach them with their sleeves rolled up, ready to get to work.
It’s not just about crediting the reader’s involvement in the story, and making space for their interpretation, but actively entering into the game together: a game that is, crucially, deemed fair.
In my first draft, my editor suggested that I’d crossed that often fine line between misdirecting the reader and duping them – and she had me bang to rights. I felt instant shame, because this is something I dislike intensely as both a reader and viewer of crime fiction. I’m now busy correcting it in my second draft.
Perhaps being hyper-aware of the reader’s extreme scrutiny creates insecurity when writing a murder mystery – and that ultimately leads to error. In desperately attempting to hold their ‘a-ha!’ moment off until the very last minute, we can cover up too much.
This is where a fresh pair of eyes is most useful, and your trusted early readers come into their own – and why being edited (and open to it!) is so vital. Playing fair with the reader only drives us to raise our game: we need to be clever for the novel to stand up to scrutiny, and for its end to be surprising as well as inevitable.
And that doesn’t happen by accident. Agatha Christie’s artful misdirection was legendary. In an examination of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in the Guardian, Sam Jordison notes the difference between lying and hiding the truth. He offers the example of a particularly effective one-sided telephone call, and how ‘Many similarly elegant sleights of hand allow Christie to prevent us from feeling cheated…’ And that’s the key: no cheating!
4. Don’t withhold for withholding’s sake
In my work-in-progress, I realised I’d been hanging on to a piece of information – something experienced by one of the characters – as I thought it made their upset and unrest mysterious. It might even have suggested they were capable of murder!
Clever me? No, not clever me. But I persisted with this plan while writing most of the first draft of my murder mystery. I ignored the little voice that was saying ‘Not cool, Emylia’, and continued to tip-toe around the fact of that matter. I was writing paragraphs full of vague unease and unplaced frustration, hoping the reader might be suitably intrigued.
We do not read in order to learn information already known to the characters, but to share in their experiences and to learn, with them, the answers to more interesting questions like: “What will happen next? How will X respond? And what effect(s) will X’s response have on Y?”
Writers who capriciously withhold information are teasing. They do so for the same reason they abuse flashbacks: because they don’t trust their story, or they have no story to tell... Poor writers assume that by being stingy with information they can entice readers to beg for more. Good writers know that the opposite is true: that the more generous they are with information, the more the reader will want to know.
Duly scolded, I’m fixing these mistakes in my next draft. I know full well that it’s far more interesting for readers to engage emotionally with characters and be deeply immersed in their lives, and that there are much more effective ways to create suspense in fiction.
Withholding only results in a feeling of distance, and a distance from feelings. It also puts enormous pressure on those eventual reveals to be really worth the trouble.
I fell into this trap because I was getting the ‘mystery’ aspect of a mystery novel wrong. What’s really mysterious is how people behave in response to a situation. That’s what we’re endlessly fascinated by: how other people live their lives. There’s no intrigue in simply watching the shadowy movements of a restless, tight-lipped cast.
What’s really mysterious is how people behave in response to a situation. That’s what we’re endlessly fascinated by: how other people live their lives. There’s no intrigue in simply watching the shadowy movements of a restless, tight-lipped cast.
Personally, I see these realisations as part of the magic of writing a murder mystery. It’s a process in which we never stop learning and self-interrogating – not in a dispirited, self-flagellating way, but with cheerful ferocity. Because every single novel – no matter how many we’ve written or not written before – is new.
5. Keep asking questions of your plot – even when you think you’ve nailed it
If the writer can thicken the plot and surprise the reader, the plot is logically improved.
Here ‘thickening the plot’ may mean all manner of things, such as:
- Extending your cast so you have sufficient suspects
- Working on the motivations of said cast
- Introducing more complications (those good old Nabokov rocks)
- Switching up the murderer
Late in the writing of the first draft of The Shell House Detectives, I realised I was a little short on suspects. I was in the kitchen at the time – Agatha Christie did say ‘The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes’ – and it was suddenly stunningly obvious that I needed another name up on the board in the Incident Room.
Now I can’t imagine the book without this addition to the cast. They’ve allowed me to bring greater texture to the novel, spin a new sub-plot, and shed light on aspects of another character’s personality.
Clare Mackintosh, in her recent Q&A with us here at The Novelry, described how she documents reader response on a chapter-by-chapter basis from the very beginning – something I intend to do from now on. If I hadn’t added this other player, I think I’d have been underserving the sleuthing reader, not quite giving them enough on which to train their magnifying glass.
As I mentioned in my first tip, I’ve recently thought of a development for one of my The Harbour Lights Mystery characters. It’s not intrinsic to the main plot, but it is, I think interesting – ‘thickening,’ if you will. It makes me more excited about this person, and what they’re bringing to the novel: their insecurities, needs and morality have made them that little bit more real. I’m planting myself in their shoes, wondering what I would do in their situation, and hoping that the reader does just that too.
Everything always comes back to character. Here I’ll quote Peter Selgin again: ‘The first thing to realize when choosing a subject for fiction is this: that, really, you have no choice. You have to write about people.’
And that’s true no matter what genre you’re writing in.
If you’re writing a murder mystery novel and finding it hard, take heart in the fact that – far more often than not – it should be. Keep connecting with the humanity of your characters, keep asking questions of your plot. Stare the hell out of that Incident Room board – and keep the coffees coming. It will all pay off. When you finally get your breakthrough, it’ll end up every bit as satisfying for the reader as it is for you, the writer.
Writing Coach at The Novelry
Emylia Hall is the author of four novels. The Book of Summers, a coming-of-age story inspired by childhood holidays, was published by Headline in 2012 and was one of the bestselling debuts of the year. It was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick, and went on to be voted the favourite read of the summer by readers. The first in her new Cornish coast set crime series, The Shell House Detectives, will be published in 2023. Write your novel with writer coaching from Emylia.