For the last two years, I’ve had the privilege of being a member of Mystery Writers of America, whose membership includes such heavy-hitters as Stephen King, Walter Mosley, Louise Penny, and Tana French. (When my debut mystery, How Everything Turns Away, came out, it was listed right beside Stephen King’s newest, Billy Summers.)
Last April, MWA put out a book specifically for mystery writers working on their craft. How to Write a Mystery consists of essays by bestselling mystery and thriller writers from its membership. I read it when it first came out, took amble notes as I was plotting out my sequel, and planned to write a review. Then school started, my debut came out, and I got busy marketing it and writing the sequel. Now that school is over and my sequel is with my editor, I thought I’d better review this puppy before I forget all about it!
The collection is edited by Lee Child with help from Laurie R. King. The essays are broken into four sections: The Rules and Genres; Other Mysteries; The Writing; and After the Writing. Rather than give an overview of these, I thought I would just offer some gems I found in each section.
The Rules and Genres
“The novel is a movie stuntman, about to get pushed off a sixty-story building. The prop guys have a square fire department airbag ready on the sidewalk below. One corner is marked Mystery, one Thriller, one Crime Fiction, and one Suspense. The stuntman is going to land on the bag. (I hope.) But probably not dead-on. Probably somewhere off-center. But biased toward which corner? I don’t know yet. And I really don’t mind. I’m excited to find out.” -Lee Child
“The hard-boiled detective – think Chandler, Hammett, and Ross Macdonald…often has unorthodox methods that suit them well, and is not averse to bending or breaking the law in pursuit of justice…In the cozy, the setting is usually rural or small-town, the violence most often occurs offstage, the sex and profanity are minor to nonexistent, and the investigator is usually an amateur and most often a woman whose interests lie elsewhere – knitting or baking or antiques, say…technothriller novels [feature] international military action and potential conflict of all kinds, suffused with a deep knowledge of hardware, tactics, and the military heart and mind. Tom Clancy is the king here…Other writers have mashed the subgenres up…Carl Hiaasen combines the environmental thriller with comic noir…Andy Weir’s Artemis blends science fiction with the heist novel. Stephen King’s 11/23/63 is a political thriller by way of time travel. Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls does the same for the serial killer novel…Read them all, absorb them, see what works, figure out why it works – and then use everything you’ve read to create your very own style. Surprise yourself. Surprise us all. Make brilliant pretzels.” – Neil Nyren
“In a thriller, the story is about the choices the characters make when facing deadly threats, under increasing pressure, often with time running out. The only real way to find out what characters are made of is to crack their world in half.” – Meg Gardiner
“Twists can involve a discovery, a revelation – say, of a secret – a betrayal, a declaration of love, a mistake, a failure of courage…But no matter how you plant a twist, it should be earned, or the reader will feel burned. Use twists to ramp up the tension, the suspense, the stakes; to reveal and change character.” – Meg Gardiner
“An amateur sleuth is not paid for investigative services, the most daunting challenge for a writer of this subgenre is to justify the involvement of their protagonist in the storyline…Rather than worrying whether readers will like your amateur sleuths, you need to consider whether the characters are compelling and entertaining.” – Naomi Hirahara
“The root of noir is in character – and to fully experience a noir story, you have to see the character go from their norm, whether buttoned-up businessman unhappy with his job or bored housewife, to their rock bottom…while these kinds of characters can exist in a PI novel or procedural, if the series is more evergreen than ‘evolving,’ it’s harder to label the work as noir…The primary challenge in writing noir is the ability to let go – to allow your characters, through their own actions, to dig themselves deeper into the holes they’ve created, and to allow them to fail…In a dangerous world that’s more gray than black or white, noirs reflect our darkness – creating an eerie beauty that can arise only when all hope is gone.” – Alex Segura
“You should write the kind of story that you, yourself, want to read. If you are into crime, skip the feel-good stuff.” – Dag Ohrlund
“Poe believed that the short story was the pinnacle of prose compositions – the one that ‘should best fulfill the demands of high genius’ – in part directly related to the form’s brevity. Short stories, according to Poe, should be capable of being read in a single sitting, with ‘unity of effect’ being both a goal and a challenge.” – Art Taylor
“Writers often (too often?) strive to sneak a plot twist into the final line…But while such reveals can surely offer immediate pleasures, I would argue that character twists are often more effective.” – Art Taylor
“To paraphrase Vince Lombardi, plot is not the most important thing, it’s the only thing. All the pretty prose, marvelous metaphors, and captivating characters in the world will not make up for the lack of a good story.” – Carole Bugge
“Be audacious with your style. Be simple with your sentences, too. Just don’t attempt to do either one constantly.” – Lyndsay Faye
“I outline to what feels like the middle of the book, [then] I jump ahead and actually write the last chapter. By writing the last chapter, I know who did it, why they did it, and how they did it.” – Rae Franklin James
“When all else fails, remember to raise the stakes! Readers don’t read mysteries just for the puzzle. You have to give them emotional engagement.” – Deborah Crombie
“If you are writing a story with a character who is a forensic scientist, you might try to arrange an interview with a real person who works in a crime lab. Similarly, if you’re creating a character who has a background different from your own, you might want to reach out to someone who can tell you if you’re ‘getting it right.’ ” – Frankie Y Bailey
“When is it a good idea to introduce laughs and when should we resist? Can a death scene be funny? A murder? Absolutely. Elmore Leonard wouldn’t write them any other way and Oyinkan Braithwaite has taken up the baton in her biting black comedy My Sister, the Serial Killer. You have to park most, perhaps all, of your empathy to appreciate wit this scabrous – but it’s worth it.” – Catriona McPherson
“Advertising and marketing are for visibility, not for sales. A lot of people get disappointed when they invest in an ad campaign and they don’t see immediate sales results.” – Liliana Hart
“Your mailing list, which you use to send monthly or semiregular newsletters, is one of the foundations of your online presence. Newsletters allow you to reach your biggest fans directly.” – Maddee James
“A veteran writer was talking to someone whose first novel had just come out, and who was having an anxiety attack about the upcoming panel. The debut author admitted he had no idea how to promote his book. ‘I’ll tell you how,’ said the vet. I leaned closer. ‘Don’t promote your book,’ he said. ‘Promote yourself…If they like you, they’ll probably buy your book, and will probably like it…and will probably tell others about it.’ Wait a minute, I thought…if a book’s bad, no amount of liking the writer will change that. And that’s generally true. And yet…” – Louise Penny
2 thoughts on “Learning from the Masters: How to Write a Mystery”
Great job again on the news and other information. How does one become a member of the Mystery Writers?
There are several levels of membership. Here’s the top one: https://mysterywriters.org/how-to-become-a-member-of-mwa/membership-active-status/
If that doesn’t apply to you (it doesn’t apply to me), then you can apply for Associate status.