These days, I am a mystery author, with six books in two series to my credit, but in my former career, I was a software engineer. That background in planning and design has wormed its way into how I construct my mystery novels. I’ve found that over the years, I’ve developed a basic recipe for my mystery novels. That doesn’t mean the plots are all the same, by any means, but it means that I make sure I include all of the essential ingredients that make my mysteries a tasty treat for readers.
The first of those essential ingredients is the sleuth. The sleuth lives on in all of the books in a series, so the character of the sleuth must be fully fleshed out, interesting and complex, so the different books in the series can provide tests for the sleuth, pushing her buttons, so to speak, probing her weaknesses, utilizing her strengths, and giving her lessons to learn and apply to her developing personality.
The semi-professional sleuth for my RM Outdoor Adventures series, whitewater river ranger Mandy Tanner is a young woman in her twenties who has a lot of growing to do, maturity-wise. She is also in a developing romantic relationship with her boyfriend Rob Juarez and has to deal with the trauma of past losses in her life, including her parents who were both killed in a car crash while Mandy was in her senior year of high school.
The amateur sleuth for my Claire Hanover gift basket designer series is a middle-aged wife and mother in her late forties with a fierce protective instinct when it comes to the safety and welfare of family members and close friends. This helps me solve the “amateur sleuth problem” of why she pokes her nose in murder cases versus letting police handle them. It’s because I threaten someone close to her in each book of her series.
The second essential ingredient of a mystery novel is the victim. There may be more than one victim, ultimately, but the first one is the most important. Even though this person is found dead very early on in the novel, he or she must again be fully-fleshed-out and have a rich and interesting backstory, so as the sleuth discovers more about him or her, that leads to clues. Also, the victim needs to be someone that multiple people may have wanted to kill.
That brings up the third essential ingredient, suspects. There should be at least five, and even more, if you, the author, intend to kill off one or more of the suspects later on in the story. When police look for suspects, they look for three important characteristics: means, motive, and opportunity. A murderer needs to have all three.
Means is the ability to commit the crime, having the know-how, access to murder weapon, and so on. Motive is the reason a suspect would desire to commit the heinous crime of murder, and it should be strong enough to drive the suspect past the natural restraint we all have to not kill our own kind. I often use variations on the seven deadly sins as motives for my suspects: greed, lust, gluttony, sloth, pride, envy, and anger. Opportunity is the chance to commit the crime, being at the right place at the right time. I try to make sure that all of my suspects have at least two of the three characteristics, so they all look as guilty as heck to the reader.
The fourth essential ingredient is clues. Like suspects, I think there should be at least five clues in a mystery novel, and I work hard to develop them and have my sleuth discover them in the course of her investigations. Clues can point to one suspect or multiple suspects. I often slip in the clues surreptitiously, so they’re easy for the reader to miss, but I believe strongly in playing fair with the reader. All the information the reader needs to solve the puzzle of the crime on his or her own should appear at some point in the novel.
Clues can include something the murderer leaves at the crime scene, such as the murder weapon, foot/tire/fingerprints, DNA evidence, clothing, objects, or food/drink. Clues can also include something the murderer removes from the crime scene, such as the victim’s blood, gunshot residue, bullet casings, or souvenirs, such as a piece of jewelry from the victim or a photo of the victim. Clues can also include intangible evidence, such as snippets of character dialogue or thoughts, body language, or actions of characters.
The fifth essential ingredient is false clues, often called red herrings. I feel there should be just as many of these as the real clues, to make the puzzle more challenging to solve for the reader. Their purpose is to mislead the reader, to take her down the wrong path of reasoning, and to generate surprises or turning points later on in the story. Red herrings have the same characteristics as clues, as described in the paragraph above.
The last essential ingredient is the setting of the mystery. In my RM Outdoor Adventures series, the setting is always a whitewater river somewhere in the Rocky Mountains—so far, the Arkansas River in Colorado and the Colorado River in Utah. In my Claire Hanover gift basket designer series, I have used the actual city of Colorado Springs and town of Breckenridge in Colorado as my settings.
The setting description should be rich and fully described so the reader can feel that he is THERE and immerse himself fully in the story. The setting descriptions should tickle all of the reader’ senses: the basic five (sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch) as well as others: temperature, kinesthetic (movement, position), pain, balance/acceleration (inner ear), and internal stimuli (such as respiration, heartbeat, thirst, hunger, nausea). The real or imaginary setting description should include geography, local flora/fauna, weather, human constructions (streets, buildings, etc.), ongoing events (party, festival/fair, conference/convention, etc.), and more.
How to Write a Damn Good Mystery, James N. Frey
Don’t Murder Your Mystery, Chris Roerden
How to Write Killer Fiction, Carolyn Wheat
Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, Hallie Ephron
Writing Mysteries, edited by Sue Grafton
Especially for Readers
Behind the Mystery, Stuart Kaminsky and Laurie Roberts
Bestselling mystery author Beth Groundwater writes the Claire Hanover gift basket designer series (A Real Basket Case, a Best First Novel Agatha Award finalist, To Hell in a Handbasket, and in November, 2013, A Basket of Trouble) and the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Adventures series starring whitewater river ranger Mandy Tanner (Deadly Currents, an Amazon #3 overall bestseller, Wicked Eddies, finalist for the Rocky Award, and released in June, 2013, Fatal Descent). Beth enjoys Colorado’s many outdoor activities, including skiing and whitewater rafting, and loves talking to book clubs. Please visit her at her website, her blog, her Facebook page, and her Goodreads page.
When Claire Hanover saddles up for the opening event of her brother Charley’s new riding stable, the last thing she expects is a murder investigation. Kyle Mendoza, one of the stable hands, is found dead in Gunpowder’s stall. Everyone thinks the horse trampled him, until it’s discovered someone killed Kyle before dragging him into the stall. Charley’s troubles worsen with Kyle’s family suing him and a rival stable owner wrangling up his clients, so Claire decides to find the real murderer before her brother’s business is put out to pasture.
For more information on the book, including excerpts and purchase links, go here.