January 13, 2014

Creating a Successful Mystery Book

Giacomo and his dog slick

Giacomo & Slick

Creating a Successful Mystery Book

When you talk about creating a mystery book, there is one huge looming question that needs to be answered first—what kind of mystery book are you talking about? A cozy mystery is different than a hard-boiled detective, and a police procedural is quite different than a thriller. Each one of these sub-genres has its own style and it takes a different type of person to write them.

There are certain things they all have in common, at least the successful ones: Well-developed characters, a solid plot, and a smooth story.


As far as plot goes, an author has a lot of options—a simple plot with twists at the end; a complex plot that has the reader guessing the whole time; a plot revealed right up front, but the detective has to figure out how to catch the bad guy. The list is long, and which plot you use determines how your story will be told, and even what type of characters you will need.

The devious serial-killer type might require an intellectual detective, one who focuses on analytical skills to solve the crime. A drug-related plot demands a detective who is street smart, with connections on all the corners. A police procedural calls for a detective to be wired into the political scene, with media contacts, and perhaps that cozy mystery needs a protagonist connected to the right social circles. Imagine anyone but Peter Falk playing Detective Colombo in the old TV series. And who could have replaced Telly Savalas as Kojak? The same thing applies to your novels.

Necessary DecisionsCharacter

We don’t have anywhere near enough space to go into what is needed with character to make a book successful, but we can at least hit the highlights. For me, character is everything. Character is what drives a story, what stops a story, what makes people read, and what makes them put a book down.

When you think about “Gone With the Wind” you think of Scarlett O’Hara. The “Count of Monte Cristo” brings Edmond Dantes to mind. If someone mentions “The Usual Suspects,” an image of Keyser Söze limping down the street appears in your head. “The Godfather” almost surely will evoke a picture of Marlon Brando, his cheeks puffed out from his cotton props, mumbling the now-famous line, “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

In none of these situations do you think of plot; you think of character. As far as I’m concerned, character is story.


If plot determines character, and character is everything, then story ties it all together. Story is the magic that makes it all work. Give five writers the same plot and the same characters, and you’ll get five different stories. Story isn’t just a writer’s voice, but the way a writer chooses to use that voice.

In my novel, “Murder Takes Time,” the story is told in a combination of first and third person point of view. It also goes back and forth in time as the detective finds clues from the past at each of the crime scenes. I struggled to find a way to tell this, and it proved to be a more daunting task than I originally thought it would be, but I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. When I was shopping this to agents, several of them told me to only use one POV, and others insisted I tell the story in a linear fashion. I stuck to my guns though, and I’m glad I did. The feedback I’m getting from people is that they love the way the story is told.

Bottom Line

Thousands of books have been written on writing, and more come out every day. Each one tries to teach you how to write in a different way, and they are all filled with rules. As far as I’m concerned it still boils down to the same thing it’s been for thousands of years: plot, character and story. Get those down right, and you’ve got a good book.

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