Guest Post: Writing Mysteries by Stacy Juba

I met Stacy through Book Blogs, and I thought how interesting it would be for her to write a guest post for Reads, Reviews, Recommends. Today, it's all about writing mysteries. As always, if you have any questions for our guest author for this week, don't hesitate to ask her in the comments section. I'm sure Stacy would be happy to answer your queries.

Now, with much excitement, I present to you:

Writing Mysteries
by Stacy Juba

If you've always wanted to write a mystery novel but aren't quite sure where to begin, here are 5 tips to "demystify" the process along with some concrete examples from my own published books. If you're a mystery reader, I hope you'll enjoy this behind-the-scenes glimpse at how authors craft their crime novels.

1. If your sleuth is an amateur detective, make sure that he/she has a believable excuse and motivation to get involved in a crime. Why would this character act nosy, and perhaps risk her life, if she’s not a police officer?

Kris Langley, the protagonist of my mystery novel Twenty-Five Years Ago Today, is an aspiring reporter who stumbles across an unsolved murder while doing research on the microfilm and decides to investigate as a way of redeeming herself from a past mistake. In my second mystery book Sink or Swim, my protagonist Cassidy Novak attracts a stalker after appearing on a reality show, and since she doesn’t want to hide forever, she has no choice but to investigate.

2. Create a protagonist that readers identify with, possessing strengths and flaws. That character should change and grow a bit by the end of a standalone mystery. In a series, growth might be more subtle from book-to-book, but it should still be evident.

My two mysteries to date are both standalones. Kris from Twenty-Five Years Ago Today is an obit writer, newsroom editorial assistant and aspiring reporter. She blames herself for the death of her cousin when they were children and has struggled with insomnia and an addiction to sleeping pills. She wants a fulfilling job and relationships, yet feels guilty about any happiness.

Cassidy from Sink or Swim is a personal trainer for a health club. She is close to her family, yet never got over her father taking off when she was a child. As a result, Cassidy is overly ambitious, determined to prove that she got along just fine without her father. She puts work before friendship and romance, and goes on a reality show hoping to earn enough money to launch a chain of fitness centers. But do her workaholic tendencies make her happy? Not really.

By the end of the books, (assuming they survive the mystery!) Kris and Cassidy should have gotten onto the right path and make better choices than they did in the beginning of the stories.

3. Choose a unique hook that can carry a novel or series.

For Twenty-Five Years Ago Today, the hook was a newspaper editorial assistant who is obsessed with the past coming to grips with her future as a result of investigating a cold case. For Sink or Swim, the hook was reality shows and what might happen after a normal person is thrust into the spotlight.

4. Give the sleuth a friend or sidekick to discuss the case with and to help out when needed.

Kris Langley talks about the case with the gorgeous Eric Soares, nephew of the murder victim. Not only do they chat about the investigation, but they also have a mutual attraction to one another. Cassidy Novak uses Zach Gallagher as a sounding board – Zach is the newspaper photographer profiling her in a series for the local daily. They also have a mutual attraction as my books are a cross between cozy mysteries and romantic suspense novels. The sidekick can also be a best friend, a work colleague, or a sibling, to name a few.

5. Flesh out secondary characters and suspects. Having realistic and interesting secondary characters will keep readers turning the pages.

The Twenty-Five Years Ago cast includes Dex, a gruff but likeable news veteran, his nemesis Jacqueline, an editor that Kris secretly thinks of as Corporate Barbie, and Kris’s overbearing mother and sister. The Sink or Swim cast includes Cassidy’s weasly boss Spike, her mother Pepper, who wears tight clothes and wears her blonde hair in a sprayed cone, and Reggie Elliott, the annoying winner of the reality show. Mystery novels should also have several suspects, fleshed out with their own traits and quirks.

Finally, be sure to include plenty of red herrings and twists and turns. I also recommend having a big showdown scene toward the end, where the main character is in jeopardy. You may want to consider thinking in terms of writing a mystery series as a series is easier to sell to publishers and it also gives you a loyal fan base that will be eager to revisit your characters in future books.

Good luck and happy reading! Have any more tips about what makes a good mystery novel? Share them in the comments!

Bio: Stacy Juba is the author of the mystery novels Twenty-Five Years Ago Today and Sink or Swim (Mainly Murder Press), as well as the children’s picture books The Flag Keeper and Victoria Rose and the Big Bad Noise, and the young adult hockey novel Face-Off. Her young adult paranormal thriller Dark Before Dawn will be released by Mainly Murder Press in January 2012. She is a former journalist with more than a dozen writing awards to her credit. You can read more about her work at and follow her blog at .


  1. Stacy I'm glad there are people like you around to write murder mysteries. As a real live detective I just cant bring myself around to writing a murder mystery novel. I guess I am to close to the truth about how crimes are solved. That's why I write Sci-Fi. I have thought about writing a couple of murder mysteries based on some cases I have worked on while I was on LAPD. If I do write one, I will keep the tips you present here as a guide.
    Thank you

    Skip Michael

  2. Thanks for the interview, Stacy! One day I want to write a mystery! I LOVE mystery/thrillers/suspense! That is my goal and this helps! I always look for writing tips as I did not go to school for writing, and this helps!
    Thanks Kate, for having Stacy as an interview!
    Laurie Carlson

  3. Love the article Stacy! Yet another ex-journalist turned crime writer, lol!

  4. Lots of good advice here.

    Thanks for the info.


  5. Thanks so much for the nice comments, Larry, Laurie and P.I. I'm glad the tips helped. I've been writing mysteries since I was in elementary school, since I discovered Nancy Drew! I've written in some other genres also, but the mysteries seems to come the most naturally to me, because of the structure. I love what you did with the post, Kate, and the neat art!

    If anybody has questions, feel free to leave them and I'll pop back in.

  6. @Stacy = I'm glad that you liked how it turned out. :-)

  7. Some excellent tips. I, too, am a mystery writer, and one of the things that makes me the happiest is when a reader comments about my characters and how interesting they are. Good stuff!

  8. Well said, every word, thank you!

  9. Excellent advice. One other tip, start with a bang. If you watch people in bookstores chose a book without assistance you will generally see that they check out the cover (very important) maybe the back of the book for blurbs and then they read the first line or paragraph. As a new writer you may have no control at all over the cover art and no way to get blurbs. But you have the first paragraph to convince readers that your book is the one they should by. Example from my book, Murder Manhattan Style:

    When the two riders appeared out of nowhere, I knew they came to kill my pa.

  10. I know what you mean about writing a mystery. I always have to have something that 'puzzles' me in a story, so when I write it always has the traditional Brit type mystery. Puzzle first, everything else second. Twists and turns and an unexpected ending a must. Recently read a blog concerning cutting your mystery in half, and aiming for a peak point of suspense at the halfway point that I found enlightening.
    Funny, but when I do short stories, I always want a bit of SF in it. So torn.

  11. Really like tip #5. Sometimes when you're consumed with writing your protagonist you forget to flesh out secondary chars.

  12. I agree, Joe, feedback from readers is the best! That's a great addition about starting with a bang, Warren. In many first drafts, the first few pages -- or even the first chapter -- needs to be cut. You don't want to have too much backstory weighing down your opener. That doesn't mean you need a body on page one, but the writer does need to get things moving.

  13. Thanks so much for coming by, Donnell. I agree, Pat, puzzles are fun to read as well as write. That's true, Jason, it is easy to overlook the secondary characters. It's important to get the story down with all the twists, turns, and red herrings, but once you finish the draft, it's a good idea to take a close look at the characters, both the leads and the secondary characters. If it's a series, then the secondary characters may return in future books so the author should develop the characters with that possibility in mind.

  14. Stacy and Kate, thank you both for this great post. I am currently starting to work on a Science Fiction mystery, and this sure helps me a lot; I have one question though, what do you think about replacing the sidekick with a journal? a first person account from the detective's point of view? too easy to give away more than is good?

  15. That would be an interesting technique about the journal. I think that could work, but I'd just be careful not to overuse it as you don't want to run the risk of telling us all the detective's views rather than showing us through actions and dialogue with other characters. I'd do it in small doses, so there aren't frequent large chunks of journal narrative interrupting the action of the story and slowing the pacing. (unless the whole book is written in first person as a journal?) But I do think techniques like this can enhance a story. In Twenty-Five Years Ago Today, I use a few newspaper articles in the book to convey facts about the case, both from 25 years ago and in the present, so that's along the same lines as a journal - using another device to get across certain information.

    Another thing to keep in mind is if there is no other character close enough for the detective to bounce ideas off of, is this character a loner? Could this be something that could be developed during the book - maybe by the end, the character begins to open up to people/trust them a bit more than in the beginning?

    It's hard to fit every book into a neat structure or formula as every story is unique, but those are just a couple things to keep in mind. Good luck with it! I was just telling someone the other day that I think it takes a special talent to write science fiction.

  16. Thanks for the answer. It's been a rather difficult process, getting the two kinds of stories to mix, but I'm coming along.

  17. Demystify the mystery process--that is great! And--great tips, Stacy.

  18. Good luck with it, Daniel. Hi Jenny, thanks for coming by!

  19. Stacy, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I am so glad to see someone who leaves their comfort zone for a different path and follows their dreams..It's not easy thing to do..hats' off to you. weed by choice..kjforce

  20. Thanks for the nice words! Book promotion does take some leaving of my comfort zone - I'm very introverted in groups and have had to do some book signings and public speaking, which is much harder for me than writing or doing online promotion. But pursuing a writing career always felt right and I'm passionate about it, excited to go to my desk and write, edit, or tackle book promotion tasks, so that's how I've always known I was on the right path.

  21. Thanks for all the great info Stacy. I've just written my first mystery novel and am knee deep into the dreaded query process. What made you choose to go with your publisher Mainly Murder Press?

    Kelly Miller

  22. @stacy - its brilliant that you are willing to share such helpful suggestions with the readers.I'm following you right away

    @kate - awesome work with the blog. :)


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