Now, with much excitement, I present to you:
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 http://stacyjuba.com/blog/ and follow her blog at http://stacyjuba.com/blog/blog/ .