Your First Mystery

How did you get started writing mysteries or thrillers? Assuming you were an avid reader of the genre, did you outline the plots of your favorite stories? Study structure and pacing? Attend writing workshops by seasoned authors? Or did you use a how-to book?
Keeper of the Rings, my fourth sci fi romance now available in digital format, is the story wherein I learned how to plot a murder mystery. It has all the elements for a cozy: a limited number of suspects, most of whom know each other and who have a motive for the crime, a confined setting, and an amateur sleuth.
Here’s the story blurb:

Taurin is shrouded in black when Leena first meets him, his face shaded like the night. At first she believes him to be a simple farmer, but the man exhibits skills worthy of a warrior. With his commanding presence, he’s an obvious choice to be the lovely archaeologist’s protector on her quest for a stolen sacred artifact. Curious about his mysterious background, and increasingly tempted by his tantalizing touch, Leena prays their perilous journey will be a success. She must find the missing relic, or dangerous secrets will be revealed that may forever change her world.


Who stole the sacred horn that must be blown to reset the annual cycles of Lothar, the god worshipped by the people of Xan? Only the members of the ruling priesthood, the Synod, had access to the holy artifact. Was it Zeroun, the ambitious Minister of Religion? Perhaps Karayan, a friend of Leena’s family and the Minister of Justice, is involved. Or maybe Sirvat is guilty. As Minister of Finance, she has something to hide. So does everyone on this twelve person council, including the Arch Nome himself.

While Leena’s brother is assigned the task of investigating the Synod members, her mission is to retrieve the artifact. Here the story becomes Indiana Jones meets Star Wars. Leena and Taurin survive one peril after another on a desperate quest that takes them around the globe and deep underground beneath the ruins of a holy temple. Do they find the horn before disaster ensues? Is the thief unmasked? Was he responsible for the accident that killed Leena’s mother?

Here’s an excerpt where Leena and Taurin discuss the suspects with her brother, Bendyk, and his assistant, Swill.

Swill tugged at the long sleeves of her burgundy blouse, tucked into a black skirt that hugged her hips. “Magar makes regular unexplained entries in his receipts, which Sirvat deposits into the Treasury. Magar refuses to elaborate on the source. Sirvat’s financial records are impeccable, but the odd thing about her is these trips she takes every so often, returning with a new piece of jewelry each time. The items are created with rare gemstones. Usually, she’s not one to adorn herself.”

“I’ll bet I know where she gets them.” Taurin related what he and Leena had learned about Grotus and Sirvat’s relationship.

“I don’t believe it.” Bendyk shook his head. “She seems so strait-laced.”

Leena gave a small smile. “Perhaps she hides a passionate nature. She certainly has a peculiar bent to fall for a man like Grotus.” Her face grimaced in disgust at the memory of the smuggler. “You know, some of those items I saw in Grotus’s mansion are similar to pieces in Karayan’s house.” She pursed her lips in thought. “Karayan has quite an extensive art collection.”

“Are you implying that he buys his art works from Grotus?” Bendyk asked with a horrified expression.

“Not really. They just share the same kind of artistic taste, although Karayan is a much better dresser.”

Beside her, Taurin snorted. “We’re not here to discuss anyone’s preference in art or clothes. Did you investigate Zeroun? As Minister of Religion, his department is responsible for administering the Black Lands. Someone there has granted the Chocola Company illegal rights.”

“We’ll check into it,” Swill assured him. “We’ve cleared most of the other Synod members but weren’t sure about Sirvat’s trips and Magar’s secretive dealings in his trade commissions. I still feel he’s withholding information from us.”

“You’re wasting your time with Magar,” Taurin snapped. “I suggest you check out Zeroun. The Minister of Religion would also be responsible for—” He held his tongue; he’d nearly said for excising any records of the Temple of Light. “—for the Black Lands,” he finished.

They could easily be discussing suspects in a murder. This was the last romance I wrote before switching to mysteries, but it taught me everything I need to know about plotting a whodunit. How did you learn the craft?

20 thoughts on “Your First Mystery

  1. I have not written a mystery or thriller yet but I’d like to (though I sometimes wonder if I’m logical enough to pull it off). I always find myself amazed when I read them and wonder to myself how the writer came up with the series of clues and suspects.

    Like do writers work backward from the end in these types of books or just know how it’s all going to play out?

    I don’t know, somehow it just seems more complicated to me with mysteries and thrillers than it does with other genres.

    BK Jackson

  2. I’ll decide who the victim is and then determine who had something to gain from their death. Suspects may be colleagues at work, relatives, or friends. Then I give each one a secret or a guilty reason to want the victim dead. Think of your negative motivators: greed, jealousy, love, fear. Once you know who the killer is, you can plant clues, some of which may be false leads.

  3. There’s an old joke about a guy who puts a squirrel on the bar and says it writes mysteries. The bartender says, “Come on. How can a squirrel write a mystery?” And the guy says, “He starts with the ending and works his way back.”


    I had to learn plotting and, voices to the contrary notwithstanding, was able to do it by rigorously studying the craft via novels and good writing books and Larry Block’s column in WD. That’s why I wrote my own book on the subject!

    See, I don’t think it’s enough to tell people to “just write.” That’s like telling someone to “just golf.” If they keep that up, they’ll simply ingrain bad habits.

    That said, I’ve done it all ways: knowing who did it from the start, writing to find out who did it, and having who did it change during the course of the writing.

    Any of these ways can work, but I prefer having an idea at the outset, and letting it morph if it needs to.

  4. The only mystery I’ve ever attempted was geared for YA’s and contained a mish-mash of things I’d heard from deputy hubby. Of course I changed the names and method of death to protect the (un)innocent. The work needs revisions for sure. And I have no idea if I’ve done it right or not. Who knows if it will ever see the light of day.

  5. I usually plot the story in my head before I start typing anything. I know exactly how it should start and end. Then I outline the beginning and write my first three chapters then outline the middle and write it and then the ending. For a suspense I prefer to outline the whole book even if I change parts while typing.

  6. I write thrillers, not mysteries (and boy are my covers different than your covers!). I grew up on the likes of Alistair MacLean. Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage came as close to reading classics as I ever came. As far back as I can remember writing stories, they were always about people chasing other people. It wasn’t until after I’d sold my first book that I found out that my genre was thrillers.

    For me, the magical moment came in high school when I read The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsythe. For the first time, I understood how he built suspense. I noticed how the rhythm of language changed as the pace picked up, and I learned how space breaks and chapter endings can be used to make the reader scream for relief.

    Later in high school, I read The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, and again I saw how the manipulation was done.

    Everything Stephen King has ever written is a master class in structure for suspense writers.

    The only writing class I ever took was a complete disaster. I learned by studying the works of others, and by writing and writing and writing. Just as a successful golfer has to spend hours on the range to become proficient, so too must a writer spend hours in the chair.

    John Gilstrap

  7. I’ve always included mystery threads in my romances. Now I’m trying my hand at a straight mystery and one of my challenges is shifting the balance and letting the energy of the story flow from the mystery itself, rather than the development of a romantic relationship. It’s a completely different mindset.

  8. James, my hats off to you for “trying it all ways”. Like Mona, I need a synopsis before I begin writing, although the story may change once the characters’ voices are heard.

    Wanda, this seems like a good time to submit a YA mystery. Paranormals are glutting the market. Don’t see too many light mysteries among the YA crowd.

    John, you’d say our covers are different? Haha. Hey, I used to read Alistair Maclean too. Back in the day, I liked male action adventure stories, probably because there weren’t any books with action heroines then. It sounds as though you learned a lot by reading and studying your favorite suspense authors.

    Allison, you’re right in that writing a mystery is a different mindset than romance. In a whodunit, the puzzle is the thing. Any romantic development is secondary.

  9. Nancy, plotting ahead of time is super important in a mystery. I had a career path much like yours. I wrote historical romances and then tried my hand at a historical mystery. I loved plotting this story even though I changed the murderer half way through. I guess having a good idea of the ending before you write is good, but it helps to be flexible.
    Cynthia Thomason

  10. I got thrown into writing YA mysteries feet first when an editor friend invited me to submit a story idea for the Nancy Drew series. It got accepted, and I wound up writing four of them. I had to learn a lot in a hurry.

  11. Nice post, Nancy. My thrillers have mystery elements that can add plot twists, but in my adult debut book and my first YA, I had strong subplots of cold case murders. I love police procedurals so writing a cross genre story balances with my love of thriller pacing and action.

    Since I don’t plot much ahead of time, I like building strong evidence against multiple suspects where I don’t even have an idea whodunnit. If I can completely flip a coin at the end to decide who is guilty, then I’ve done my job.

    I haven’t found the plot where I can work backward from the ending, but that sounds like fun too.

  12. Oh, man. I just posted a long reply and it wouldn’t send. Will try again.

    Cindy, you’re very versatile in that you write historicals and contemp and mystery and romance. That helps in the changing marketplace!

  13. John, you’re right in that thrillers have a broader scope and different focus than mysteries. In the former, often the villain is known and it’s more a matter of stopping him before he succeeds in his dastardly deed. In a mystery, the crime is committed first and then it’s a puzzle as to whodunit. Of course, these are broad generalizations.

  14. Jordan, you’re very versatile too being able to write in different genres. Like you, I give each suspect a secret and often the one with the strongest motive becomes the murderer. Police procedurals are very different from amateur sleuth stories though.

  15. I never even thought about it. I just wrote what the voices in my head to me to! Trouble is, now that I’m working on my second thriller, the voices are remarkably quiet. Good thing I recently read JSB’s Plot & Structure!

  16. Nancy, maybe it would help to write a synopsis first? I’ve just finished the first 100 pages of my WIP and have had to go back and revise my synopsis accordingly, plus add some more detail for things to come. This acts as my writing guideline as I go along.

  17. The first and only mystery I wrote was a Zombie short story that Heather Graham goaded me into writing for a contest. The story almost made it into the final counting . . . but the biggest lesson I learned? Mystery writing is tricky, difficult and . . . requires a sense of logic that this poor author just does not possess!! I bow to you “whodunnit” writers! xox

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