Mystery writing tends to follow standard rules, because mystery readers are looking for a particular experience: they want the intellectual challenge of solving the crime before the detective does, and the pleasure of knowing that everything will come together in the end.
1) Plot is everything. Many readers are playing a kind of game when they read a detective novel, so plot has to come first. Make sure each plot point is plausible, and keep the action moving.
2) Introduce both the detective and the culprit early on. As the main character, your detective must obviously appear early in the book. As for the culprit, your reader will feel cheated if the antagonist, or villain, enters too late in the book to be a viable suspect in their minds.
3) Introduce the crime within the first three chapters. The crime and the ensuing questions are what hook your reader. As with any fiction, you want to do that as soon as possible.
4) The crime should be believable. While the details of the murder — how, where, and why it’s done, as well as how the crime is discovered — are your main opportunities to introduce variety, make sure the crime is plausible. Your reader will feel cheated if the crime is not something that could really happen.
5) The detective should solve the case using only rational methods. Consider this part of the oath written by G.K. Chesterton for the British Detection Club: “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow on them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”
6) The culprit must be capable of committing the crime. Your reader must believe your villain’s motivation, and the villain must be capable of the crime, both physically and emotionally.
7) Don’t try to fool your reader. Again, it takes the fun out. Don’t use improbable disguises, twins, accidental solutions, or supernatural solutions. All the clues should be revealed to the reader as the detective finds them.
8) Do your research. Get all the essential details right. Many readers will put down a book in which they recognize factual errors.
How do I do it?
I always start with place. I believe that human transactions don’t happen in a void: they grow organically from the people involved and the context in which they occur. My characters belong in the places they inhabit. I couldn’t take one of them and put her in a completely different book, inhabiting a completely different space.
There’s a lot of interesting thought about how we’re connected to the spaces we inhabit, those we choose and those that are chosen for us, those we love and those we can’t wait to see the last of. I think it’s fascinating to consider those ideas. But they’re not why I write about place.
So why is it so important to me? Well, it’s partly to do with love, and it’s partly to do with context.
There are places I’ve lived, or stayed, or even just visited, that will always be with me; there was something interesting or different or even mysterious about it that kept it tucked away in my brain (yeah, I know: cue in John Lennon’s “there are places I remember…”). Besides, I have a natural tendency to want to share the love of places I’ve loved with others, live there a bit longer through writing about them.
The context issue is a little trickier to explain. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of going somewhere — entering a house, crossing a bridge, walking down a street, climbing a hill — and being suddenly and inexplicably overcome with some sort of sensation that’s related to where you are. The locale is sending you signals, sometimes wonderful, sometimes frightening, always interesting.
And the truth is that the feeling is rarely wrong: if a place starts tugging at me, even if I don’t immediately feel any attraction to it, a little work will reveal the jewels that are just waiting for a creative spirit to come along.
My Sydney Riley series is a case in point. I started with a place — Provincetown — and the people who inhabit that space, and its own unique attributes. There’s a lot to be said about land’s end, and about the people who are attracted to a place like land’s end. Nobody got here by accident; we’re not on the way to anywhere else. So it was already a place where you could easily see all sorts of stories flourishing.
There are certainly places that are important to you, that speak to you. What are they? Where are they? What magic could you create there?
Jeannette de Beauvoir is a bestselling author of mystery and historical fiction, which she also teaches. More about what she can do for you here.