How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America

How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America

How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America

How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America


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From 70 of the most successful mystery writers in the business, an invaluable guide to crafting mysteries—from character development and plot to procedurals and thrillers—“this is a writing guide that readers and writers will turn to again and again” (Booklist, starred review).

Mystery Writers of America (MWA) is known for providing unparalleled resources on the craft, art, and business of storytelling, helping writers of all levels improve their skills for nearly a century. Now, this handbook helps authors navigate the ever-shifting publishing landscape—from pacing, plotting, the business side of publishing, to the current demand for diversity and inclusivity across all genres, and more.

Featuring essays by a new generation of bestselling experts on various elements of the craft and shorter pieces of crowd-sourced wisdom from the MWA membership as a whole, the topics covered can be categorized as follows:
—Before Writing (rules; genres; setting; character; research; etc.)
—While Writing (outlining; the plot; dialogue; mood; etc.)
—After Writing (agents; editors; self-pub; etc.)
—Other than Novels (short stories; true crime; etc.)
—Other Considerations (diverse characters; legal questions; criticism)

Also included is a collection of essays from MWA published authors—including Jeffery Deaver, Tess Gerritsen, and Charlaine Harris—selected by bestselling authors Lee Child and Laurie King and arranged thematically answering, “What piece of writing advice do you wish you’d had at the beginning of your career?”

“Everything you wanted to know about how to plan, draft, write, revise, publish, and market a mystery” (Kirkus Reviews), this inclusive manual provides practical, current, easily digestible advice for new and established authors alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781982149437
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 04/27/2021
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 684,682
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Mystery Writers of America is the premier organization for mystery and crime writers, professionals allied to the crime-writing field, aspiring crime writers, and folks who just love to read crime fiction.

Lee Child, previously a television director, union organizer, theater technician, and law student, was fired and on the dole when he hatched a harebrained scheme to write a bestselling novel, thus saving his family from ruin. Killing Floor went on to win worldwide acclaim. The Midnight Line, is his twenty-second Reacher novel. The hero of his series, Jack Reacher, besides being fictional, is a kindhearted soul who allows Lee lots of spare time for reading, listening to music, and watching Yankees and Aston Villa games. Lee was born in England but now lives in New York City and leaves the island of Manhattan only when required to by forces beyond his control. Visit Lee online at for more information about the novels, short stories, and the movies Jack Reacher and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, starring Tom Cruise. Lee can also be found on Facebook: LeeChildOfficial, Twitter: @LeeChildReacher, and YouTube: LeeChildJackReacher.

Table of Contents

Introduction Lee Child 1

The Rules and Genres

Neil Nyren-The Rules-and When to Break Them 5

Carved in stone or gentle suggestions: what are the rules in the mystery genre, why do they matter, and when don't they matter? Carolyn Hart 12

Meg Gardiner-Keeping It Thrilling 13

Nine things your thriller needs to be lean, mean, and exhilarating. Beth Amos 22

Naomi Hirahara-Insider, Outsider: The Amateur Sleuth 23

Thepoint, and point of view, of your accidental detective. Lindsey Davis 33

Rachel Howzell Hall-Finding Lou: The Police Procedural 34

Are you a cop, or do you just play one on the page? Linwood Barclay 39

Alex Segura-The Mindset of Darkness: Writing Noir 40

It's about character: the flawed protagonist and letting your characters fail. Hank Phillippi Ryan 46

Charlaine Harris-Crossing the Genres 48

Mixing your mystery with a vampire, a talking cow, or a love interest? Kate White 51

Jacqueline Winspear-The Historical Mystery 52

Time, place, and the past. Suzanne Chazin 58

Tess Gerritsen-The Medical Thriller 59

Playing on the reader's real-life fears and hunger for insider knowledge. Gige Pandian 66

Gayle Lynds-Researching the Spy Thriller 67

Or: Why can't I just make it all up? Stephanie Kane 75

Other Mysteries

Susan Vaught-Mysteries for Children: An Introduction 79

The kids' mystery, from picture books to YA-expectations and some hints. C. M. Surrisi 83

Chris Grabenstein-Unleash Your Inner Child 84

Middle-grade mysteries: you, too, can become a rock star for ten-year-olds. Elizabeth Sims 91

Kelley Armstrong-The Young Adult Mystery 92

Complex, authentic stories for the young adult-emphasis on adult. Pat Gallant Weigh 101

Dale W. Berry and Gary Phillips-Graphic Novels 103

The mystery within the panels: your conversation with words and pictures. Dag Öhrlund 113

Art Taylor-The Short Mystery 114

What do the characters (and readers) want in your mystery short story? Charles Salzberg 121

Daniel Stashower-Ten Stupid Questions about True Crime 122

Building a vivid page-turner, out of nothing but facts. Carole Bugge 129

The Writing

Lyndsay Faye-On Style 133

The writer's voice, or, cooking with cadence, rhythm, and audacity. Steve Hockensmith 142

Jeffery Deaver-Always Outline! 143

The why and the how of planning it out first. Rob Hart 150

Hallie Ephron 151

Lee Child-Never Outline! 152

The argument for spontaneity. Shelly Frome 156

Laurie R. King-The Art of the Rewrite 157

Turning your raw first draft into a clear, compelling story. Rae Franklin James 164

Leslie Budewitz 165

Deborah Crombie-Plot and the Bones of a Mystery 166

Bringing together all the elements of your novel so it stands strong. Tim Maleeny 172

Robert Lopresti 173

Frankie Y. Bailey-Diversity in Crime Fiction 174

Enriching your novel by writing characters, not categories. Elaine Viets 183

Allison Brennan-The Protagonist 184

Your hero: the one we relate to, the one who drives the story. Stephanie Kay Bendel 191

T. Jefferson Parker-The Villain of the Piece 192

Your hero in reverse: the forces that create a vivid villain. Kris Neri 198

Craig Johnson-Supporting Characters 199

The chorus of voices that backs up your protagonist Gay Toltl Kinman 204

Greg Herren-Writing the Talk 205

Dialogue that sounds true, reveals character, and draws in the reader. Bradley Harper 212

Stephen Ross 213

William Kent Krueger-Setting 214

Your most versatile element: backdrop, player, and the all-pervading sense of place. Thomas B. Sawyer 222

Catriona McPherson-Humor in Crime Fiction 223

Funny mystery, or mystery with fun: why, how, and when to stop? James W. Ziskin 231

Caroline & Charles Todd-Writing in Partnership 232

Two writers with one voice: how we learned to collaborate. Bradley Harper 237

Max Allan Collins-Tie-Ins and Continuing a Character 238

Playing in someone else's sandbox. Hal Bodner 245

After the Writing

Oline H. Cogdill-Secrets of a Book Critic 249

Reviews and reviewers: what to learn from them, and what to ignore. Marilyn Stasio 257

Liliana Hart-Self-Publishing 258

How to flourish as an independently published writer. Nancy J. Cohen 266

Maddee James-Authors Online 267

Building your author identity and reaching out to readers, online. Mysti Berry 275

Louise Penny-Building Your Community 276

It's the writer, not the book: finding a home in the virtual village. Bev Vincent 284

Daniel Steven-Legal Considerations 285

What every mystery writer needs to know about publishing law.

About the Contributors 291

Contributor Permissions 309

Index 315

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