March 19, 2012

how to write a mystery

Blogger's Note: I am pleased to welcome Ellen Byerrum, author of the Crime of Fashion series, as part of the blog tour for her latest installment: Death on Heels. As someone who dreams of one day writing legit mysteries, I appreciate Ellen indulging me and sharing some of her tips for writing an awesome mystery.

(Read my review of Death on Heels here.)

By Ellen Byerrum
Guest blogger

Some people might say: The same way you plan a murder. But that would be wrong, because in a murder mystery, you have think about everyone who might be implicated, every suspect with means, motive, and opportunity, every witness with a piece of the puzzle, every investigative angle, every twist and turn of the plot. Planning an actual murder is easier.  Theoretically. Well, maybe not, what with all the moral rot you’ve got there. And we’re only talking about planning here, not doing.

Where do you start?  Believe it or not, I’ve met many writers who began their first book because they someone needed to die, at least on paper. Usually it involved their boss, a coworker or a family member. They planned the murder meticulously and painfully and fictionally, thereby releasing their anger in a satisfying and safe venue. Now, forever after, they can look at the fool who signs their paycheck and snicker at their secret payback. I got you, you worm! If only you knew!

These writers say no one would ever guess who the victim is. They’ve disguised their evil boss or cranky coworker or wicked third cousin so well, or else they know the guy just can’t, or won’t, read books. Many a writer has turned his evil boss into a killer who can be caught and publicly shamed, and possibly dispatched, preferably painfully and with poetic justice. How many employers have died (in fiction) for someone else’s art? I have no idea. Probably a lot. But villains and victims can be inspired by anyone, from the bully who tormented you in high school to the jerk who cuts you off in the parking lot.  And before anyone jumps to a conclusion, that’s NOT the way I write a book. I’m just saying that’s what I’ve heard.

However, planning a mystery, finishing it, and pulling it off takes work and dedication—not just a workplace grudge—to produce between 300 and 400 pages of double-spaced manuscript.

Many writers come to the craft of mystery writing as voracious mystery readers. I believe much of the structure—the victims, suspects, red herrings, killers, and timing—is best absorbed through reading hundreds and hundreds of mysteries and thrillers. And we don’t consciously follow a plan.

Some of us use outlines. Because of my contract, I am required to submit an outline, which must be approved by my editor. However, writing an outline is tricky business. An outline can take away a lot of the energy of writing, and the final book will always deviate from the outline anyway. New ideas, characters, plot twists will occur as you’re writing and might take you in unexpected directions.

I first learned how to structure a mystery by writing audience-participation murder mystery plays for a local theatre. The easiest way for me was to write it backwards from the climax, to start with the killer and the victim and the murder. There were a finite number of suspects, determined by how many actors I had to work with. Each actor had to have their big moment, so I had to balance their motives and opportunities and make each a plausible killer with convincing clues. It was great experience.

When I write my crime of fashion mysteries, the action swirls around Lacey Smithsonian, a fashion reporter in Washington, D.C., the City Fashion Forgot. I have a background in playwriting and news reporting. From playwriting, I learned about character development, voice, and story arc. From reporting, I learned how to write on deadline, how to write a brief story, and how to listen for the great quote. I consider the two disciplines the best possible background for me for writing my books.

The rest is all putting it down, word by word, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  The funny thing about writing is that I always think it will be easier—louder, faster, funnier—with each book. But it never is. On the other hand, writing about Lacey Smithsonian is always an adventure. Because every book is different, I wind up learning a lot more than I planned on.

Like how to dispatch yet another villain ever new and different ways…

Email me at by 11:59 p.m. CDT March 31 for your chance to win a print copy of this book! Include your name and mailing address with the subject line "Death on Heels Giveaway." The winner will be selected April 1. Best luck to all. (Open to U.S. and Canada readers only.

Author Bio:
Ellen Byerrum writes the popular Crime of Fashion mysteries, set in bustling Washington, D.C., The City That Fashion Forgot. Featuring style sleuth Lacey Smithsonian, who solves crimes with fashion clues, the eighth book, Death on Heels, takes Lacey out of her comfort zone and into the Wild West where she confronts her past and an old boyfriend who is accused of murder.

While researching fashion, Byerrum has collected her own assortment of 1940s vintage dresses and suits, and the occasional accessory, but laments her lack of closet space. She has been a D.C. news reporter in Washington, a playwright, and holds a Virginia P.I. registration. Although she currently resides in Denver, fashion reporter Lacey Smithsonian will continue to be based in Washington, D.C.

Byerrum is currently at work on the ninth book in the Crime of Fashion series, Veiled Revenge. You can find more about Ellen on her website or on Facebook.

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  1. I definitely am going to try sometime to write a mystery! Thanks for the tips!

  2. Let me know how it goes, Samantha. I'm sure it's different for everyone.

  3. Mortimer BrewsterMarch 19, 2012 at 5:12 PM

    I love your statement that planning an actual murder is easier than planning a murder mystery! Which actually makes sense. Real murders are often unplanned and nonsensical, while a satisfying murder mystery has to--make sense. Thanks for making such delightful fictional sense for us of murdering your annoying coworkers, I have a little list myself. And thanks for "Death On Heels," I think it's Lacey's most romantic adventure since "Raiders." I think Lacey, Vic and Tucker should ride back into Sagebrush some day and clean house on that dirty little town. What do you think?

  4. I love your screen name! Mortimer Brewster is one of my favorite reluctant heroes ever.

    1. Thank you. One of my favorites too. But I'm not really a Brewster, I'm the son of a sea cook! (The line was a little different in the original play, but "son of a sea cook" will certainly do...)