Engineering a Mystery

By Beth Groundwater

Beth GroundwaterI've taught a number of workshops at many different writing conference, library programs, and to writing groups, and one of my favorites is "Engineering a Mystery." I apply my engineering background from my first career to help fledgling mystery writers build some scaffolding for their projects, or formulate recipes for their mystery novels.

The first essential ingredient in a mystery is the sleuth, who investigates the murder(s) and tries to deduce who the killer is. In my case, with two mystery series in the works, my sleuths are well-defined: whitewater river ranger and rafting guide Mandy Tanner for the RM Outdoor Adventures series or gift basket designer Claire Hanover. Both of these characters are old friends, but when I switch from one to the other, I usually need to go back and read at least the last few chapters of the last book starring that character, so I remember what emotional and physical state I left her in and move on from there.

The next essential ingredient in the recipe for a murder mystery is the victim. The dead body that falls on the floor in Act One. There may even be more than one victim to keep things interesting if the plot starts to drag in the middle. Without a victim, we wouldn’t have a mystery to solve and we could all go home! Along with defining a victim, I try to give him or her a family and/or friends who will sorely miss them, because we should never forget how truly horrible murder is.

Usually the victim is not well-liked, so there are many people who’d like to see him or her dead. And, I, like most mystery writers, try to use my creativity to find an interesting way for the victim to die—a mysterious poison, a unique weapon, something that might be construed as an accident or suicide and so on.

Groundwater_Basket of TroubleThe third essential ingredient is suspects, those people who may have killed the victim(s). There are usually between 3 and 7 suspects in a murder mystery. Detectives or amateur sleuths look for means, motive, and opportunity for suspects. All three are needed to identify the killer. Means is the ability to commit the murder, such as access to the murder weapon. Motive is the reason why the suspect wanted the victim dead. Opportunity is the potential for the suspect to be at the right place at the right time to kill the victim. And an alibi is a story for why a suspect didn’t have the opportunity. That story can be true or false.

I try to make sure that all of my suspects have at least two if not all three of means, motive, and opportunity. And bringing in suspects often drives the addition of subplots (activities the victim was engaged in that may have led to his murder) and the addition of research topics I need to study.

The fourth essential ingredient in a murder mystery is clues, pieces of evidence that help the sleuth solve the crime. A good principle that detectives use is that the killer usually leaves something at the crime scene and takes something away. What the killer leaves may be fingerprints, shoe prints, a lipstick stain on a glass, or the murder weapon, say if the knife is stuck in the body. What the killer takes away may be hairs, carpet fibers or bloodstains, money or jewelry, or a special memento of the crime. I try to sprinkle the discovery of clues throughout the manuscript, as well as conversations with the suspects, to keep the reader stimulated with more information that she or he can use to try to solve the puzzle.

The last ingredient that spices up the recipe is red herrings. These are false clues that point to the wrong suspect, such as the gun in my first mystery, A REAL BASKET CASE, that incriminated Claire’s husband. The term comes from a fish that’s been cured in brine and smoked, which turns it red and makes it very smelly. The smelly herring then is dragged across a trail to try to distract hunting dogs from their prey. A good hunting dog—or sleuth—is trained to not be distracted by the strong false scent but to stay on the trail of its prey. What makes things interesting in a murder mystery is when a piece of evidence points to more than one suspect, so it’s both a red herring for the innocent suspect and a clue for the killer.

I like to have at least half a dozen clues and red herrings, if not more. Once all the essential elements are defined, I work on putting scenes in order in an outline, figuring out what happens when and what gets discovered when. During this process, I shuffle scenes around until I come up with a flow of events that I think will most interest the reader. And, of course, there have got to be some surprises!

It's a complex process, and one that I always find daunting in the beginning, wondering how I'll ever come up with the final product--a scene by scene outline, a set of detailed character profiles, and thorough research notes from which I can start writing. But, I have to trust in the process and my abilities. I keep telling myself that I've done it many times before, so I should be able to do it again.

This post previously appeared on Inkspot, the blog for Midnight Ink authors, on February 11th, 2013.


Bestselling mystery author Beth Groundwater writes the Claire Hanover gift basket designer series (A Real Basket Case, a Best First Novel Agatha Award finalist, To Hell in a Handbasket, and in November, 2013, A Basket of Trouble) and the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Adventures series starring whitewater river ranger Mandy Tanner (Deadly Currents, an Amazon #3 overall bestseller, Wicked Eddies, finalist for the Rocky Award, and Fatal Descent). Beth enjoys Colorado's many outdoor activities, including skiing and whitewater rafting, and loves talking to book clubs.

For more information about Beth and her books, please visit her at her website and blog. She can also be found on Facebook and Goodreads.

Patricia Stoltey
Blog Editor
Patricia grew up on a farm in central Illinois so naturally had to use the old farm in her first mystery. The second Sylvia and Willie tale takes place near and in the little touristy gold mining town of Oatman, Arizona. Patricia's third novel, a standalone suspense called Dead Wrong, was released November 2014. Dead Wrong was a finalist in the thriller category for the Colorado Book Awards. Visit her blog at

12 thoughts on “Engineering a Mystery

  1. Good article. Really helpful. Its a good structure. I’m a pantser so I sometimes find that I have the story in pieces and need to go back through to add items – this is a good checklist of items to look for to determine what is missing – or what I need to think about for the re-write.

  2. Thanks, Carolyn! I’m glad to know that the structure can be used by both
    pantsers (as a post-rough-draft checklist) as well as plotters (as an
    outline aid).

  3. Beth, it’s so nice to be reminded of all the elements of a mystery in a rational way. Sometimes the process can seem like magic–and other times it’s helpful to me to have a reminder of how complicated the process can be.

  4. Thanks for sharing this excellent guide with us, Beth. I’m another one who writes with the flow and therefore needs to analyze that first draft for the missing or misplaced elements. You’d think a former accountant could be more organized…. 😀

  5. Beth, a great insight into how you approach your writing and some tips that some of us can definitely use. I’m a pantser, but as I find myself struggling to reign in my second book, I am definitely entertaining the idea of planning and outlining my third. Thanks for the tips!

  6. Hi W.J.,
    I’m glad this article gave you some insight into the structure of mystery novels. Mysteries have a lot of structure to them, and the writer has to “design” the puzzle for the reader to solve along with the story sleuth. I think that’s why mystery writing appeals to former engineers like myself.

    Thanks, Terry and Pat, for your comments. It’s always helpful to have a reminder or “cheat sheet” for the essential elements of the genre of novel you’re writing. I’m happy to provide that here for mysteries.

  7. Beth, I have to admit I did not know the origin of the phrase Red Herring! Thanks for the peek into your writing process.

  8. Thanks for your comments, Catherine and Kelly! Yes, the term “red herring” has a fascinating history. Kelly, even if you decide not to outline your third novel, you might be able to use this structure like Carolyn as a checklist for revision.

  9. Wonderful advice here. Really, any book we start,write, revise, repeat is a mystery in its own right. I like that I can apply some of these scaffolds to the next revision tour of my fiction novel and make it stronger.

  10. Good overview of How-to Write a Mystery. You approach it much like I do, except, I usually start with the “issue” in my books — the bird-related issue I want to highlight in the book. In my first book it was the illegal trading of Peregrine Falcons, in the second the impact of the coffee industry on migratory birds. I don’t want to be heavy-handed with the issue, however, so I need to construct a crime that can highlight the issue, or lend an opportunity to learn something about the issue, yet is still a mystery to solve in its own right. In my first book, A Rant of Ravens, the murder victim has information on someone who was once involved in a smuggling op and is threatening to release it. Suspects abound with people whose careers and reputations could be ruined, etc. In my second book, Death of a Songbird, the book opens with the murder of my protagonists silent partner in a coffee house and coffee import company. She inherits the business AND the problem, the reason her partner was killed in the first place. For me, the issue determines who is most vested in solving the problem and the suspects.

    I really like the idea of making sure every suspects has means, motive and opportunity, if possible. It adds a lot more depth. Brava!


  11. Thanks for your comments, Dean and Chris! You’re right, Dean, in that every novel should have a mystery of some sort that plants questions in the reader’s mind and pulls him/her through the story. Chris, I, too, always try to incorporate an issue-related subplot in my books. In my RM Outdoor Adventures series, the issues are related to river conservation. In my latest Claire Hanover gift basket designer mystery, A Basket of Trouble, the issue was illegal immigration.

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