Engineering a Mystery


  1. Carolyn
    Carolyn February 18, 2014 at 8:02 am .

    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. BethGH2O
    BethGH2O February 18, 2014 at 8:13 am .

    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. W. J. Howard
    W. J. Howard February 18, 2014 at 8:37 am .

    I love reading mysteries, but don’t write them. It’s interesting to see how much needs to go into setting up a good mystery.

  4. Terry Shames
    Terry Shames February 18, 2014 at 8:44 am .

    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.

  5. Patricia Stoltey
    Patricia Stoltey February 18, 2014 at 1:27 pm .

    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…. :D

  6. Kelly Cochran
    Kelly Cochran February 18, 2014 at 4:39 pm .

    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!

  7. BethGH2O
    BethGH2O February 18, 2014 at 4:42 pm .

    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.

  8. Catherine Dilts
    Catherine Dilts February 19, 2014 at 6:44 am .

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

  9. BethGH2O
    BethGH2O February 19, 2014 at 7:48 am .

    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.

  10. Dean K Miller
    Dean K Miller February 19, 2014 at 8:55 am .

    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.

  11. Christine Goff
    Christine Goff February 19, 2014 at 9:53 am .

    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!


  12. BethGH2O
    BethGH2O February 20, 2014 at 9:49 am .

    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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