Sorry I’m so late, I was on a baen podcast early morning, and couldn’t sit down and write before it was done, and I’m still pushing coffee.

So, it’s time to talk of sealing wax and ships and… nah.  I fooled you.  It’s time to talk about the mystery structure for novels.  (It’s completely different for a short story, and we’ll touch on that.)

First of all, let us understand there are many types of mysteries: there are cozies (best understood as Agatha Christie like; the hard boiled more like Mickey Spillane; the private detective like, say Rex Stout (though the ur-model is Sherlock Holmes) which can be either cozy or hardboiled and the police procedurals, for whom I used to have a couple of favorite writers but it’s been so long since I read them I can’t remember.  They’re not my favorite type.

All mysteries are puzzles.  The puzzle might be “whodunn it?” which is normal for cozies and most police procedurals, or “how do we catch the sob?” which is normal for hardboiled and some procedurals.  (Though some hardboiled are also whodunn it, usually with a thriller element of “they’re after me.”)

In general cozy are “genteel murders” which means you know the fact of the death, but most of the devastation you deal with is psychological, not where the blood went or exactly how the victim’s head was broken, or what body part was found in the toilet and what insects were living on it by the time it was found.

Hardboiled are like the heavy metal of mysteries.  They offend your ears/eyes with gruesome descriptions, etc.  They’re supposed to be more realistic, though after their own type they’re as much fantasy as the cozy, just a more bloody fantasy.

The police procedurals also are a fantasy.  Though they usually involve police officers solving the murder, which is, in our society, more realistic, the means they use are often sheer fantasy as is the “feel” of the lone honorable man against the world.  Think CSI and realize that no, it’s not an accurate depiction of reality.

Oh, craft mysteries are a subset of cozies, and the “detective” solves the murder using some special craft-related knowledge.  I will say most of the ones I’ve sampled I’ve found insufficient in the PUZZLE department, but they’re extremely popular, and if you have a craft expertise you might want to consider writing one and seeing how it does.

Now, structure:

1- Your murder should happen as close to the beginning as possible.  I’ve been reading a lot of these indie, and I’ve found that I lose interest around the third chapter if no one has died.  So if you can’t kill your victim right up front, at least have a reference to it early on.  “On the day that would forever become embossed in her mind as “the murder day” Miss Beatrice was spring cleaning.”  That sort of thing.

2- But Sarah, can’t it be a theft?  Well, not to me, though this might be personal.  I can’t take seriously a mystery that doesn’t have a murder in it, or at least the appearance of a murder.  Just be aware you can’t pull the “it wasn’t a murder, after all” more than once or more than twice in a row without some people — me — giving up on you.

3- There should be a reason for your character to get involved.  Either the victim was her crochet buddy, or he discovered the body, or the victim’s last action was writing a letter to them.  There is something that draws them in (unless it’s a procedural, where it’s their job, but even then something about the murder should make it special to the detective.)

4- The murderer should make an appearance early on in the book.  If this isn’t possible, beware some readers will get the wrong idea (It wasn’t possible in Death of A Musketeer and a lot of idiots got the impression it was the Cardinal, flipped to the end where they dispose of something else with the Cardinal and went ahah and reviewed based on that.)  The murderer should of course not be known unless it’s a “how do I get the bastage?”

5- There should be a timer.  This can be anything.  An innocent man is about to be hanged.  Or the character’s marriage will be postponed/called off if this isn’t solved in two weeks.  Or the funding for your quilting group is about to be decided and with this it means they will pull it.  Or–  The timer mechanism, that metaphorical clock counting down to 0 when something horrible will happen if you haven’t found the murderer, lends urgency to the situation and makes it imperative to solve the murder now.  This is important because:

6- a lot of looking for the murderer involves meeting with interviewing people.  This can get tedious unless a) there’s a timing device b) some of the encounters are dangerous c) someone is trying to kill your character at the same time.  d) all of the above.

As a way to make this more fun by injecting cavalcades and swords, I recommend studying P. F. Chisholm’s Elizabethan mysteries.  I tried to do the same in the Musketeers, and it does help, but in the end those four “tricks” above work better.

7- give the detective a private life, then give him/her/it problems there.  This will help keep the action going through the interviewing.  Particularly good if the private life can be confused with the murder.  A note asking you to get the milk could be read as “or else” from the murderer (okay, it’s a stretch, but you can manage it.)

As a note in police procedurals the detective usually has an unhappy love life/bad marriage/ affair.  I don’t know why.  It just seems to be part of the genre.

8 – Make sure you give the reader all the clues in that round of interviews, etc.  Just make sure you give them in such a way they never remember them.  Stuff like the detective just noticed something, when suddenly a corpse falls through the ceiling.  The reader is going to forget what the detective noticed.

9- Tie all the fricking ends.  No, seriously, in mysteries this is needed.  One way or another, make sure that in the end you dotted all is and crossed all ts and if you’re leaving something to haunt the guy next book, hang a sock on it: “He still didn’t know why there had been a dead fish on his pillow on Monday, but…”

10- Allow them a cigarette moment.  A lot of the how to write mysteries books say solve it and done, but I like to see the “order restored” end of the book.  Marry off the couple, finish the spring cleaning.  Whatever.

11 – It’s neither unusual nor a bad idea to use a mystery structure in other genres.  Say, a first contact story.

12- Mystery short stories, by decision of the mags, are stories in which a crime happened.  Me I prefer in which a crime happened/was attempted and there is a solution.  These are best done as “someone tells a story” or the denoument portion of the novel with the rest heinleined in as you go.  For example see Agatha Christie’s Harley Quinn stories.

13- All are punished.  In cozies this often takes the form of the villain committing suicide, but it is still important.

14- For the love of heaven eschew the “just because” motive.  In hard boiled mob involvement often explains (almost) everything, but it gets old after a while.  In cozies, the motive should be personal and well beyond “And then he went mad.”  Mad is not interesting or fun.




  1. I’m trying to not refer to a particular Cozy author who I read because she neglects all this, and just goes for page after page of crazy. I mean, frogs with mustaches, sapient bricks, and a villain who becomes a bus driver to try and kill our hero… umm, protagonist… POV character. Yeah, that’s it, POV character.

    1. Some cozies are crazy and the plot is somewhat loose. Er… Hopefully you’re not talking about my pen name Elise Hyatt. If you are, I don’t remember sapient bricks and must have been REALLY drunk. 😉

  2. For mysteries: make the weapon/cause of death interesting too!

    The best “weapon” I’ve ever found was in “Death Lights a Candle,” by Phoebe Atwood Taylor. Weapon? A homemade candle with a wick treated in an arsenic compound. Our victim always had a lit candle on his bedside table every night, and on that particular night, he spent the night breathing in arsenic gas.

    A CSI episode had bullets made out of frozen meat, which thawed out and confused the coroner …

            1. Considering that PTerry was a *huge* fan of obscure 19th century literature, it’s just as possible he stole it from that as from the novel from the ’30s. Or both.

                1. The trope has been used a while… I recalled the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” where poisonous powder was first put in a fire grate, then in an oil lamp (to kill the first killer, no less). This was published in 1897.

                  FWIW, imaginative murders are pretty common in the TV Midsomer Murders series. I rather liked one using wine bottles in a trebuchet to kill someone restrained by croquet hoops. (The relative normality of Tom Barnaby contrasts nicely with the frequent and gruesome murders.)

  3. One of my favorite mystery series is the Eve Dallas series (ie the In Death series).

    It’s the Police Procedural type as Eve Dallas is a Homicide Detective but it’s more than “just her job” as she, in her words, stands for the dead.

    One aspect of it differs from the format that Sarah mentioned in that Eve is happily married. Although, early in the series there was some conflict as she had problems with her husband (a former thief now one of the richest men in the world) wanting to help her out. Currently though, she’s willing to let him help and he’s aware of what help she’ll accept.

    1. I’ve wondered about that series, but always seemed to find some reason not to pick it up. Happily married, huh? Any…extramarital unpleasantness? If not, I will be absolutely delirious with happiness at finding a new mystery series to devour. (That is, “I hope there isn’t any extramarital bullpucky”) Nora Roberts doesn’t usually use that as a central plot element/doesn’t have her protagonists act like that, but I figure if I can ask someone familiar with the series, why not? 🙂

      1. Well, in the first three books Eve & Roarke aren’t married (he starts out as a murder suspect).

        While they start having sex in the first book & it’s a bit heavy (Roberts toned it down later in the series), it somehow works for me and I’m not a person for “sex at a drop of the hat”.

        Of course, one of the sub-plots of the series is “two strong-willed people learning to get along”. Roberts does not fall into the trap of “good sex guarantees getting along”. 😀

      2. My wife is a huge fan of those. I’ve read a dozen or so when there was nothing else at hand.

        Roberts’ staff/ghosts/whatever write to a tight template, so once you’ve read one, you’ve essentially read them all, as they’re simply by-the-numbers variations on the same outline.

  4. Let me add, “know what you write.” By way of example, I read a delightful Cozy recently that revolved around a bicycle shop on Mackinaw Island. Only, the author appeared to have never actually encountered a bicycle, much less a bicycle shop. Fortunately not central to the plot, but it did tend to take me out of the story.

    1. Common complaint amongst us gun geeks is writers who don’t bother to learn basic firearms nomenclature or even function.
      It’s such a common thing that as I recall the NRA offers special author field trips to the range where they give authors the chance to handle and shoot typical weapons.

        1. A few years back I recall John Ringo telling of attending a writer’s range trip in conjunction with an NRA national convention. Mostly I recall that John got to meet and hang out with W.E.B. Griffin at the event.

      1. Cozy protagonists tend to have an odd aversion to firearms themselves. That’s long puzzled me. I was once reading a Donna Andrews and found myself thinking “Meg, you’ve been the victim of over a dozen attempted murders, and now live in a secluded farmhouse. Maybe it’s time to tool up.” 🙂

        On a more serious note, the Romance Writers of America brought in an old chum of mine to write an occasional series on their website about firearms, to help their members get stuff right. I always thought that was a good idea.

          1. Better at a range supervised by NRA certified instructors (think classic Marine drill instructors) than out in the boonies somewhere on their own. What I’m talking here is research. If an author cannot be bothered to either educate themselves on a subject or seek out a subject matter expert to vet their work then they should damn well not write on that particular topic.
            Scuse the rant, but I’ve flung far too many books against the wall over this sore point, and now that I’ve gone mostly Kindle I really cannot afford to continue the practice.

              1. Well, I have a semi-automatic revolver and it has a safety (Webley Fosbery). Sometimes you just gotta break the rules.

            1. Waait a minute. Candyce Dyce Dare? That’s a character, right? In the Refinishing series… giving a character a firearm at a range supervised by NRA certified instructors… well, if you’re going to arm your characters, I suppose a supervised range is best, but…

        1. Well, for this crowd the obvious choice is the Friday morning range trip the weekend of Libertycon. Details usually over in the Recon section of Baen’s Bar. Alternatively, attend any major NRA convention and ask the organizers if one is planned and how to become involved.
          Less formally, if you know any recreational shooters most are more than willing to set up an excursion to the range for a newbie.
          A rather constant concern shared by myself and many of my shooting buddies is that while all the new first time gun owners is in general a good thing, we fear that many of these new gun folk have no knowledge other than what they have learned from the movies and TV, and that is the sort of misinformation that can get someone wounded or killed.

          1. A line from a Wheeler & Woolsey movie (I forget which, possibly Half Shot at Sunrise) comes to mind, though not quite the same.. application: “What you don’t know about driving could fill a hospital.”

          2. A rather constant concern shared by myself and many of my shooting buddies is that while all the new first time gun owners is in general a good thing, we fear that many of these new gun folk have no knowledge other than what they have learned from the movies and TV, and that is the sort of misinformation that can get someone wounded or killed.

            This. Owning a tool isn’t the same as knowing how to use it or to use it proficiently. What good is owning a firearm if you don’t know how to hit your target or> shoot safely, things like paying attention to what’s behind the target?

            On a related subject, something like a Libertycon range trip sounds like fun, but is there a brief “Don’t do this” session for those who’ve never been to a range? That include people like me, who learned to shoot in he boonies, but have never been to a formal range. That, and do they have skeet?

            1. I have to confess that I’ve never been able to get to LC in time for the range trip, but James Cochrane is always involved and has filled me in on the details.
              They ALWAYS have an orientation before shooting starts and any newcomers get whatever supervision is felt necessary or requested.
              It tends to be pistol and rifle for the most part. Trap and skeet are a whole different critter with their own special rules.

              1. Great link, and yes, it answered the questions, and I suspect any remaining varies from range to rage. I’m surprised that, in mention of eye and hearing protection rental, there was no mention of cheap, disposable, fluorescent orange ear plugs connected by a plastic cord. You can buy them in bulk, have an NPR in the high 20s to low 30s, and you can immediately tell if someone has them in or not. That’s why we use them at work.

          3. My father taught me the basics when I was 12; I only wish that I still had his M1917. (My mother gave it to his cousin after he died.) We had .22 target shooting at Boy Scout camp later that same summer, and I did all right. Skeet, not so much: I hit 2 out of 50. I was hauled off to a local range some years ago by my writers’ group, and had a chance to fire everything that everyone brought. It was marvelous, and once I get good enough I’ll try to pay them forward. We have a nice range here north of Phoenix and I expect to be there regularly.

            I’ve often thought that there should be a formal course in shooting targeted specifically at writers who don’t want to be recreational shooters themselves, but still don’t want to sound like idiots in their fiction. Such may exist, but I’ve not run across one yet.

            1. A good many gun shops have their own indoor ranges associated with them, and with the massive upswing of interest in armed self defense most ranges are now offering a variety of classes in everything from basic gun safety and handling to certification to qualify for a concealed carry permit which many states require before they will issue a CCP.
              Any writer who is unfamiliar with guns yet wants to include them in their work would benefit from any such sort of training.
              My whole point is that any writer who is ignorant of basic facts on any subject needs to either educate themselves or avoid that subject. Anything less is a disservice to your reader. Guns just happen to be a hobby of mine so I’m a mite touchy on the subject.

      2. I can occasionally excuse someone who has some inaccurate gun bits, at least if it is not essential to the plot. There are so many places that it is very difficult to get the kind of experience you need to do it exactly right. Many foreign countries and deep blue States here. (Even I could not, with many firearms – e.g., I have fired a full-auto. Once. Not exactly Kratman or Correia level knowledge, there.)

        Bicycle shops, though… There are at least three just up the street from me. If I couldn’t get that right, any opprobrium would be fully justified. (Well, perhaps a few would have a hard time finding one of the specializing shops in their area – but then why would the specialty be important, not just a generic “bike shop?”)

  5. As a note in police procedurals the detective usually has an unhappy love life/bad marriage/ affair. I don’t know why. It just seems to be part of the genre.

    One of my former coworkers is the ex-wife of a State Tropper. According to her, The Job takes over pretty much every aspect of a cop’s life, leaving precious little time for family, and more often than not Family Time is interrupted by The Job. The fact that cops can almost never talk about The Job to their loved ones, whether for legal reasons or because the sh*t they go through is just too horrifying for them to dump on their family, doesn’t help either.

    1. As a note in police procedurals the detective usually has an unhappy love life/bad marriage/ affair. I don’t know why. It just seems to be part of the genre.

      My own favorite procedurals (by your definition) are Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories. I don’t think that we are ever told anything about Lord D’s private life. Of course, Garrett has lots else to keep the reader amused. 🙂

      1. Lord Darcy was somewhat based on Sherlock Holmes but in _Too Many Magicians_ there’s a strong hint that he’s having an affair with a Duchess (a widowed one). [Smile]

    2. It also, by all reports, shifts the way you view the world. You spend all your time dealing with very bad people, people who aren’t at their best, and colleagues, and you start wanting to make assumptions about everyone who isn’t a coworker. That experience isn’t something that everyone can tolerate or understand, so people naturally keep quiet about it. Which means a gulf between you and whoever you are close to outside of work.

    3. Any first response career tends to have a negative effect on friends and families. When I took my emt b class one recommendation was to make sure you did something outside of field to keep sanity

  6. “4- The murderer should make an appearance early on in the book. If this isn’t possible, beware some readers will get the wrong idea (It wasn’t possible in Death of A Musketeer and a lot of idiots got the impression it was the Cardinal, flipped to the end where they dispose of something else with the Cardinal and went ahah and reviewed based on that.)”

    This is a problem in my current fantasy mystery, and I may just have to live with it. The nature of the crime is such that the murderer is not available for several chapters. Instead, I plan to prominently and repeatedly mention his absence. Of course, to prevent that from being too obvious, I’ll mention the absence of other suspects as well.

    I was amused that you identified my “timer” almost exactly: if the protagonists don’t solve the crime, they can’t get married, and their families will resume a deadly civil war.

    1. I rather like the idea of having something at the end that can be misconstrued if you skip ahead. That’s cheating and should be discouraged (ymmv).

  7. In cozy Japanese mysteries, the murderer almost always apologizes to the police and does the whole prostration bow thing. Unapologetic murderers are the real baddies. Occasionally they commit suicide, since that is starting to be a baddie thing. (The detective usually now stops somewhat justified murderers from committing suicide, and often a love interest steps in and promises to wait till they get out of prison.)

    Japanese cozies can involve much more grotesque murders than American ones, mostly because the golden age Japanese writers really liked stuff like murdered people’s frozen bodies spelling out messages, or heads on sticks, or murderers hiding inside armchairs where the dead body is sitting.

  8. Don’t forget the weather! Where would the Continental Op or Philip Marlowe be without the rainslick gleaming mean streets of the big city by night, or Spenser without the Boston slush around his ankles, or the Texas Ranger captain politely ignoring the snuffling constable because everyone knows the cedar pollen count is through the roof…

  9. The children’s detective series I grew up on rarely, if ever, had murders and sometimes the mysteries did not have actual crimes behind them.

        1. And in the Real World, those faked monsters/ghosts/etc would have “eaten” buck-shot. 😈

  10. It’s always a fun genre to play in. I also enjoy making it so the second time the reader goes through he should be able to pick up breadcrumbs. I never got into Holmes because its usually an “oh, obviously it’s him”

  11. > Tie all the fricking ends

    That’s one of the things that makes me laugh at the entire agent/editor/proofreader toolchain – all Supposedly Professional People, working with $FAMOUS_AUTHOR, and the book I have in my hand just… stops, and I’m examining the binding to see if the last chapter fell out.

    That’s annoying enough when something is clearly marked as a book in the middle of a series, but at least I have some expectation of an explanation in a later volume. But I see it far too often in standalone volumes.

    Of course, I saw one $FAMOUS_AUTHOR brag that no editor would *dare* touch one word of his writing. And what made it into print certainly justified that claim…

    1. My George Lucas Rule (a.k.a. the Stephen King Rule): EVERYBODY needs an editor.

  12. You have just miraculously troubleshot most of the remaining problems with my much-rewritten SF-crime novel. I was missing 5) and 6.c).

    Erm, thank you 🙂

  13. You left out the Shaggy Dog detective story, most famous for the “boy-foot bear with teak of Chan” story!

  14. Excellent overview! Thank you, Sara. My novel involves a primary subplot in which my protagonist needs to solve an attempted murder as part of his job as Chief of Security. Because he doesn’t know who did this, the threat seems greater. Your insights are very helpful.

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