Writing a Traditional Mystery

mystery-novelsSo – you want to write a mystery? You don’t know too much about police procedures or regulations for private detectives or the law, but you enjoy settling in with a good mystery in which the bad guys are caught, and the good guys (and gals) win out in the end. Writing a mystery might be just your cup of tea.

Or thimble of arsenic.

You’re not alone; traditional mysteries, also known as cozies, in the Agatha Christie tradition where, it is often said, “more tea is spilled than blood,” have been popular for decades, and are still selling. Their readers and author are predominantly – but not exclusively – women. There’s even a conference devoted to their sub-division of the mystery world: Malice Domestic, held each spring just outside of Washington, D.C., and their own awards: the Agathas.

The first book in my Shadows Antique Mystery series, SHADOWS AT THE FAIR, was lucky enough to be a finalist for a “best first mystery” Agatha, forever giving me a place in the traditional mystery world.

Interested in trying your hand at writing one? First, go to your nearest library or bookstore (I’m an author – I’d prefer the bookstore, but libraries are OK too!) and get an armload of books in the genre. Authors to try (besides me, of course): Susan Wittig Albert. Katherine Hall Page. Elaine Viets. Cynthia Riggs. Joanne Fluke. Diane Mott Davidson. Elizabeth Peters. Jacqueline Winspear. Deborah Crombie. And many, many more.

What do the books of these authors have in common? Their protagonists are generally women (remember their audience.) Their protagonists are not law-enforcement professionals of any kind – although some have friends who are. Their protagonists are all, in their own ways, idiosyncratic, interesting women who live full and active lives, have interesting professions or hobbies, and have at least one (preferably more) unresolved personal issue in their lives. (An ex-husband who is a pain; a difficult child; an alcoholic parent; a secret past.) And they have an amazing ability to be in a place where others die violently – and always have a logical and justifiable reason to get involved in solving the crime themselves. (A friend of theirs is being accused of murder? The victim is on their property? Or is a business associate?)

Those are the basic components of the cozy. The author (you) still can’t ignore basic rules regarding the relationship between busy-bodies (that’s your protagonist) and law enforcers. You can’t invent forensics, whether CSI does or not. There are books to help you, or, ideally, you can consult with someone in your local police force. State laws vary. And if your case involves the Feds, you’re in very different territory. You’ll need to get that straight. Your readers will know.

You’ll also need to have at least 3 – no more than 6 – possible suspects for your murder (or murders – two are better than one.) Each suspect should have motive and opportunity. Your sleuth’s job is to unravel all of that.

Although a book with a professional crime fighter as protagonist often opens with a body, a traditional mystery usually involves you with the characters first – and then, perhaps 20-30% of the way through the book, the body is found. Not too much detail about that; nor is there much “on camera” sex in a cozy. Your protagonist doesn’t have to be celibate, but most readers of traditional mysteries aren’t looking for erotica. If you want to add a second murder, about 60-70% through the book is a good place, and helps keep the middle of the book going.
You will also need an “action scene” at the end, when your protagonist will confront the villain, put herself in danger, and, of course, the murderer will be caught and all dangling plot ends will be explained. This should happen very close to the end of the book – a few pages before you turn off your computer.

That’s about it. Pretty simple, right?

Oh. One more thing. No matter what happens, no cats or children must die.

Now you’re ready. I’ve shared all the secrets. All you have to do is write the book! See you at Malice Domestic next spring!

Lea Wait is the author of the traditional Shadows Antique Print Mystery Series published by Scribner. (Agatha-finalist Shadows at the Fair; Shadows on the Coast of Maine; Shadows on the Ivy; Shadows at the Spring Show, and, coming soon, Shadows of a Down East Summer.) She also writes award-winning historical novels for ages 8-14.
http://www.leawait.com or see Lea Wait on Facebook