Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.
Several writers have emailed me saying they know I've been working on a mystery, and they wondered if I had advice for writing one. I've always loved mysteries, and I always wanted to write one, but I was too intimidated to try it for real until this last year. (Same goes for historicals, and as a way of making myself insane, I decided to throw myself into deep water and write a historical mystery.)
Since this is the first mystery I've written, I won't claim to be some brilliant mystery writer, but I'll share what I've learned along the way.
You've gotta know who your villain is.
When I told my husband my idea for my story (which was originally Veronica Mars meets Downton Abbey and morphed into Veronica Mars meets 1920's Chicago) he said, "I don't think you'll be able to plants your way through this one."
As is often the case, he was totally right. I had an idea or two of who I thought the villain might be as I dove into my first chapter. Four thousand words later, I thought, "No. That's not my villain. I don't know who my villain is!"
When I told Roseanna about my problem, she said, "That's the thing about a whodunit. Eventually, you have to figure out who did it." We set up a brainstorming chat and talked through who all my potential villains were and why they were motivated to commit their villainous actions.
Then I sat down and wrote out exactly what happened when the villain did their thing. (Pardon my vagueness.) Even though it's off stage and will never be shown in the book, I've learned that it's helpful to me as the writer to know exactly what happened so that I'm consistent with all my clues.
I mean, you've really gotta know who your villain is.
So after I'd finished the first draft of my book, taken my break, and started revisions, I realized my villain was a total moron. They were behaving like a villain, not a person who was trying to get away with something. And when I tried to rewrite my villain behaving like a person who was trying to get away with something, I realize I knew very little about why my villain was the way they were.
I used James Scott Bell's character journal technique, which always works when I need to unlock a character. I asked my villain about their childhood, and three pages later, I knew more information than I would ever need for the story.
The foreshadowing can happen in the rewrite.
Sometimes as you write your first draft, you'll see places to drop in clues about the answer to your mystery. For me, most of that happened in the revisions stage. I always re-read my book in as few sittings as possible before I edit, and when I did that, I saw all kinds of places that I could slip in foreshadowing.
Build in more red herrings than you think you need.
Red herrings are a literary device that refer to something, most often clues, that are included to distract the reader. While you don't want your main character constantly chasing bunny trails (that wears on your reader) those red herrings give you lots of material to work with. And sometimes, if you're creative with it, those red herrings can help draw your main character close to the answer without them realizing it until the end.
They can also be very helpful if you're writing a series. Later you might find ways to draw a red herring into the answer to the problem of book two or three.
How many is too many? Critique partners can help with that. I think they're easier to cut than to add.
Do the timeline thing.
When I started edits, I discovered my villain had a lot of unaccounted for time. If I had made a timeline from the beginning, it would have saved me some rewriting.
There needs to be a sense of surprising logic.
The best moment of reading a mystery is getting to the big reveal and thinking, "No way! It was him?" And then as you think it through—or as you flip back through the book in search of how you'd been misled, as I did with Susan May Warren's Find Stefanie—you realize the clues were there and that this ending, while surprising, is also logical.
How do you know if you've achieved this? Others have to read it and let you know. I don't think there's another way to know for sure.
Even books that aren't categorized as mysteries often have an element of mystery to them. Hopefully these tips will help even if you're not writing a whodunit!