Here are eight tips:
- Ask yourself: what is intriguing about the premise? What will attract readers to the book? In Sue Grafton’s Alphabet Series, protagonist Kinsey Millhone is a twice-divorced private investigator who is permanently stuck in the 1980s. In the Gilda Greco Mystery Series, the protagonist is a teacher turned lottery winner who moves back to her hometown and then finds herself embroiled in murder investigations.
2. Grab the reader’s attention with a hook. Bestselling author Louise Penny offers the following advice: “If you’re writing your first work of crime fiction, place the body near the beginning of the book–preferably on the first page, perhaps the first sentence. In later books, this won’t be necessary, but agents and editors like it established early, so readers know what they’re getting.” In Book 2, Too Many Women in the Room, I used a three-page prologue to introduce the crime. In Book 3, A Different Kind of Reunion, a reference to the murder is made in the first paragraph.
3. Create believable characters. It is tempting to endow protagonists with beauty, intelligence, and other positive traits and then pit them against unattractive villains. Too many or too few strengths are unrealistic. To avoid contrived tension and conflict, evenly balance the characters and have them show vulnerability. The reader must care about the characters, even the secondary characters. When a character dies, it should matter.
4. Get into the heads of your killers. When you have insight into their motivations and behaviors, even if they are twisted, they will seem more real to readers. You don’t have to be in their POV; you can understand them by their actions and dialogue. If you choose to be in the killer’s POV, be very careful you don’t reveal his/her identity.
5. Escalate the tension. After starting with a bang, build tension, offer a few resting moments, and then throw in complications. Have strategies in place to help with the murky middle, that nebulous place around page 80, where it becomes difficult to continue or sustain the tension. You may have to set the manuscript aside and take a breather, work on a shorter piece, or reread craft books. Return to the manuscript with fresh eyes and a firm resolve to successfully navigate the murky middle.
6. Drop enough clues to keep the reader engaged but be careful not to overwhelm the reader. Used effectively, red herrings will maintain reader interest until the end. Many of the plots in Agatha Christie’s novels contain red herrings. In And Then There Were None, we assume a character who goes missing is the killer. Later, when his body is washed up on shore, we realize that his absence was a red herring that misled the other characters and the readers.
7. Come up with a tantalizing title. If you’re writing a series, consider using the same basic pattern for titles. Janet Evanovich uses numbers: One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly…I have used longer titles–A Season for Killing Blondes, Too Many Women in the Room, A Different Kind of Reunion–for the Gilda Greco Mystery Series. Regardless of the method used, one fact is clear: The right title (and cover) will catch the reader’s eye in an overcrowded market.
8. End on the right note. Romance readers expect an HEA (Happily ever after) or HFN (Happily for now) ending. Mystery readers (in particular cozy mystery readers) want to experience closure: the sleuth solves the case, justice is served, and all loose ends are tied. But only for a short time…Another murder to solve is just around the corner.
Any other tips to share?
About the Gilda Greco Mystery Series
A cross between Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher, and Cher (Moonstruck), protagonist Gilda Greco brings a unique perspective to the amateur female sleuth.
The teacher-turned-lottery winner returns to her hometown, only to find herself embroiled in a series of murder investigations. Before you start imaging thrillers with high stakes and police chases, pause and take a yoga breath. The three novels in the series—A Season for Killing Blondes, Too Many Women in the Room, A Different Kind of Reunion—are cozy mysteries, written in the Agatha Christie tradition. All the crimes take place “off stage” with very few graphic details provided.
While the pace may be more relaxed than that of thrillers and police procedurals, there are no steaming cups of herbal teas, overstuffed chairs, or purring cats in these contemporary cozies. Prepare yourself for interfering relatives who don’t always respect boundaries, adult mean girls, deserving and undeserving men, multiple suspects, and lots of Italian food.