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6 Rules for Writing Great Mystery Novels

 

If you love sci-fi thrillers or space murder mysteries, you’ll love reading Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes, a genre mash-up that will have you on the edge of your seat.

If you’re a writer yourself, Lafferty has six tips that will help you write a great mystery novel, too—and she keeps it interesting by making all of her rules contradictory.

 


 

Rule #1: Know your murderer before you start writing.

If you know who your ultimate criminal is, you can write the whole book while posting clues and red herrings throughout because you know exactly where you’re going.

 

Rule #2: Don’t know your murderer before you start writing.

Take an ensemble cast, give them all a motive for committing the murder(s). Make sure they all have opportunities to interact with the victim(s). When you get to your climax and you can see that everyone still would have had the chance to be the murderer, then you choose someone.

 

Rule #3: Your hero should have some flaws.

While the alcoholic detective who is terrible with women is somewhat of a cliche, the truth is you do need to have a character who has their own internal demons to fight as they solve the murders externally. It makes them much more relatable and adds layers of conflict to your story.

 

Rule #4: Your hero should be infallible.

Before you tell me that this won’t work, let me go and fetch the sales numbers for Agatha Christie, the world’s bestselling author of all time. Murder on the Orient Express sold 3 million copies—in 1974 alone. Anyway, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot can be said to have flaws like, um, Poirot is full of himself—but it’s not hubris because he’s right when he says he’s the world’s greatest detective.

 

Rule #5: Mysteries have a formula; follow it.

Lay the suspects, make your detective be the one to solve the case, kill the victim in the first third of the story. If you break these rules, the reader won’t trust you.

 

Rule #6: Break all the rules.

One book title for you: The Murder of Roger Akroyd. The narrator—the first person POV watching Poirot investigate Ackroyd’s murder—is revealed to be the murderer.

 
 


 

Mur Lafferty is a writer, podcast producer, gamer, runner, and geek. She is the host of the podcast I Should Be Writing and the co-host of Ditch Diggers. She is the winner of the 2013 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. She is addicted to computer games, Zombies, Run!, and Star Wars LEGO. She lives in Durham, NC with her husband and daughter.

 

The Charming Auntie Who Solves Crime in Sicily


 


Elizabeth Venere is a marketing manager at Hachette Book Group. You can usually find her reading (a mystery novel, obviously) or at yoga, trying to re-center after reading about too many murders.

 

A Literary Mystery With a To-the-Death War Between the Sexes



Livia Llewellyn is a writer of dark fantasy, horror, and erotica, whose short fiction has appeared in over forty anthologies and magazines and has been reprinted in multiple best-of anthologies and two Shirley Jackson Award-nominated collections, Engines of Desire and Furnace. You can find her online at liviallewellyn.com and on Instagram and Twitter.

The Secret Keepers

The Secret Keepers

By Trenton Lee Stewart

Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Curriculum Subject: Adventure: Mysteries, Adventure: Magic/Fantasy, Family Life: Neighbors/Neighborhoods

Grades: 3-7

 

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When Reuben discovers an extraordinary antique watch, he soon learns it has a secret power and his life takes an intriguing turn. At first he is thrilled with his new treasure, but as one secret leads to another, Reuben finds himself torn between his innately honest nature and the lure to be a hero.

 

Now he is on a dangerous adventure–full of curious characters, treacherous traps, and hairsbreadth escapes–as he races to solve the mystery before it is too late. Even with fearless Penny, mighty Jack, and the wise Mrs. Genevieve on his side, can Reuben outwit and outmaneuver the sly villain called The Smoke and his devious defenders the Directions and save the city from a terrible fate?

 

In this ingeniously crafted novel, acclaimed author Trenton Lee Stewart invites readers to join the adventure, decipher the clues, and ask themselves the question: Is knowing a secret a gift or a curse?

 

PRAISE

★ “Stewart has created an exciting, fully imagined world filled with mystery and danger, where children can have real adventures without parental supervision. He doesn’t shy from putting the children in true danger, both physical and moral, keeping readers on tenterhooks until the final page.” —Publishers Weekly

 

★ “Children will be caught up in the mystery, trying to decipher the clues as they follow Reuben and his new-found friends in their race to save the town from a dreadful future…  All in all, this is another winner from Trenton Lee Stewart.” —School Library Connection

 

★ “Fans of Stewart’s ‘MysteriousBenedict Society’ and series like it will devour his latest novel. This epic story filled with adventure and twists and turns is certain to keep readers’interest from beginning to end.” —School Library Journal

 

secret-keepers

The Candymakers

candymakersThe Candymakers

By Wendy Mass

Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Curriculum Subject: Adventure: Mysteries, Science: Inventions, Personal Development: Friendship

Grades: 3-7

 

In the town of Spring Haven, four children have been selected to compete in the national candymaking contest of a lifetime. Who will make a candy more delicious than the Oozing Crunchorama or the Neon Yellow Lightning Chew?

 

Logan, the candymaker’s son, who can detect the color of chocolate by feel alone?

 

Miles, the boy allergic to rowboats and the color pink?

 

Daisy, the cheerful girl who can lift a fifty-pound lump of taffy as if it were a feather?

 

Philip, the suit-and-tie-wearing boy who’s always scribbling in a secret notebook?

 

This sweet, charming, and cleverly crafted story, told from each contestant’s perspective, is filled with mystery, friendship, and juicy revelations.

 

 

 

Mass_CandymakersChocChase_CVR 2

The Candymakers and the Great Chocolate Chase

By Wendy Mass

Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Curriculum Subject: Adventure: Mysteries, Science: Inventions, Personal Development: Friendship

Grades: 3-7

 

It has been a few months since the Harmonicandy was chosen as the winner of the nationwide candymaking contest. Forever changed by the experience, Logan, Miles, Philip, and Daisy have returned to their regular lives. But when presented with the chance to go on tour to promote the new candy, they each have very different reasons for hitting the road.

 

The stakes are a lot higher than they thought, however, and a decades-old secret is revealed. In this action-packed adventure, the four friends embark on a journey full of hidden treasures, imaginary worlds, rivers of light, a map of awe, a sky of many colors, and one very small cat who thinks he’s a dog.

 

And candy.

 

LOTS and LOTS of candy.

 

They’ve already learned to trust one another. Now they’ll have to trust themselves in order to face what lies ahead and save what really matters.

 

 

PRAISE

“Reveals a multitude of mysteries…Attentive, candy-loving readers will be richly rewarded.” —Booklist

 

“Earnest and sweet, with enough salty twists not to taste saccharine.” —Kirkus Reviews

 

“A real page-turner…Give this mouthwatering confection to children who like Trenton Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society.” —School Library Journal

 

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Girl in the Blue Coat

girl in the blue coatGirl in the Blue Coat

By Monica Hesse

Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Curriculum Subject: Social Studies; World History; WWII; Holocaust; Prejudice & Racism; Mysteries & Detective Stories

Grades: 7 & up

 

[button link=”http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/podcasts/index.html?channel=5&podcast=529″]Listen to Author Interview[/button][button link=”https://www.hachettebookgroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/PR4661_GirlintheBlueCoat_EG_3p.pdf”]Educator Guide[/button]

Amsterdam, 1943. Hanneke spends her days procuring and delivering sought-after black market goods to paying customers, her nights hiding the true nature of her work from her concerned parents, and every waking moment mourning her boyfriend, who was killed on the Dutch front lines when the Germans invaded. She likes to think of her illegal work as a small act of rebellion.

 

On a routine delivery, a client asks Hanneke for help. Expecting to hear that Mrs. Janssen wants meat or kerosene, Hanneke is shocked by the older woman’s frantic plea to find a person—a Jewish teenager Mrs. Janssen had been hiding, who has vanished without a trace from a secret room. Hanneke initially wants nothing to do with such dangerous work, but is ultimately drawn into a web of mysteries and stunning revelations that lead her into the heart of the resistance, open her eyes to the horrors of the Nazi war machine, and compel her to take desperate action.

 

PRAISE

Girl in the Blue Coat is a powerful, compelling coming-of-age story set against the dark and dangerous backdrop of World War II. It’s an important and page-turning look at the choices all of us—including young adults—have to make in wartime. A beautiful combination of heartbreak, loss, young love, and hope.”—Kristin Hannah, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Nightingale

 

“A tapestry of guilt and acceptance, growing responsibility, and reluctant heroism, Hanneke’s coming-of-age under heartbreaking circumstances is a jarring reminder of how war consumes and transforms the passions of ordinary life. Every devastating moment of this beautiful novel is both poignant and powerful, and every word feels true.” —Elizabeth Wein, New York Times bestselling author of Code Name Verity

 

★ “[An] affecting novel…that skillfully combines reality with fiction. Her characters come alive, and…Hesse’s pacing infuses her story with thriller suspense, enriching the narrative with dramatic surprises both small and large.” —Booklist

 

★ “Riveting… a gripping historical mystery.” —Publishers Weekly

 

★ “This fast-paced story is alternately touching, heart-pounding and wrenching-but always gripping. …a heartrending, moving story.” —VOYA

Dreamland Burning

dreamlandDreamland Burning

By Jennifer Latham

Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Curriculum Subject: Mystery & Detective Stories; Social Issues: Prejudice & Racism; Historical Fiction

Grades: 7 & up

 

[button link=”http://littlebrownlibrary.com/lb-school-podcast-jennifer-latham/”]LB School Podcast[/button][button link=”http://littlebrownlibrary.com/jennifer-latham-on-dreamland-burning/”]Author Essay[/button]

When seventeen-year-old Rowan Chase finds a skeleton on her family’s property, she has no idea that investigating the brutal century-old murder will lead to a summer of painful discoveries about the past… and the present.

 

Nearly one hundred years earlier, a misguided violent encounter propels seventeen-year-old Will Tillman into a racial firestorm. In a country rife with violence against blacks and a hometown segregated by Jim Crow, Will must make hard choices on a painful journey towards self discovery and face his inner demons in order to do what’s right the night Tulsa burns.

 

Through intricately interwoven alternating perspectives, Jennifer Latham’s lightning-paced page-turner brings the Tulsa race riot of 1921 to blazing life and raises important question about the complex state of US race relations – both yesterday and today.

 

PRAISE

★ ”This timely story gives readers an unflinching look at the problem of racism, both past and present, while simultaneously offering the hope of overcoming that hatred.” –Booklist

 

★ ”Latham presents a fast-paced historical novel brimming with unsparing detail and unshakeable truths about a shameful chapter in American history. For more than 50 years, Tulsa’s schoolchildren didn’t learn about the race riot, and many outside of Tulsa remain unaware today. This masterfully told story fills this void. An unflinching, superbly written story about family, friendship, and integrity, set during one of America’s deadliest race riots.” –Kirkus Review

★ ” Latham’s enthralling, expertly paced plot will keep readers engaged, and the detailed imagery creates a strong sense of place in both time periods… Mystery fans will enjoy this cleverly plotted, suspenseful work, while the broader social issues will draw a wide audience.” –School Library Journal

The Bad Magic Books

bad magicBad Magic

by Pseudonymous Bosch

Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Curriculum Subject: Adventure: Mysteries, Adventure: Magic/Fantasy, Personal Development: Friendship, Humor: General

Grades: 3 & up

 

[button link=”http://thebadbooks.com/”]Visit Website[/button][button link=”http://media.hdp.hbgusa.com/titles/assets/reading_group_guide/9780316320382/CCG_9780316320382.pdf”]Educator Guide[/button][button link=”http://littlebrownlibrary.com/lb-school-podcast-pseudonymous-bosch/”]LB School Podcast[/button]

 

Magic is BAD.  As in fake. Cheesy. Unreal. At least, that’s what Clay, who has seen one magic show too many, thinks.

 

When words from his journal appear mysteriously on his school wall as graffiti, he never imagines that magic might be to blame. And when the same graffiti lands him at Earth Ranch, a camp for “troubled” kids on a remote volcanic island, magic is the last thing he expects to find there.

 

But at Earth Ranch, there is one strange surprise after another, until Clay no longer knows what to expect. Is he really talking to a llama? Did he really see a ghost? What is the scary secret hidden in the abandoned library? The only thing he knows for sure is that behind the clouds of vog (volcanic smog), nothing is as it seems. Can he solve the riddle of Earth Ranch before trouble erupts?

 

Elusive author Pseudonymous Bosch introduces an extraordinary new series that will have you believing in the unbelievable.

 

PRAISE

“Bosch’s mix of slapstick silliness, sly authorial asides, and magical adventure will appeal to readers of Lemony Snicket and M. T. Anderson’s Pals in Peril series. ” —Booklist

 

“Bosch employs, to great effect, his signature irreverence and hilarity packed into parenthetical asides and footnotes. The end result is a wacky, suspenseful mashup of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and a summer camp tale that is a delight to read. Bad Magic is a clever and playful novel. An excellent addition to middle grade fiction collections.” —School Library Journal

 

“Bosch breaks the fourth wall and becomes the story’s omniscient narrator. It is not as full of ciphers as the Secret series but still contains threads of mystery, magic, word games, and snark. There are spatterings of interesting and odd tidbits, vocabulary words, and witticisms in the form of footnotes. It is suspenseful, humorous, clever, and most importantly, fun. Bad Magic is definitely entertaining for a wide range of readers.” —Voices of Youth Advocates

 

READ THE WHOLE SERIES!

 

 

 

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File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents

file underFile Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents

by Lemony Snicket

Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Curriculum Subject: Adventure: Mysteries, Personal Development: Character Development, Personal Development: Friendship

Grades: 3 & up

 

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Paintings have been falling off of walls, a loud and loyal dog has gone missing, a specter has been seen walking the pier at midnight — strange things are happening all over the town of Stain’d-By-The-Sea. Called upon to investigate thirteen suspicious incidents, young Lemony Snicket collects clues, questions witnesses, and cracks every case. Join the investigation and tackle the mysteries alongside Snicket, then turn to the back of the book to see the solution revealed.

 

A delicious read that welcomes readers into Lemony Snicket’s world of deep mystery, mysterious depth, deductive reasoning, and reasonable deductions.

 

PRAISE

★ “Snicket gifts fans of his All the Wrong Questions quartet of tongue-in-cheek noir mysteries with a Volume 2.5 that expands the setting and characters of the main series while offering an homage to Donald Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown. Literary allusions and witty wordplay abound as expected, with the added fun of getting to play detective.” —Kirkus Reviews

 

“This is Encyclopedia Brown for Snicket-Hipsters, and Snicket (the writer) pays respectful homage to his tradition by naming the veterinarians in town the Doctors Sobol. The actual puzzles are dandy, and the format is ideal for the author’s approach of comic avalanche.” — The Horn Book

 

“Each mini-mystery—just a few pages long—is chock-full of wordplay, clever dialogue, noir references, and red herrings. The short chapters end with a cliff-hanger and kids may consult ‘Sub-file B’ at the back of the work to see how the brilliant young detective solved the crime. Black-and-white illustrations highlight key details and provide a few subtle clues along the way. Though there is a narrative thread connecting the individual tales, readers can also delve into the separate cases one-by-one with equal enjoyment. By the end, not all mysteries are solved, nor all questions answered; whodunit aficionados will want to revisit again and again.” — School Library Journal

“Shouldn’t You Be In School?”

shouldnt“Shouldn’t You Be In School?”

All the Wrong Questions: Book #3

By Lemony Snicket

Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Curriculum Subject: Adventure: Mysteries, Personal Development: Character Development, Personal Development: Friendship

Grades: 3 & up

 

 

Visit Website Educator Guide

Is Lemony Snicket a detective or a smoke detector?

 

Young apprentice Lemony Snicket is investigating a case of arson but soon finds himself enveloped in the ever-increasing mystery that haunts the town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea. Who is setting the fires? What secrets are hidden in the Department of Education? Why are so many schoolchildren in danger? Is it all the work of the notorious villain Hangfire? How could you even ask that? What kind of education have you had?

 

Maybe you should be in school?

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