Monday 4 June 2018

Exploring Genre - Unraveling the Mystery of Writing Mysteries

by Virginia Smith | @VirginiaPSmith

Please welcome Virginia Smith to our blog today to talk about mystery. Now over to Virginia.

The contract for my first mystery came as a surprise. At a writers’ conference I sat beside an editor at dinner. During the meal she said she was interested in seeing proposals for mysteries. Though I enjoyed reading mysteries, I’d never written one. Still, ideas began pinging around in my brain. We were eating chicken with mushroom sauce. The week before I’d had lunch with a friend who was a wild mushroom specialist and was occasionally called to the hospital to consult on cases of mushroom poisoning.


As we left the table I said to the editor, “I have an idea for a mystery. A kitchen klutz decides to impress everyone by making a casserole for the church potluck, but someone slips poisonous mushrooms into her casserole to poison a gossipy old lady.” The editor smiled and said, “I like it. Send me the manuscript.”

Naturally I was thrilled – for about 30 seconds. Then I panicked. I didn’t have a manuscript. I didn’t even have a paragraph. And I didn’t know how to write a mystery. I rushed to the library and checked out a book called Writing the Modern Mystery. And I learned. Several months later the editor bought that story, which became my first mystery, Murder by Mushroom.

When a writer approaches a mystery, the first consideration is the sub-genre. The differences may be subtle, but they are important in order to meet reader expectations. There are many mystery sub-genres, but the major ones include:

Cozy – A cozy mystery includes a bloodless crime, meaning the reader is not subjected to icky details of the murder or the murder scene. The story often takes place in a small town and may have an element of humor. The plot reveals a series of clues which the sleuth (usually an amateur) follows to solve the crime. Agatha Christie perfected the cozy sub-genre.

Police Procedural – These stories focus on the investigation by one or more law enforcement officers. The reader is treated to an inside look at the investigative process and analysis of the crime from a police perspective.

Private Eye – The sleuth is a professional crime investigator but not a police officer. Like the cozy, the plot movement is established by the sleuth’s discovery of a series of clues.

Legal or Medical – The plot progression and the resolution of the mystery center on the details of either a legal or medical process.

Suspense – Danger is a necessary element in these stories. The sleuth, or someone close to him, is in jeopardy for a large portion of the plot. Solving the crime may be of secondary importance. A successful suspense novel includes a ‘ticking time bomb,’ an element of urgency to find the criminal before disaster occurs.

Romantic Suspense – Like a suspense story, these books establish tension through the threat of personal danger but also combine a strong romantic element. In this sub-genre the romance is equally as important as the mystery. To create a tightly-plotted romantic suspense novel, the suspense element must be related to the romance in some way. The hero and heroine’s developing relationship is enhanced as they work together to solve the mystery and escape the threat of danger.

Once the genre is established, the writer can design the plot. What clues will be given to the reader, and at what point in the story? Who are the suspects, and what are their motives for committing the crime? How will the writer hide the identity of the perpetrator from the reader? When will the identity be revealed? (Many mysteries reveal the antagonist toward the end of the story, but suspense novels may differ.)

The placement of the clues is critical to maintaining tension from the first chapter to the last. A good mystery writer creates a series of questions in readers’ minds. When one question is answered, another is revealed. This technique keeps readers turning pages.

I’ll share two tips I keep in mind when writing a mystery. First, everyone has a secret. Every character is hiding something. It may not be relevant to the crime, but the sleuth doesn’t know that. She only knows Mr. Brown wasn’t where he claimed to be at the time of the murder. Did he commit the crime? She must find out why he lied.

The second technique I employ is to throw in a shocker. I build suspicion of one character throughout the first half of the book. Then, when the reader is convinced that Mrs. Blue killed her husband, I kill off Mrs. Blue! The reader is thrown into confusion – and they love it.

Since that writers’ conference I’ve been fortunate to have opportunities to write in several genres. The techniques I’ve learned while writing mysteries apply to nearly every story. I’ve decided that any book is better with a mystery woven into the plot. And to think – it all started with mushrooms.


This post is being shared on the Australasian Christian Writers blog and the Christian Writers Downunder blog.


VIRGINIA SMITH is the bestselling author of over 30 novels, more than half of which are mysteries. Two of Ginny’s romantic suspense novels were finalists for the Daphne du Maurier Award of Excellence in Mystery/Suspense, and two received Holt Medallion Awards of Merit. Learn more about Ginny and her books at,, and @VirginiaPSmith.


  1. Thanks Virginia for sharing your knowledge with us.

  2. Hi Virginia, I love your story on how you pitched your mushroom mystery story idea! Thanks for visiting with us. :)


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