Beginning Your Mystery Novel

By Maeve Maddox

background image 290

You’ve got a great idea for a mystery novel. You can hardly wait to get started, but before you launch into that first chapter, three steps can save you hours of frustration and repair work later.

1. With the murder as the central event, draw a time line. Indicate where every character is at any given time. This will aid you in the creation of alibis. It will also prevent you from placing a character in two places at the same time. Have a clear idea from the outset as to what period of time your story will cover. Suspense is always greater when the action takes place within strict time constraints.

2. Write brief a biographical sketch for each character. You may have only three characters to begin with: victim, detective, and person telling the story. As new characters enter the story, add their bios. Take the time to think of appropriate names for your characters. Using temporary names and changing them later is counterproductive. Names contribute to a sense of character.

The biographies needn’t be lengthy. Obvious information needed:
the character’s physical appearance
role in the story

Knowing the characters’ likes and dislikes, past disappointments, and at least one childhood trauma will feed your unconscious mind, contributing to the plot in ways you can’t anticipate when you begin your story. If in addition you give each character a secret, the way is clear to provide false leads by making the innocent characters behave in suspicious ways.

3. Keep your draft in one word processing file, not in separate files for each chapter. Having it all in one big file will simplify revision. You will want to rearrange chapters and spread out information. It’s much easier to do that when the entire draft is in one searchable file.

Want to improve your English in five minutes a day? Get a subscription and start receiving our writing tips and exercises daily!

Keep learning! Browse the Fiction Writing category, check our popular posts, or choose a related post below:

7 Responses to “Beginning Your Mystery Novel”

  • Cine Cynic

    Thank you, Maeve. These are also generic enough to apply them to other genres with few changes.

    I loved the 1st one, and don’t agree completely with the 3rd. There are word processors which handle searching multiple files as seamlessly and both have pros and cons.

    Still, thanks once again.

    Happy New Year!

  • MR

    The first two are excellent, and actually apply to quite a few genres outside of mysteries. For example, a timeline would work well with a historical fiction novel in order to sync characters with certain events in history.

    Regarding the third one, I respectfully – but firmly – disagree. When I began writing, I used Microsoft Word-like programs exclusively. However, I never got anything done, since it was very intimidating scrolling through hundreds of pages of prose just to get to the part I wanted to modify. I hated it.

    I recommend a program such as Spacejock’s software yWriter, which allows you break down your story into Chapters, and then Scenes within chapters. You can give each chapter and scene a title and description, assign each scene a character’s perspective, move them around at will, create a storyboard based off your scenes, and a whole lot more. Needless to say, it also does global search and replace (which I used when my NaNoWriMo novel’s main character changed names halfway through).

    This program is my #1 writing tool. I’ve brought a few other people over to it and they’re all hooked as well. A novel is an imposing thing to write, but by breaking it down into its basic components – chapters and scenes – it becomes far less intimidating.

    And, lastly, the program is absolutely FREE.

  • Maeve

    I guess my third suggestion reveals that I’m not very tech savvy.
    It stems from my experience using an ordinary word processing program. I was constantly going in and out of chapter files to find what I needed and to make changes.

    I once tried a writer’s tool called CopyWrite, but found it too complicated.

    With one big file the Search feature lets me find the passage I want instantly. It works for me.

  • Mihla

    If you’re a Mac user, try Storymill ( . It has sections for chapters, scenes (timeline), characters (bios), and locations. What I love is the research section, which I used extensively when writing a novel set in 1961. There is also a section to record tasks and one to keep track of submissions. Wish Mariner Software had an affiliate program!

  • MR

    It’s hard to find a good writing application. I actually discovered yWriter quite by accident, while I was planning my NaNoWriMo novel. It fit right in with my mentality towards writing.

    Since I work a lot with video, I tend to view a novel like a movie: a collection of settings and scenes filled with characters, all designed to advance the story. Obviously, a novel spends far more time describing its world than a screenplay does.


    A woman runs through the trees in a panic. She is dressed in an evening gown and clutches a purse in her arms. A large man chases her through the shadows. We do not see his face. She trips over a rock, rolls on her back, and looks back. The man’s shadow covers her.

    CUT TO:


    MARY SMITH is leaning on the nurse’s station in the emergency room, dressed in DOCTOR’S WHITES and clearly exhausted. The room is filled with sickly people coughing and moaning. A tired NURSE walks over and hands Mary a steaming cup of coffee.

    Though you could use it, doctor.


    The doors of the emergency room SLAM open loudly. Two PARAMEDICS wheel in a GURNEY. There is a person on the gurney, covered in a white sheet. We do not see their face.

    Doctor, we need you!

    She’s been shot. We’re losing her.

    Mary moves quickly to the side of the gurney, along with the nurse. She leans over and looks at the . Her calm, professional demeanor is suddenly replaced by obvious shock. She backs away violently.

    What is it?

    That’s my sister.

    CUT TO: (et cetera)


  • Monevator

    If you’re using a Mac, you could do a lot worse than Scrivener, which comes with all kinds of handy tools for novel writers, from virtual sticky boards and character threading to a full-screen, distraction hiding typewriter mode.

    Google Scrivener and Literature and Latte (the developer).

    No connection – just like the product.

  • Maeve

    I’ve actually downloaded the Scrivener trial, but have never tried to use it. I’m afraid it will take too long to learn. Is there much of a learning curve? Mind you, I’m not very good at figuring out anything too technical.

Leave a comment: