Do You Have What It Takes To Write A Mystery?

I’m grateful to Heidi for allowing me to be a guest here.  And I’m grateful to readers!  I love my work, and I’d be nowhere without you.  Leave a comment here, and your name will go into a daily drawing for one free book.  The winner can choose any of my sixteen titles.  Old World Murder, one of my American Girl mysteries, a Civil War novel—the choice will be yours!



Do You Have What It Takes To Write A Mystery?

by Kathleen Ernst

My short answer:  Yes!

Now, a little background.  I enjoyed mysteries when I was a kid, but in my teens I began reading historical fiction pretty exclusively.  I wrote historical fiction as well.  My first four published books were young adult novels set during the American Civil War.

Then the almost unimagineable happened.  The phone rang one day.  The caller introduced herself as an editor with Pleasant Company/American Girl.  She explained that the company was starting a new line of historical mysteries for girls.  She’d seen some of my work; would I be interested in submitting a proposal?

I assured her I was interested.  I assured her that although I’d never written a mystery, I was confident that I could do it.  And after I hung up the phone, I panicked.  I didn’t know anything about writing mysteries!

Success did not come easily, or quickly, but I found my way.  I wrote the manuscript.  Pleasant Company accepted it.  The year after Trouble at Fort La Pointe was published, it was named a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery.  Since then I’ve written seven more mysteries for young readers.  My first adult mystery, Old World Murder, has just been published.  I’m finishing up the second book in the series.

So here’s the thing:  If I can do it, you can do it.

Everyone writer has to find their own process and their own voice.  That said, I can share a couple of tips that helped me along the way.

1.  Read a lot of recently-published mysteries.  Sounds simple, right?  But I’ve encountered many newish writers who haven’t read a book in their chosen genre since they were kids or teens themselves.  Styles change.  Markets change.  Tastes evolve.  See what’s going on.

2.  Read analytically.  When you discover a book you love, read it again—this time with pencil or highlighter in hand.  How is the book structured?  What choices did the author make that you found appealing?  How is the book paced?  What can you learn from this novel?

3.  Create a compelling protagonist.  Sure, plot is important.  But one of the best thing about mysteries is that they are often published within a series format.  My favorite series are those with complex and engaging characters that grow and change within each book, and over the course of the series.  When asked to name favorites I often don’t recall many details about a plot, but I can discuss the characters at length.

4.  Understand the market.  What kind of mystery do you want to write?  If you’re targeting young readers, do you understand what differentiates middle grade from young adult?  If targeting adult readers, do you know the differences between cozies, romantic suspense, thrillers, P.I. novels, and police procedurals?   Read some of each variety, see who’s publishing what, and decide what appeals to you the most.  Many of the presses publishing mysteries have very particular styles and tastes.

5.  Become professionally active.  Groups like Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America are dedicated to professional crime writers.  Newsletters, online discussion groups, local chapters, and annual conferences can be enormous sources of information.  Other writers’ organizations, such as Women Writing the West, often count mystery writers among members.  Getting connected with other writers and professionals can provide avenues for getting feedback on your work, learning about the mystery biz, and connecting with agents and editors.

I may have stumbled into the mystery world, but I’ve fallen in love with the genre.  Creating a puzzle for my sleuth—and my readers—to solve adds an extra dimension to my writing.

Are you intrigued?  Go for it!  And if not, what genre are you interested in exploring?

Kathleen Ernst is celebrating the publication of her first adult mystery, Old World Murder (Midnight Ink).  She has also written eight mysteries for young readers.  Several have been finalists for Edgar or Agatha awards.  She’s also written in different genres.  For more information see her website, or her blog .

Join Kathleen tomorrow for the next stop on her virtual book tour 10/20 – “Revisiting My Past” at Women Only Over Fifty

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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Although I haven’t read Kathleen’s latest novel, Old World Murder, I’ve enjoyed several of her other books. This is an interesting blog. Thank you, Heidi, for having Kathleen as your guest. And thank you, Kathleen, for sharing your experience.

  2. I love to write, and I love, love, love, to read mysteries, but I’m not sure that I will ever take the plunge to try to write one. (For one thing, I would have lots less time to READ them if I was trying to WRITE them.) However, it is fun to come up with scenarios of “OOH! Wouldn’t this be a fun place to set a mystery?” Or, “That would be a great murder mystery plot.”

    I’m just getting ready to read “Old World Murder” which I received in the mail today from Kathleen after I won it on one of her other guest blogs. Good luck to everyone with a chance to win today.

  3. Kathleen, I am thoroughly enjoying your blog tour. Will Old World Murder be available in large print? I so want to read it. Thanks, Heidi for guesting Kathleen.

  4. Thanks, Mary and Irene! I don’t know whether there will be a large print edition or not. There isn’t one yet, anyway. It is available on Kindle, though, and I believe you can adjust the font size on those (right? I don’t have one!)

  5. Thank you for those handy hints on writing mysteries, Kathleen. I, too, am making the switch from writing historical fiction to mystery. In my case, the inspiration came from thinking of a name that I thought would make a good series character name–Winslow Arizona. I’m two manuscripts in, and still looking for a publisher, but confident it will happen. BTW, I stopped in Winslow, AZ on the way home from the Women Writing the West conference, so I could “stand on the corner” and get my picture taken!

  6. And Mary – you now have a book coming your way!

  7. Thank you, Kathleen, for stopping by my blog on your book tour. I’m looking forward to reading your latest!
    Thanks to all of you for leaving a comment.

  8. I love mysteries and look forward to reading yours and many others that will come out of your encouragment to writers to “Go for it!”

  9. Interesting post. I don’t usually read mysteries and so probably won’t write them, but I liked what you said. I’ve purchased American Girl dolls, their books, etc. for a number of years for four granddaughters. One last one this year and then the youngest will be too old. SAD…

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