Every story ever written contains some element of mystery. We’ll talk about that and a lot of other things over this four-week series.
In a mystery novel—a whodunit, a police procedural, a cozy—the mystery is the story. Who committed the murder, who stole the jewels, who kidnapped the town librarian?
Those are only three of mystery’s many genres. How many are there? You have just enough fingers and toes to count them.
My favorite genre is romantic suspense. Of the sixteen novels I’ve published, seven are romantic suspense. My first won a Romantic Times magazine award, three were nominated for the Romance Writers of America’s RITA award, and the fifth was a 100% sell through, which means every copy printed sold. I’ve written five successful romantic suspense novels—Like A Lover, Remembrance, The Dreaming Pool, Aftershock, Nightwing—yet I have no formal training in how to write mystery. Yes, I took a few creative writing classes in college as electives for my major, but none of those classes covered how to plant clues or create red herrings.
Did I set out to write romantic suspense? No. I had my sights set on fantasy. Once our two boys were in school full time, I signed up for a junior college class to learn how to write it.
When the class cancelled due to lack of interest, I decided to take a different one rather than ask for a refund. I looked through the course offerings, saw a class on writing romance and thought, why not? Genre writing is genre writing.
Well, yes—and no. The first thing I learned in the class is that all genres have specific characteristics that define them; mystery, for example, usually has a murder. The second thing I learned is that all genres share the same basics of good fiction:
• Sympathetic (meaning likeable) characters
• Strong external and internal conflicts
• Sharp, realistic dialogue
• A solid plot with a clever twist
• Great pacing
Once you have a good handle on those, you can bend and shape them to fit any genre. Setting, tone and style, and word choice, which we’ll also discuss, can help you do that. When I was ten-years-old, I had no idea the books I was filching off my mother’s nightstand were mostly romance. Authors like Mary Stewart, Taylor Caldwell, Phyllis Whitney, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Victoria Holt, and Mary Higgins Clark.
It hit me like a thunderbolt in the first session of that romance class, though, let me tell you—along with the realization that at last I’d found my place as a writer. Why did I think I wanted to write fantasy? I’m not sure, but I suspect The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings had something to do with it.
In college I took half a dozen creative writing classes. For one of them the assignment was to write a scene and read it aloud in class. My scene drew laughter and applause from the other students. The instructor said it “might make a nice little romance novel” someday.
And it did, as part of Remembrance, my first book for Harlequin Temptation and my first RITA finalist. If you’re curious, the scene I wrote for that class is in Chapter 13.
Lesson #1: Never throw anything away.
Hang on to everything you write. You never know when it might come in handy.
I’d never heard the word synopsis until the romance class. I learned how to write one and it didn’t kill me, though I thought it would, and by the end of the semester I had a submission packet—I’d never heard of that, either—which is a synopsis, plus the first 50 pages of the romantic suspense story I concocted for the class.
I also had a recommendation from the instructor, a published romance author, to her agent in New York. I sent my chapters and the synopsis (a narrative telling of the plot written in present tense). The agent liked the book and sold it to Avon.
I was in the right place at the right time with the right thing—a romantic suspense novel—and Avon was just starting a new line of category romance length romantic suspense titled Velvet Glove. Even so, selling the first thing I ever submitted was a lightning strike.
Lesson #2: It happened to me; it can happen to you.
Without knowing it, I’d been filling boxes with romantic suspense stories since I’d started writing in sixth grade. Every story had a girl, and a boy, and a horse in it someplace. In middle school and high school, I raced home from the bus stop, locked myself in my bedroom and wrote stories. Forget homework.
I wrote my books longhand on notebook paper, then bound them in folders with brads in the spine and took them to school for my friends to read. They passed the books around and returned them to me with a couple of paragraphs from each of them about what they liked and didn’t like about the story or the characters.
I was lightyears ahead of New York publishers and their back-of-the-book book club sections!
Lesson #3: See Lesson #1.
I kept writing novels through high school and college, and I kept reading my mother’s books. To this day I’d rather read than do almost anything, including write. So would most of my writer friends. Because, after all, reading is what got us into this.
So. how did I learn to write mystery? I’ve given you two clues in this post. See if you can find them before next week when, as Hercule Poirot might say, all will be revealed.
(P.S. That’s foreshadowing.)
Lynne Smith, aka Lynn Michaels, is the author of two novellas and sixteen novels, three of which were nominated for the Romance Writers of America’s RITA award, the Oscar of romance writing. She won two awards from Romantic Times Magazine, for best romantic suspense and best contemporary romance. Her only complaint about writing is that it really cuts into her reading time. She lives in Missouri with her husband, two sons, three grandsons, and one granddaughter, born on Lynne’s birthday. Lynne is also an IFW instructor. She teaches “Breaking into Print” and “Shape, Write and Sell Your Novel.”