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Understanding The Mystery Genre as a Mystery Writer
Understanding The Mystery Genre as a Mystery Writer
This article looks at what makes a story a mystery and what defines the crucial elements of this genre. This article also identifies what genre means, and how being familiar with a genre can allow a writer to challenge its conventions in innovative and original ways.

A mystery is a story in which something is hidden from one or more characters. Mystery and Detective fiction are interchangeable terms, with detective fiction referring more commonly to murder mysteries. The most popular Mystery or Detective story sold worldwide is arguably the 'whodunit' in which a crime, usually a murder, is committed and characters struggle to solve the mystery and gain some kind of recompense by punishing the perpetrator of the crime.

Thinking About Mystery

Answer the following questions to get you thinking about mystery and the implications the term holds for you personally:

1. What mysteries can you think of? Think about classic stories, modern novels, movies, television shows, and dramas. Make a note of all that you can think of.

2. What elements are common to all these mysteries? Think about:

a. What is the mystery? Is it a crime, a murder perhaps?

b. Who is trying to solve the mystery, and what are they like? Are they a professional or an amateur? Do they have a vested interest in solving it -- for example, money or revenge?

c. When is the crime or mystery brought to light, and when is it solved?

3. How predictable was the outcome of the stories? How did the predictability affect your enjoyment of the mystery? Was there anything you would have done differently?

This exercise should help you identify your own appreciation of the mystery genre. What works for you as a lover of mysteries will work for other lovers of the genre, so remember to follow your instincts.

Noting similarities between characters and stories is useful for two reasons:

1. As a writer, you need to know your genre so you can write for it or challenge its boundaries.

2. The second reason is to note trends in mysteries you encounter so you never duplicate typical storylines in a way that will make them predictable for your reader. Knowing what to expect means you know how to surprise your reader, and surprise is an important part of any mystery.

Challenging Your Genre

Knowing what makes a good mystery is a matter of reading. Reading mysteries and making your own notes on how and why they are effective is the best practice for writing your own mystery. In the modern mystery market, there is a huge demand for mysteries of all kinds, those that conform to the typical mystery protocol, and those that veer off the beaten track. Whichever of these options appeals to you, it is essential that you are familiar with the genre before you challenge it.

Challenging the genre can be done in a number of ways. Remember, if you remove the mystery elements, it won't be a mystery anymore, therefore the puzzle, crime, or murder has to remain. Elements you can play around with are those of character and narrative, perhaps challenging the stereotype of the "detective" or telling the story from an unusual viewpoint.


A sub-genre is a genre within a genre. Mysteries have a number of story "types" that you may wish to consider. These are often blended together and the edges are commonly blurred as mystery writers become increasingly reluctant to be bound by the conventions or rules of their particular sub-genre. Here a number of common sub-genres of the Mystery:

  • 'Hard-Boiled" – These are usually noted for their gritty realism. They tend to have more graphic representations of violence and sex and are more likely to deal with disturbing or shocking crimes. These are tough stories that aren't necessarily for the faint hearted.
  • "Cozies" – These are almost always set in small towns or villages. They have a gentler, more genteel tone and the characters tend to be particularly likable. The crime that has to be solved in a cozy mystery is usually bloodless, or at least without graphic description. Usually the sleuth solving the crime is an amateur, often a woman.
  • "Historical" – Obviously these are mysteries set in the past. These stories require a lot of research into the historical era they are set in, as while their readers are prepared to accept that the mystery may not have actually happened, the detail of the setting must be correct; anachronisms will seriously impair the quality of the writing and isolate the reader.
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  • "Private Eye" – These are simple detective mysteries where the solver of the mystery is a licensed private investigator. Often these mysteries are complex and rely on the amazing talent and insight of the sleuth to solve them.
  • "Procedural" – Sometimes called "Police Procedural" mystery stories, these are mysteries that focus on the procedure and activity of the police who are solving the crime. These include details of investigations, police protocol etc. Similar to this is the forensic detective story.
  • "Didactic" – Didactic is a way of describing mysteries that aim to inform or teach the reader about a particular arena, for example, a mystery that is set in a particular professional world.
  • "Amateur" – Opposite in many ways to the "private eye" sub-genre, this type of mystery is solved by a character who is not from the detective or police field. Often the sleuth is another type of professional from a different field completely.
    Starting Out

    This section deals with the all-important question; "Where do I start?"
    This section aims to look at how you can find and collect ideas that inspire you, moving on to give practical advice on getting that pen to paper for the first time -- planning, plotting, and brainstorming.

    It can be extremely difficult to know where to start when you are at the beginning of a work of fiction. It can be doubly difficult when you are considering the mystery genre and all the complexities of plot that can go with it. The following are useful techniques for getting started with your mystery writing.


    Freewrites are simple. Basically, you take a pen, a piece of paper, and you start to write. Write any idea you have about your mystery. If all you have is a few lines of dialogue or an idea for a character, write it. Don't worry about the structure of the piece; just keep the pen moving. If you get stuck, start writing about why it is you want to write a mystery. This will get the ideas flowing and before you know it, more and more words will fill that page and soon you will find that you have to stop and put things in some kind of order. There you have it; your mystery has a beginning!


    Brainstorming is a way of writing on paper ideas that are connected in your mind. Take a look at the following example of a brainstorm for a detective character from a mystery novel.

    This simple chart maps out what the writer is thinking. From here, certain questions are raised. For example: Does his stammer make people feel he is nervous, and how does this affect their interactions with him? Does this mean he is underestimated by the culprit of the crime, which leads to a fatal slip-up that allows him to solve the mystery? At this early stage, you should be asking yourself the right questions, rather than trying to write down all the answers. Let your imagination go and note down all your thoughts, even if they seem like they are obvious or unnecessary. You never know when these ideas could become very useful!

    Collecting Ideas

    Where do you get ideas? Think back to what inspired you to write a mystery; was it a book you read, a movie you watched? Finding ideas is so important to any writer, but for a writer of mysteries it can be very difficult to know where to look. Try the following suggestions to get your creative side using some new story ideas.

  • Newspapers - Getting inspiration from real life is a common practice for writers. Mystery writers can especially benefit from reading about real life crimes and mysteries. Collect stories that fascinate you from both local and national publications; perhaps even subscribe to some foreign newspapers for some more exotic settings to the stories. Remember not to directly copy the details of the story, but instead use it for sparking off some of your own ideas. Pay special attention to the characters involved. Try to work out what the motivation of the various parties might be. Sometimes this is clear; for example, in the case of a murder committed so that the murderer could benefit from the policy money. In other cases, it might not be so easy to discern the motivation behind the crime. If the murder had been committed in cold blood, then you may have to invent your own reason behind the criminal's actions. This can be a truly fascinating exercise for your imagination.

  • Obituaries - It may seem inappropriate, but obituaries can provide a fascinating insight into the lives of real people. It is interesting from a writer's point of view to read an account of a person's life condensed into just a few hundred words. Try expanding on an obituary by changing and adding to the test you are given in order to make it unrecognizable. This can be an ideal starting point for creating your own, individual characters that strike the balance between realism and originality.

  • Listen - Listening to the stories that people around you tell may seem like a natural thing to do, but what we are talking about here is listening from the point of view of a writer. Listen for how people are described by others, what are the important things that they want to know; do they talk about the person's past in order to give their story some context or do they jump straight in to the action. What does this tell you about the storyteller? Make mental notes of how effective the stories are and why. This doesn't mean isolating yourself from the actual conversation; in fact, you may find yourself getting deeper into conversation with people as you subconsciously attempt to bring out the storyteller in them.


    Research is essential for the mystery writer. It is crucial to be well informed about the time, place, and detail of your story. This section gives practical tips on where to find your research and how to write about real-life mysteries.


    Love it or hate it, research is a big part of the work of any writer, and none more so than the writer of mysteries. The amount of research you will need to conduct depends on the type of piece you are writing.

    Big research projects are going to be those that rely on knowledge of a certain time or place being evoked by the writer. In historical mysteries, the research will be a crucial part of the writer's work. Describing a time you have not lived through is impossible without research, but even describing modern times can take a certain amount of research to get perfect. You need to have enough background information within your story to truly make the atmosphere of the mystery come alive with vibrant realism.

    You need to make sure you have every fact correct. A reader who spots an anachronism (an element in your story that would be impossible, given the time in which it is set -- for example your Victorian detective checking the time on his digital watch!) will be immediately lost as the story will lose credibility.

    Researching History

    Using the Internet can be a great way of finding out about the period in which your story is set. There are sure to be books you can get information from and depending on when your story is set, you may be able to interview people who lived through that particular period. Talking to historians is another great way of researching, especially when you want to try sourcing human-interest stories that were current in your chosen era.

    Researching Location

    If you are writing about a place you have visited, brainstorming your experience there can be really inspiring. Looking at pictures, postcards, and brochures of the place will help to freshen your mind. Of course, the best thing you can do is to return to the place and experience it all over again with your mystery in mind, so that everything you see is adding to your research. Researching a place you have never been to can be much more complex, in the same way that researching a time you have not lived through can be tricky. Location is important to the mystery you are writing and if you have not been to where you are setting your story, then it can make the whole writing process much more complicated. Only set your story somewhere you are not familiar with if it is crucial to the story and you are prepared to do the necessary work getting to know the place. Remember; while you won't be writing for persons from the past, there may be readers who are more familiar with the location than you are, so be very careful! This is where the Internet can again come into its own. It is likely that you can get in touch with someone from the area you are writing about through the Internet. Of course, do this carefully. You may also be able to view maps and pictures that will help you describe your setting, and it should be easy to research the wildlife, plant life and climate of the place. Books about the location will provide reliable information and pictures that you can carry with you and gain inspiration from.

    Making sure you have your facts straight means:

    • Seeking reliable sources – Be extra careful when looking on the Internet for information that the facts you are getting are correct. Check where the writer is getting his or her information from and make sure you are not getting the personal bias of someone abusing the freedom of speech that makes the Internet so valuable.
    • Check everything twice – If you use the Internet, or are suspicious of any information you receive, make sure you check it twice. Getting your facts corroborated by another source means you can be much more sure of the authenticity of the information you have gathered.
    • Keep a note of all the sources you use so that you can list them at the end of your work as a bibliography or resources section. This way you are acknowledging the sources of your research as well as keeping yourself organized.
    • Reading widely –Try not to limit yourself by only reading what is directly relevant to the story you are writing. By reading widely you will get a better sense of the time or place you are dealing with and thus, will have a better chance of evoking the perfect stage on which your mystery with be played out.

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