Develop a Fascinating Premise for Your Mystery Novel

By: Hallie Ephron 2/1/2017

I used to think that I couldn’t write a mystery novel because I’m not very good at making things up. Where would I find ideas?

Then I stumbled across a terrific idea at a yard sale.

It was at a Victorian house with gingerbread-trimmed gables and leaded glass windows. I was peppering the homeowner (a complete stranger) with questions about their recent renovations, and she asked me if I wanted to go inside the house and have a look around. Of course I did.

I was wandering through the house when I thought, Suppose a woman goes to a yard sale. What if somehow she manages to talk her way into the house? And what if she never comes out?

I ran home and started writing. The book, Never Tell a Lie, starts with a yard sale at a Victorian house and ended up being a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. It was also made into a movie for the Lifetime Movie Network.

Turns out intriguing ideas are all around you. Learn to tune in and pay attention when your brain perks up and says, Oh, that’s interesting.

Finding Ideas for Your Mystery Novel

Here are just a few places to find ideas:

  • books (No, you can’t steal the main idea of a book—that’s plagiarism—but you can build on an image, a situation, or a line of dialogue.)
  • conversations—your own or overheard
  • news and magazine stories
  • something that happened to someone you know
  • your own experience
  • your dreams

Whenever I trip over a story idea, I jot it down and stash it in a folder labeled COMPOST. By now, the folder is bulging with clippings and handwritten notes. Here are some ideas culled from the news:

  • A Toyota salesman tries to investigate terrorists on the Internet and gets arrested for terrorism.
  • Severed feet, still inside shoes, keep washing up on a beach.
  • A man tries to stage his own disappearance by murdering a look-alike he finds on the Internet.
  • A woman finds a bullet in the pork butt she’s cooking.
  • A young man who writes his sexual fantasies in a personal journal is charged with creating child pornography.

On your own: Start your own compost file, and save ideas that intrigue you.

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Table of Contents

Foreword by Sara Paretsky

CHAPTER 1: The Premise
CHAPTER 2: The Mystery Sleuth
CHAPTER 3: The Crime and the Victim’s Secrets
CHAPTER 4: The Villain
CHAPTER 5: Innocent Suspects
CHAPTER 6: The Supporting Cast
CHAPTER 7: The Web of Characters with Competing Goals
CHAPTER 8: Setting
CHAPTER 9: Staking Out the Plot
CHAPTER 10: Picking a Title
A Blueprint for Planning a Mystery Novel

CHAPTER 11: Writing a Dramatic Opening
CHAPTER 12: Introducing the Protagonist
CHAPTER 13: Introducing Major and Minor Characters
CHAPTER 14: Dramatizing Scenes and Writing Chapters
CHAPTER 15: Narrative Voice and Viewpoint
CHAPTER 16: Writing Dialogue
CHAPTER 17: Creating a Sense of Place
CHAPTER 18: Writing Investigation: Clues, Red Herrings and Misdirection
CHAPTER 19: Writing Suspense
CHAPTER 20: Writing Action
CHAPTER 21: Puzzling It Out: Writing Reflection
CHAPTER 22: Layering in Backstory
CHAPTER 23: Writing the Final Climax
CHAPTER 24: Writing the Coda

CHAPTER 25: Flying High: Fixing Plot and Character
CHAPTER 26: Flying Low: Polishing Scenes and Sentences
CHAPTER 27: Seeking Criticism and Finding Your Own Fix
CHAPTER 28: Preparing the Final Manuscript

CHAPTER 29: Placing Your Novel with a Traditional Publisher
CHAPTER 30: Self-Publishing Your Novel

Appendix of Resources for Mystery Writers