How to Learn Mystery Writing

How do you learn to write mysteries? Stuck up in Alaska with no local Sisters in Crime, I have had to figure out the craft of writing mysteries by myself. Accordingly, I have purchased just about every writing manual on the market. I asked my sister Miss D’s what their favorite manuals are. Here are mine:


Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel by Hallie Ephron. This is the bible. Hallie gives you clear explanations of each concept from the premise to preparing the final manuscript. You will learn about structure, character, voice, dialogue, red herrings, plot twists, and so much more.

The Art of Character by David Corbett. David is the author of a number of mystery/suspense novels and teaches widely. In this book, you will go beyond the statistical data that would appear on your character’s drivers license and delve into desire, secrets, struggles, and again, so much more. My favorite part of this book is the exercises. If you take the time to develop your characters through working through the suggested questions, your story will practically write itself.

The Compass of Character by David Corbett spins off The Art of Character and goes into greater depth discussing the four directional forces that guide your character. Have you ever heard someone complain that a character is two-dimensional? Well that problem is solved for you if you study lack, yearning, resistance, and desire. This book, too, is chocked full of useful exercises which will help you unearth the depths of your character.

Story Genius by Lisa Cron is a great compliment to David Corbett’s books. In this, she helps you focus on blueprinting your story so that the external struggle compliments and highlights the character’s internal struggle.


I love Donald Maass’ book “The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write with Emotional Power, Develop Achingly Real Characters, Move Your Readers, and Create Riveting Moral Stakes.” I’ve done all his exercises a number of times. I use Paula Munier’s book on Beginnings a lot. I also like Hallie Ephron’s book on Writing & Selling Your Mystery Novel. I see that the MWA has a new book out on writing mysteries and I intend to get that one.


The first book on writing I ever read was the excellent and very practical Don’t Sabotage Your Submission by Chris Reardon. I still recommend the book to aspiring writers because Reardon gives such great advice and clear examples. I also love the two books by Jane K. Cleland–Mastering Suspense, Structure & Plot and Mastering the Plot Twist. At the moment I’m reading the essays in How To Write A Mystery, the handbook from Mystery Writers of America. My library also includes books by Hallie Ephron and Donald Maass.


I’ll have to add a second to all the other suggestions, particularly Lisa Cron’s Story Genius. And I’ll add Stephen King’s On Writing and Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English. Neither are specifically about constructing a novel, but both are inspirational at at times just plain fun to read. What are your favorite go-to writing manuals?


I think Donald Maas’s Writing the Breakout Novel was my first how-to book, and it had lessons good enough so I still think of them when I plan a story. Stephen King’s On Writing is pretty awesome. At some point I read a really awful how- to book by an author I will not mention who said that if you can’t get up at 5am to write, you will never be a writer.

Humph! I tried it, cried for a week, and threw the book away.


The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler is the book that got me through my first manuscript. I also like Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott 


I want to say, I’ve never found a book about writing I didn’t like and if you looked at my bookshelf, you’d  believe me! I have found books by  Hallie Ephron, our own Paula Munier, Donald Maass, Elizabeth George, Nancy Pickard, and so many others valuable. Stephen King’s On Writing remains my favorite, along with Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. The one I learned the most from was Harry Bingham’s How to Write published in 2012. 

But the best advice about writing comes from Nike: Just do it.

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