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I always love a good mystery. It’s a genre that takes immense skill to write, but if you get it right your career is set! That’s why I’ve been searching for a great mystery writer to feature on this blog. Lucky for you, I found one. Elizabeth S. Craig has garnered huge success writing two awesome mystery series. And she’s been gracious enough to share her insight on how to write a great mystery.
Elizabeth is the bestselling cozy mystery author of the Southern Quilting mysteries, the Myrtle Clover Cozy Mysteries, the upcoming Village Library Mysteries, and Memphis Barbeque mysteries for Penguin Random House, Midnight Ink, and independently. Follow her on Twitter where she shares writing links @elizabethscraig or at her blog where she offers tips for writers: elizabethspanncraig.
How did you get into writing? What were some of your first jobs as an aspiring writer?
Writing is really my only talent. I think of myself as a one-trick pony, although it’s a pretty decent trick. I wasn’t sure at first how it was going to translate into income so I had a job at an art magazine. I quickly found that I didn’t enjoy writing articles nearly as much as creative writing. . . and journalism isn’t exactly an area where they want you to make things up! I realized that being a novelist was a much better fit.
I personally love the genre of mystery. How did you choose this genre as your focus?
I love everything about mysteries. I love the tidy feel of it when these huge, messy problems are resolved at the end of the book. I love the almost interactive nature of a mystery and the way the reader safely solves cases safely with the sleuth. Reading mysteries remains a really immersive experience for me. Because I read so many, it was natural for me to write one; it was the easiest genre for me to take on because I was so familiar with the structure of the books.
Many of your books, like the Myrtle Clover series, place murder mystery plots in the heart of sleepy towns. Why do you choose these kinds of settings for your fiction? (as opposed to a Noir setting like LA or some other urban center)
Smaller towns work really well with the traditional mysteries (also called cozies) that I write. The suspects in these books must be known by the victim and the gifted amateurs that operate as sleuths need to be able to casually question them. This becomes a lot easier when you move the stories into a village setting.
The murder motives for these books also tend to be very basic…and annoyances in small towns tend to blow up into something a lot bigger. When everyone knows everyone else, there are plenty of opportunities for feuding.
I love the idea of an old woman solving murders in a small southern town. Where did you get the idea for amateur sleuth Myrtle Clover?
I was influenced by my love for Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, but also by fond memories of my grandmother: a smart and opinionated retired schoolteacher with a great sense of humor. I always say that Myrtle’s good traits are my grandmother’s and Myrtle’s bad traits are often mine.
What are some tips you have for aspiring mystery writers? I think the very first thing that’s important to figure out is the audience you want for your book. Some writers would rather write exactly what they want to write instead of trying to squeeze their mystery into a particular box. These writers are writing to please themselves and aren’t necessarily seeking a large audience. Others want to go further with it: either by querying a major publisher or self-publishing with an eye for commercial success. It’s good to know exactly what you want, going in, so you won’t waste time.
If you’re wanting a larger audience, you’ll first want to learn what type of mystery subgenre you want to write…police procedural, cozy, noir, thriller. Then read as much as possible in that subgenre. After a while, the structures and patterns of these books become clearer and your book will be easier to write.
The most important thing to remember is to keep the reader guessing. Mystery readers are some of the savviest readers out there and they will solve the mystery by page fifty if we don’t work hard at redirecting them with red herrings.
Tell us a little about your process. Do you write every day? Do you have a specific area you write?
I do write every day unless something really remarkable happens. I’ve found it’s just easier that way…if I don’t look at my book every day then it takes me longer to pick up the thread of the story because my head’s no longer in that world. I write in my den at home usually because I write so early (5 a.m.). But now I’ve picked up an afternoon writing session and sometimes I’ve found it’s easier to write at the library where, if there are distractions, at least they have nothing to do with me!
I’m amazed at how prolific an author you are. You have four separate mystery series and dozens of books on the shelf. What would you tell an aspiring writer who wants to match your output?
It’s really not hard. I only aim for 3.5 pages a day…about 750 words. That’s per project and sometimes I work on more than one project at once (I am now, actually). That’s my very minimum goal: the amount I need to write to feel good about my progress.
I’ve learned to write quickly and to write first thing in the day before my day gets hijacked. I do find that outlining really helps, even though I allow myself to deviate from the outline when better ideas come along. I also like to work with timers to help myself stay focused. There’s a free online one that I’m using now that aligns with the Pomodoro method. I use timers for other writing-related tasks, too. It helps everything seem less-overwhelming by realizing that I’m just spending twelve minutes on it. Plus, it helps keep me from checking email or social media (although I might use that as a reward after the timer goes off).
What goes into planning a successful series? Do you plan story arcs that will span the whole series, or do you take it one book at a time and let the characters act as a throughline?
I usually take the series arcs one book at a time. I have two series with arcs and one where everything remains sort of static…readers could read those books out of order without being confused. One of my editors was a fan of letting the characters dictate the outcomes and having it all be character-based and I followed her lead.
What kind of research do you do when writing a book or story?
The awesome thing about cozy mysteries is that they’re not research-intensive since they’re not forensics-focused. I do have a poison reference that’s really helpful (Book of Poisons by Serita Stevens and Anne Bannon) and I’ve also spoken to a local botanist. I also have a book on small town policing (When You’re the Only Cop in Town by Jack Berry and Debra Dixon) that I like to refer to. I’ve also had to do things like reach out to an attorney who specializes in cruise ship/international law when I wrote a mystery that took place on a cruise ship. But my research isn’t ever time-consuming or prohibitive…another reason that I chose this subgenre (at the time I started, I had two young children and not a lot of extra time on my hands).
What are some daily practices that you think every aspiring writer should adopt?
This is a tricky area because I feel that everyone should experiment to find out what works best for them and then keep doing what works. But I’ll share some tips that work for me.
I jot down a quick note to myself at the end of every writing session to remind myself where I left off in the story and where I’m picking up the next day. This saves a lot of time the next morning.
I find that if I just write the story straight through without proofing or even putting in chapter breaks that I move through the draft a lot quicker (and don’t put myself in left-brain/editing mode when I’m trying to be creative).
When I have only 5 minutes to write (on one of those really extraordinary days I mentioned earlier), I’ve found that I can make progress on my book by making lists. This can be done on a scrap piece of paper or on a phone, etc. The lists could be anything: 5 ways to describe the main setting, 5 traits of a particular character, 5 possible subplots, 5 ways the character could grow, 5 surprising things we could learn about a character, etc.
When writing a series, I make a note of every pertinent detail in a separate document as I go (the name of the street the protagonist lives on, the fact that her best friend used to smoke, etc.). This keeps me from making mistakes in the next book.
Finally, what is one piece of advice you would give to writers just starting out? Something you wished you had known at the beginning of your career?
I think I’ve got two things, actually. The first is something that I always practiced (mostly because I was in a time-crunch): set the bar low. Make your word count goal or time spent writing goal easily achievable, even on the worst days/weeks. I think it’s better to consistently meet a goal of 5 minutes a day and have a string of successes than it is to set a goal of 30 minutes a day and struggle.
The second is to learn flexibility. I’m probably one of the least-flexible people on the planet…I’m incredibly routine-driven to the point where you could set a clock by me. But when I learned to be able to write at the drop of a hat whenever a small amount of time opened up to me, I started really making progress (this was when my kids were younger…now I’m transitioning to an empty nest). I learned to be flexible about when I wrote, where I wrote, and whether I wrote on paper, on my phone, or on my laptop. I was able to write day after day in the carpool lines outside my kids’ schools. It really does help with completing a story.