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How To Write a Mystery Novel

Updated on May 7, 2014

There Are Common Elements in All Mystery Novels

Excerpt from 'The Tin Roof Blowdown'


By James Lee Burke

“My worst dreams have always contained images of brown water and fields of elephant grass and the downdraft of helicopter blades. The dreams are in color but they contain no sound, not of drowned voices in the river or the explosions under the hooches in the village we burned or the thropping of the Jolly Green and the gunships coming low and flat across the canopy, like insects pasted against a molten sun.

In the dream I lie on a poncho liner, dehydrated with blood expander, my upper thigh and side torn by wounds that could have been put there by wolves. I am convinced I will die unless I receive plasma back at battalion aid. Next to me lies a Negro corporal, wearing only his trousers and boots, his skin coal-black, his torso split open like a gaping red zip-per from his armpit down to his groin, the damage to his body so grievous, traumatic, and terrible to see or touch he doesn't understand what has happened to him. “

Reading the eloquent words of one of my favorite mystery writers, James Lee Burke, it is easy, at times, to forget that there really are rules regarding the crafting of a fine mystery. I can get so wrapped up in the beauty of his words that literally a hundred pages will fly by before I realize I am being guided on a literary tour. That, my friends, is talent.

But talent does not happen overnight. As with any craftsman, a good writer knows his trade. Like a journeyman carpenter understands the grain of the wood he is about to cut, a journeyman writer understands how to use the grain of the story to his advantage.

Let’s discuss that “grain” in more detail.

I would venture to state that nearly all, if not all, great mysteries have the following common elements in addition to a good puzzle, good plot, and a great protagonist.

Without a hook a story is lost from the very beginning
Without a hook a story is lost from the very beginning | Source

The Hook

I read a lot of mysteries.

I love the mystery genre, and I would guess I have read nearly a thousand mysteries over time….possibly more. When I go to the library to pick out the next enjoyable read, I will grab books from the shelf and I will read the first page. That’s all the time I am willing to give that author. If he/she cannot sell me on their novel in that first page, then their novel is not worth my time.

I think I speak for a great many mystery readers. I think I speak for a great many readers in general.

Do not waste time on long descriptions of setting or character when you begin your mystery. Save those for the Russian novelists. A mystery must be hard-hitting, and it must be hard-hitting right out of the gate.

Confused? I will begin work on my third novel in a few weeks. The working title is “A Season for Killing,” and the opening two paragraphs go something like this:

“I take no pleasure in killing. Never have, despite my background. The simple fact of the matter is that some people deserve to be eliminated. The molesters, the pimps, the drug dealers and the serial killers, they all deserve death. They deal in death and death they shall receive, and I am the Fed Ex man more than willing to drop by with a little package for them.

Willy Boy Hopkins, kneeling before me, was a prime example. Willy Boy had been making a figurative living off of the misery of others for twenty of his thirty years. He killed a ten year old neighborhood girl when he was twelve; sliced her throat from ear to ear on Christmas Eve, 1992. Left her in her backyard, discarded like so much refuse, where her parents found her one hour later.”

Are you hooked?

The setting can take place in a house
The setting can take place in a house | Source

SETTING

A mystery can literally happen anywhere. I have read mysteries that took place in one house. I have read mysteries that took place in remote Alaskan villages and in huge metropolitan areas. They can happen on horse ranches and they can happen down on the bayou.

A good mystery writer will take setting to a different level and actually integrate the setting with the plot.

James Lee Burke, mentioned earlier, is a master with this tool. The Louisiana bayou country is an integral part of his novels, so much so that the setting almost becomes one of the characters in his story. For another example of this, read “The Dark Tower” by P.D. James, which is set at a creepy nursing home on the coast. Read that and then you’ll understand the importance of setting to a mystery.

PACE

The plot of a good mystery must move along quickly. The average mystery reader does not want “War and Peace.” The average mystery reader wants to be entertained and challenged, but he does not want to be dragged down into the muck and mire of lengthy discourses and diatribes.

A mystery is catapulted forward by action and a constant barrage of new information. Short, snappy dialogue is also often used to keep the pace moving quickly.

Is this the bad guy?
Is this the bad guy? | Source

The Bad Guy

Every mystery has a bad guy, but not every mystery has a multi-dimensional and fascinating bad guy.

Keep that in mind if you should ever attempt to write a mystery.

I have mentioned before the sheer genius of a character like Hannibal Lecter. There was a bad guy who was capable of making our skin crawl, and it was all because of the brilliant writing of author Thomas Harris. Mr. Harris has given Hannibal a persona that makes us cringe and yet fascinates us, and we find ourselves turning the pages quickly to find out what Hannibal is going to do next.

THEMES

There must be something more in a mystery than just who done it. Good mystery writers understand this basic fact. Themes of love, loss, pain and grief will suck a reader in and demand that they continue reading.

Through the development of your characters, and the struggles they go through, the reader should be able to identify with these themes, and it is that identification that will make your book memorable.

Again I will mention James Lee Burke. His main character, Dave Robicheaux, is an extremely flawed man. He is violent by nature and yet has a code he lives by, a code that says fairness and justice are crucial in life. He is a recovering alcoholic who is constantly battling with the demons of his nature. Without the introduction of these themes, Burke would just be another average mystery writer. With these themes, he is one of the best.

Put It All Together

I want you to think about a good mystery that you have read. Did it have the elements I have just mentioned? Chances are that it did; otherwise, you would not recall it.

Now you know the secrets to a good mystery novel. Including all of these elements will not make your novel a great read, but they certainly will help to improve it.

Now all that is left for you to do is write it.

2014 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

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    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Fine, Jama, desert me once again. I'll recover from the shock of your absence as I always do. :)

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 3 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      Well, try not to get too big a head over it, Bill. lol!

      Yes, I've been on your hubs more than anyone else's today. A downside of staying away so long is catching up, but made MUCH easier by HP's "grouping" feature so I only have to click on "previous" or "next". Perhaps HP should rename it the "Make This Hubber Feel Special" feature! Be aware, though, that it's my duty as a long-time hubber to spread the love around, so you may not see me again for days. ;D

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Great points, Jama. I just finished a mystery last night, and a clue was revealed five pages before the end, and I had to go back to see if it was mentioned earlier...and it was and I missed it. My bad!

      I feel special today. You've spent a lot of time with me. Thank you!

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 3 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      I use the first-page test at the library, too, and also stop reading if the culprit is already obvious by the third chapter. So the trick is to hide ALL the clues so subtly that only a hyper-aware reader will catch that obscure "something" that's "off".

      Including "all the clues" is important because if an author manages to keep me guessing until the next to the last (or very last) page - which doesn't happen often! - and going back page-by-page I can't find THE key clue somewhere in the book, that author has lost me forever. On the other hand, if it IS there and I simply missed it, you bet I'll pay more attention when I read the next book by that author! ;D

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Ann. The dentist was very kind. One hour and I am done, and the pain is minor.

      Have a great weekend my friend.

      bill

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      Ann Carr 3 years ago from SW England

      Very brave of you, but then if we don't stretch ourselves we don't know what we can achieve, do we? The beginning is great! That'll hook the readers and pull 'em in immediately.

      Hope the dentist is kind to you!

      Ann

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Ann, how nice to see you again. A pleasant surprise before my dental appointment. :) Mysteries are my favorite fiction genre, but I've never tried writing one. We'll see how it goes. All part of my education.

      Have a stupendous weekend!

      bill

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 3 years ago from SW England

      There's nothing like a good mystery story. As you say, it has to hook you and draw you in straight away.

      Thanks for outlining all the necessary elements. Once again a list for me to work from! I might have a go one day but it's not my preferred genre of writing even though I do enjoy reading them. Your new one sounds cleverly chilling.

      Happy weekend!

      Ann

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Deb, try Burke. If you don't like him then mysteries are not for you. :) Thanks my friend.

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      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I have read mysteries, but they really aren't my favorite type of book, but perhaps I haven't been reading the right ones. Maybe I'll try again...

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I'm glad to hear it, Joe. Good luck with it when the time comes.

    • joedolphin88 profile image

      Joe 3 years ago from north miami FL

      Very good tips, I've been very interested in writing a novel so this is certainly helpful.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks Monis. They are not easy to write. I'm starting my first right now, and I can see that I am going to need an outline.

    • Monis Mas profile image

      Aga 3 years ago

      Thanks for the tips, Bill! Mystery novels are my favorite. I tried to write one once or twice, so far with no luck. I didn't like what I created :-)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Glimmer, I'm glad you are intrigued. Now all I have to do is write the book. LOL I'm a mystery nut too, and I probably read two of them a week....love them.

      Thank you my friend.

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Glimmer Twin Fan 3 years ago

      I'm intrigued by your opening paragraphs of your 3rd novel Bill. I am a mystery nut. It's pretty much all I read. Years ago when I worked at a University I took a class on writing a mystery and what you said is what our instructor said.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      My pleasure, Dianna, and thank you for stopping by on your weekend.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 3 years ago

      I remember reading mystery novels as a teen, especially the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series. They are great mental stimulation! Thanks for the advice and wisdom shared.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      So many visits...thank you DDE!

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      A worthy hub and most informative.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you vkwok!

    • vkwok profile image

      Victor W. Kwok 3 years ago from Hawaii

      Thanks for sharing these awesome tips, Bill!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Cecile, thank you. I fell in love with mysteries twenty years ago after recovering from a back operation. I've devoured them ever since.

      Thank you for the kind words. As soon as I finish the editing on my current novel and publish it as an ebook, I'll get started on the next. It never ends and I love it.

    • cecileportilla profile image

      Cecile Portilla 3 years ago from West Orange, New Jersey

      Hi billybuc:

      I enjoy reading mystery novels. I used to read at least two mystery novels per week when I was younger and always planned to write one of my own. Thanks for the great tips!

      "A Season for Killing" sounds very interesting. Let me know when it is completed.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Brian, I happen to agree with you about War and Peace...I just like poking fun at Russian novelists from time to time. As for my new novel, the killer is the hero. How's that for depth of character? :) Thank you my friend.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Very true, ChitrangadaSharan. Thank you for mentioning that point.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Dora, it is my pleasure. Even if you don't write a mystery novel, these are things to practice just in case. I usually practice writing hooks for an imaginary story. :) Thank you!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I love it, Faith. A perfect example and I thank you for it.

      Have a wonderful day my friend, and blessings always

      bill

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      Brian Leekley 3 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      Bravo, billybuc, on being about to start your third novel. The draft of the opening that you shared does have me curious. Is the professional killer the hero, perhaps like Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm, or the villain, perhaps like Corma McCarthy's Anton Chigurh? Or? And how does he know what he knows? So I am already starting to get hooked on the story.

      My current bedtime reading, coincidentally, is WAR AND PEACE by Tolstoy. It's a brilliant example of third person omniscient narrative, with multiple characters each made distinct and unique with a few lines of text.

      Thanks for the helpful lesson on the essential elements of a good mystery story. Do you also like crime novels?

      Up, Useful, and Interesting.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 3 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Excellent advice!

      I have always enjoyed reading Mystery novels. The best ones are those which keep you hooked till the last page.

      Thanks for sharing this engaging hub!

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 3 years ago from The Caribbean

      Blake's description of his dream hooked me; I read it a few times, wondering if I could produce a similar effect. I love mysteries but never thought I could write it. Thanks for explaining all the elements.

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 3 years ago from southern USA

      I love mysteries and suspense. Atmosphere is key. There is great suspense and atmosphere in "A Crime in the Neighborhood" by Suzanne Berne. It is long-lasting and not one of those that run one act of violence into another. Useful article as always. Blessings

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Jo, I read the "French Lieutenant's Woman" three times and you are spot on about the atmosphere. Thank you for mentioning that classic.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Liz, they get one page to hook me. If they haven't done it by then, then I am gone. I suspect agents and publishers feel the same way.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks for the recommendation, Nell. I'll look for his books....and thanks for the kind words.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Flourish, I have noticed more and more of the transparent ones...makes me wonder how they ever got published.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Audrey!

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      Jo Alexis-Hagues 3 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      Bill, this excellent work! You're spot on. When it comes to atmosphere, the author that stands out in my mind most vividly is Daphne du Maurier, The French Lieutenant's Woman, Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. I read all three books when I was in my teens, The mood and the atmosphere of the settings really left a lasting impression. I'll be back to print this off in the morning.

      Take care and my very best to you.

    • epbooks profile image

      Elizabeth Parker 3 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      Fantastic points. The writer definitely needs to "hook" the reader, or the story is likely to go nowhere!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

      Hi bill, yes I love mystery books and as you say its the first page that gets me hooked, I recently read five books by an amazing author named Paul Sussman who was such a good writer he made me think of the characters after i had finished reading, sadly he died a couple of years ago which was so sad, but he was amazing, and yes its how he grabbed me on the first page, its so important, and yes your paragraph got me interested too! voted up and shared, nell

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      I love mysteries, especially psychological thrillers. Unfortunately, a lot of them are so transparent you can almost see the end coming, but I love getting a good one.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 3 years ago from California

      Excellent and useful!!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Ruby, I hope you are well. Thanks for taking the time to read an article you are not terribly interested in. I really do appreciate it.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Great point, Heidi, about Batman. I think many writers short-change themselves and stifle their growth by not exploring a variety of possibilities. I know I have in the past. Anyway, thank you for being here my friend.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 3 years ago from Southern Illinois

      It's been years since i've read a mystery novel. I would certainly read the ones you outlined. you continue to be so very helpful to all who follow you. Thank you Bill.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      I admire those who have the creativity to come up with any fictional work, especially mystery and suspense. (But love watching the movies of 'em!) Mystery writing is not a skill I've got!

      Love how you emphasize that bad guys need to be "multi-dimensional and fascinating bad guys." They're so much more interesting than the goodie-two-shoes protagonists. Though not "mystery" per se, look at ANY Batman movie. Who does everyone remember? The fantastic villains!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      You and me both, Sheila! Go back through the book and you can find each and every clue, but hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn't it? :) Thanks my friend.

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      sheilamyers 3 years ago

      Every point you made is definitely needed in a good mystery. I read many of them before beginning my own. I haven't yet mastered all of them, especially the settings, but as I keep reading the "professionals", I learn new and better ways to do things. To me, one of the things that makes a great mystery is having a few really good suspects to choose from. I usually end up picking the wrong one, but as soon as I found out whodunit, I slap my forehead and say "I should've known that because all of the clues where there.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I do as well, Wiccan. Thanks for your thoughts even though you don't like mysteries.

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      Mackenzie Sage Wright 3 years ago

      Mystery has never been my thing but these are great tips. I think any story can benefit from a little suspense.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Jackie, I don't think you will be disappointed in JLB....let me know how you like him.

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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Marlene, I like it. There is something intriguing about that type of bad. My new character is bad, but there is good in him, and it is the constant battle between good and bad that will serve as the core of the novel. Good luck with that book, Marlene!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      breakfastpop, it may be a mystery to me as well, but I'm going to give it a try. Thank you for the hook!

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      Jackie Lynnley 3 years ago from The Beautiful South

      I love good mysteries and haven't read in quite awhile but it I get the chance you have sold me on JLB. It would be wonderful to learn to write that way in whatever we write.

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      Marlene Bertrand 3 years ago from Northern California, USA

      Your writing style reels me in because of the deep, unstated-but-there, undertones of a spiritual nature. It's innocent, but there is something intriguing about that. The novel that I'm currently working on has a guy that is so bad you just want to shoot him right at the beginning of the story, but if you shoot him at the beginning, you won't find out how he got "his" in the end. He's so bad I shutter when I read his name because I know he's about to do something despicable. He's that kind of guy.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Mari, it really is a talent that I hope one day to have. Thank you for the visit. Maybe one day I can be a famous mystery writer...or not. LOL

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      breakfastpop 3 years ago

      First of all I m hooked! Second of all, writing a novel is a mystery to me! Up, useful, interesting and always awesome.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Lizzy, that sounds painful. I don't want that pretty head of your exploding. :)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      My pleasure, Eric! Thanks for the visit my friend.

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      dragonflycolor 3 years ago

      I truly admire mystery writers. They really have to dive into detail without revealing too much in the beginning. Shock and awe is an amazing talent they have. I am hooked, Bill!

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      Liz Davis 3 years ago from Hudson, FL

      The best part of a good mystery is when subtle events finally come together and your mind explodes. If this doesn't happen, the book soon disappears from memory.

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      Eric Dierker 3 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      I always wondered about this. thank you

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      LOL....DJ, just keep writing. If nothing else, the voices can keep you company in that padded cell.

      Thanks for the chuckle my determined friend.

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      DJ Anderson 3 years ago

      Great info, as always, Bill.

      I feel like I'm learning to dance the Rumba, in slow motion

      without any music.

      One learns to dance by standing and hearing the beat in their head.

      One learns to write by sitting and listening to the voices within their heart.

      I hear them calling..........

      Of course, it could be the men in the white jackets coming for me.

      DJ.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      you and me both my dear....going to the library this weekend and I'll correct the deficiency then.

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      Shauna L Bowling 3 years ago from Central Florida

      I've noticed I've missed a few of his latest. Thankfully, my son bought Innocence as a birthday gift for me. I have some catching up to do!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I love Koontz, Sha, and I haven't read anything by him in quite awhile. Thanks for the recommendation. I'll be looking for it.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 3 years ago from Central Florida

      I'm currently reading Dean Koontz' latest novel "Innocence". The lead character lives underground because he's hideous. He was so frightening when he was born, his midwife tried to smother him. His mother finally kicked him out of the house when he was 8 because she couldn't stand looking at him. He's now in his late twenties and we still have no idea what is disfigurement is. He has just found a female friend who can't stand to be touched. He hides his face and hands. They respect each other's contingencies for the friendship, but we still don't know the protagonist's situation. That alone propels the reader through the novel. It'll be curious to see when his grotesque features are revealed.

      Mystery is my favorite genre also, Bill. A good mystery gets the reader involved and raises the blood pressure a tad!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Donna, that has happened to me many a time....then there are those where I can figure out who dunnit after three chapters...that is the other end of the spectrum. :)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Sis, you have to say that...you're family. :) Thank you my dear sibling.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks, Janine, even though you don't like mysteries. I appreciate it.

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      Cygnet Brown 3 years ago from Springfield, Missouri

      I too love a good mystery novel. I especially love the ones where I think I know what the ending will be, but then discover that I was wrong. However in finding out that I was wrong, I also have a sense of "of course! I should have known that!"

      Great job, Bill, explaining some of the most common mystery novel elements!

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      Paula 3 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      ....."before I realize it I am being guided on a literary tour. That, my friends, is talent."

      TALENT, my friend, is what you exude! Pure and simple. UP+++tweeted, pinned

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 3 years ago from New York, New York

      Not much of a mystery writer here myself, but you do offer some great tips and valuable insight on this, Bill. Thanks as always for sharing with us and wishing you a wonderful Wednesday now!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Great points, Carol. I've read most of the ones you mentioned...and you are right in what you say.

      I sure do appreciate you always being here. Thank you!

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      carol stanley 3 years ago from Arizona

      I feel I am an expert on mystery books. It is practically all I read. There is a certain maturity in writing--and that may be the wrong word. But somehow the characters and plot work together. My favorites include Harlan Cobren, Demille, Lisa Jackson, Tess Gerritsen, Lisa Gardener, Robert Craise, Joseph Finder, Margolis...and many more. They get you from the first words and often cannot put them down. When the characters are too perfect and sometimes cutsy the book is rarely finished by me.