Mystery Writing Tips (ALAAC 2014 part 3)

“When the rabbits are dead, the hounds that tracked them will be cooked.” –Chinese proverb

A new crime every time–that’s the vital essence of a thriving mystery series. At the ALA conference in June, I saw a panel of women mystery authors. The group consisted of  Hannah Dennison (MURDER AT HONEYCHURCH HALL, “Downton Abbey meets Midsomer Murders“), Kelli Stanley (CITY OF SECRETS, “a noir tale of high order”), Rachel Howzell Hall (LAND OF SHADOWS, “hard-hitting tale of a modern, complex Los Angeles”), and Jane K. Cleland (BLOOD RUBIES, “combination of antiques expertise and ingenious detection”).

mystery panel

Here are some of the topics they discussed:

Getting In
They all had different avenues of getting their first debut novel published. This varied from a straightforward query letter (Stanley) to connections through a writing program (Dennison). It’s encouraging that there are many ways of getting your foot in the door!

Critique Groups
Interestingly enough, none of them currently were involved in a writing group. Some had tried it in the past, while others had eschewed them entirely. All of them wrote the first draft in a bubble, and then they self-edited, received criticism from a close partner, or worked with a professional editor.

Most of the women followed a schedule, some more rigid than others. A few of them held other day jobs and/or reared children, so they needed to carve out the time. “Plant your butt down and write” seemed to be the main advice.

Plotters & Pantsers
Writing style also varied across the board. Some women liked to write from a detailed outline; although one admitted that it was boring to follow point-to-point, so she liked to embellish and throw in some dead bodies along the way. Others used an organic process, writing from a deep knowledge of the protagonist.


Everyone seemed to dabble in research, either for a specific setting (LA for Howzell Hall) or time period (1940s for Stanley) or for a character’s expertise (Cleland for her Josie Prescott Antiques mysteries). Research also added to the unique tone of stories, like in Dennison’s cozy mysteries with quirky British traditions (Vicky Hill mysteries).

This is my last ALA recap post. Thanks for reviving memories with me!

Foodie Friday: Char Kuey Teow
Foodie Friday First: Hong Kong Lemon Tea


  1. Jennifer, Thanks so much for the recaps of your adventures at ALA. I appeciate them. Love the pantser vs plotters! We do love that topic!

  2. Interesting post, Jennifer. It’s good to read that there are no recipes to a good book and that each writer has his or her ways. Thank you for sharing the info with us.

    • Jennifer J. Chow says

      It’s so nice to know that we can still go on the writing journey with different starting steps.

  3. Karen B. Martin says

    A suspense mystery is all about high stakes and unexpected twists elements that make it nearly impossible to stop reading. That’s why i love to read and write only in this genre.

  4. Mysteries are largely about human intrigue, and to pull that off, you’ll need to assemble an interesting cast of characters. Good luck new writers !

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