Deciding What to Include in a Mystery Story By Karen McCullough


I believe writing novels is half craft and half art. The craft part includes mastering using agfm_v2_200the language – grammar, word usage, sentence structure etc.  Plus an author has to understand the basics of effective storytelling, which covers a lot of ground. Knowing what a hook is and how to craft one, an acquaintance with basic plot structure, control of point of view – those are all skills that anyone can learn and an author must master.

The artistry of writing is harder to define and probably impossible to master. Even authors I consider very good, if not excellent, say that they’re always striving to do better with each book. There is no way you can ever say you’ve got it completely figured out and there’s nothing more to learn.

As authors, we work to convince the reader that our story is real, that it’s happening right now in a place they’re getting to see in their mind’s eye. The art of writing novel lies in crafting a story that will bring the vision that lurks in the author’s mind to life in a reader’s brain as well.

Beginning writers often mistakenly believe that describing everything in painstaking detail will create that vivid impression of their world. They will painstakingly list all the furnishings in a room to set a scene or supply every measurement of a character and enumerate each feature.

In fact, though, one or two well-chosen details usually work much better than long lists of them. If I tell you that the room has velvet drapes at the windows and flocked wallpaper, do I need to describe the carpet as well? We know it’s going to be plush because the other things already speak of wealth. And unless there’s something particular about the furniture, I don’t really need to describe it in detail either. A reader’s imagination will fill in the blanks.

Then there are the characters. I don’t tell everything I know about a character to the reader the first time we meet him. I may give a few physical details to help the reader form a picture. Height, hair color, eye color and build are the visual things most readers want to know about the people in the story. The truth is I treat meeting characters in a story the same way it works in real life. We see them first from the outside, and usually form and impressions based on gender, physical build, and other obvious characteristics.  But it’s in their conversation and actions that we get to know them more deeply.

Much of the artistic process lies in choosing which details you need to include in a story. The heart of a story is all about what you tell readers and when.

In a mystery, the story is all about introducing the players – the detective, the victim, the witnesses, suspects and other necessary individuals—setting up the crime, and then revealing information about what happened in small doses, spaced out appropriately through the story, until the solution is revealed. Because it’s plot-driven genre, there’s usually not much room for deep character development. And yet, readers love some mysteries and series more than others based almost solely on the main characters.

Because of tight word counts and plot focus most character development is woven into how the detective solves the mystery. Think of Nero Wolfe and the way he sends Archie Goodwin out to gather information because he refuses to leave home. Or Jack Reacher’s lone wolf tough-guy style. Or any of Agatha Christie’s odd assortment of detectives.

But all the lovely little bits that show the character have to be worked pretty deeply into the overall plot. The only time we get to see Nero Wolfe working with his orchids is when Archie goes to fill him in on some important information from the case. Hercule Poirot twirls his ‘moustaches’ while discussing the latest suspect.

In my own mystery novel, A Gift for Murder, the first in my Market Center Mysteries series, I worked in a lot of the detail of trade shows and how they operate when my heroine, Heather McNeil has to explain the job to a newcomer. And then I tried to work in a bit of atmosphere with each little bit of evidence I revealed. That’s been one of my guiding principles in writing – make sure that everything I include serves more than one purpose. Each clue to the mystery is part of the background of the show and helps make the setting more real. I try to be sure each interaction the character has also helps demonstrate character as well as advance either the main or a subplot.

A couple of scenes I included in the first draft did what I thought was an amazing job of showing some of the depths of the main character. One I especially liked was a small section where Heather stopped at a booth showing an assortment of paintings. A couple of them inspired some interesting musings on her approach to life and her work.

Unfortunately, as my editor pointed out, that was all they did. Those scenes didn’t advance the plot in any way, provided no clues to the mystery, and didn’t help establish the setting. She suggested cutting them and I did. When I self-published the book after rights reverted to me, I didn’t put them back, even though I’d like them.

Everything has to carry its share of the weight in a story by serving double duty. Those scenes didn’t and therefore they didn’t help to make the story more real for a reader. Out they went.

Karen McCullough is the author of a dozen published novels and novellas in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres as well. She has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy, and has also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Daphne, Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards contests. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the mystery, fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She has three children, six grandchildren (plus one on the way) and lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years.


Blog: http://www.kmccullough/kblog



A Gift for Murder Blurb:

The Home and Decorative Accessories Show makes for a long week for the Market Center staff, and particularly for Heather McNeil. As assistant to the director of Washington, D.C.’s, Market and Commerce center, she’s point person for complaining exhibitors, missing shipments and miscellaneous disasters. It’s a job she takes in stride—until murder crashes the event.

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The Romance Dilemma By Frankie Y. Bailey


 This is the story of two sleuths – Professor Lizzie Stuart and Police Detective Hannah McCabe — and the men in their lives. Or, not.

With the good news that my Lizzie Stuart books may soon be available again, I have started wfs-coverwriting the sixth book in the series. Lizzie is a crime historian. She is the director of the Institute for the Study of Southern Crime and Culture. She was last seen in a short story (EQMM, July 2014).

Lizzie loves her work. She also loves John Quinn. In the sixth book, they will go to Santa Fe to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with his family. This first meeting with her future in-laws occurs in the early chapters of the book. Then Lizzie and Quinn head home to Gallagher, Virginia, where she plunges into trying to solve a disappearance that happened the night before they left.

That Thanksgiving trip to Santa Fe raises a question that both readers and writers of crime fiction debate. Should mystery writers avoid romantic subplots? With female protagonists, does romance tie a good sleuth down (no erotic pun intended)? Does having a long-term partner – especially if it leads to marriage – make it more difficult for a female sleuth to concentrate on the crime-solving at hand? Does the relationship raise real-life questions she needs to deal with –children, a house, life insurance, a will?

I grew up reading both literary classics and genre fiction. I read both romances and mystery novels. I loved romantic suspense. It was perhaps inevitable that when I wrote my first mystery, my female protagonist would encounter an attractive male character. In the book I was working on when I joined an old friend for a vacation in Cornwall, England, the male character was the police chief of Gallagher, Virginia. Lizzie was in Gallagher as a visiting professor, doing research on a long-ago crime. As a writing exercise, I transported my two characters to Cornwall and plunged them into an Agatha Christie-inspired murder case. John Quinn became a Philadelphia police detective, who was visiting his retired partner.

My vacation pal read the first draft of the book that she had seen me scribbling and expressed her doubts about how Lizzie and Quinn parted. After they had worked together to solve the crime, she had been expecting a “pay-off” at the end. She thought other readers would, too. I revised the final scene. Instead of “nice to have met you,” they kissed. When the Cornwall book was bought and published as the first in the series, the question I heard from readers was, “What’s going to happen with Lizzie and Quinn?”

What happened was that Quinn ended up in Gallagher, Virginia. Over the course of five books in a series that has moved slowly and is still in 2004, they have fallen in love and gotten engaged.  Falling in love with Quinn and adjusting her life to accommodate his presence has made Lizzie a more interesting character. He has certainly been useful as a source of information and access. But Quinn’s presence has presented plotting challenges. I’ve had to avoid having Lizzie end each book as a “woman in jeopardy” who is saved by her male lover. Quinn has his own career. He was out of town during a portion of one book. In another book, he was delayed in arriving in New Orleans when Lizzie went looking for her long-lost mother – and then the poor guy came down with stomach flu. I would never kill him off, and it is fun to watch the two of them negotiate their relationship.

However, when I sat down to create another female protagonist – Detective Hannah McCabe – I gave a lot of thought to whether or not she would have a serious involvement. In fact, in the first book, The Red Queen Dies, there is only one brief scene that reveals she is seeing someone. In What the Fly Saw, her attractive, slightly younger partner tries to find out about her love life when she teases him about his. She is a private person and is evasive. But, later, over a glass of wine, she shares with one of her other colleagues how her last relationship ended. She is trying to cheer him up about his relationship with his ex-wife.

Hannah McCabe is a woman in a profession that is still male-dominated (even in my near-future, parallel universe). Most of her challenges have to do with solving crime. But she is the bi-racial daughter of a liberal white father (a retired newspaper editor) and a (long dead) radical poet black mother. She works in and is a part of a traditional police culture that is paramilitary and conservative. And then there’s her relationship with her brother, Adam, a brilliant scientist. who has recently returned to Albany. When McCabe was nine years old, she shot an intruder – but her brother ended up in a wheelchair.

Hannah McCabe is a complex woman – compassionate, good at her job. There are several men in her orbit. But for now McCabe is content to share a house with her father and focus on her case-load.

Whether McCabe will have a man in her life raises some intriguing questions. Is a strong, competent woman who has romantic relationships without long-term commitments a character that readers of mystery/detective fiction can embrace? Or, do readers, particularly women readers, like to see a protagonist evolve and grow and deal with the challenges posed by being in love. Readers do often complain when characters who are attracted to each other are kept apart by the author. But are the same readers prone to boredom when couples commit and settle down?

What do you think? Should a female sleuth keep her options open or settle down with one romantic partner?  Is it a matter of allowing relationships to develop naturally as they would in real life?

f-baileyCriminologist Frankie Bailey has five books and two published short stories in a mystery series featuring crime historian Lizzie Stuart. The Red Queen Dies, the first book in a near-future police procedural series featuring Detective Hannah McCabe, came out in September, 2013.  The second book in the series, What the Fly Saw came out in March 2015. Frankie is a former executive vice president of Mystery Writers of America and a past president of Sisters in Crime.

Website URL:

Twitter:  @FrankieYBailey

Amazon: What the Fly Saw






FICTION IS FLUFF.  OH, REALLY? By Radine Trees Nehring

wedding cover.inddI doubt that anyone reading here has ever said, “Oh, I only read non-fiction,” and–perhaps–accompanied the comment with a superior lift of nose?

But, if you’re an author of fiction who appears regularly in public as an author (book talks, signings, interviews, conferences, book clubs . . . ) then I bet it’s been said to you.  Unfortunately, those who say it have usually moved on toward their imagined superior reading sources before the lowly fiction author can offer other than a sputtered “pffft.”  For a number of years, one of the most telling replies I could think of has been, “Have you  read To Kill A Mockingbird, yet? And then, if the speaker hesitates, I smile in (I hope) a friendly manner.

Thing is, a many fiction novels subtly enlighten and change readers who would turn away a_portrait_to_die_for_rev_smfrom blatant instruction or information in non-fiction, especially if it’s on a subject they have already formed an opinion about. Readers, after all, come to fiction only for entertainment. Right?  But, as we all know (because Mary Poppins said so), “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.”  Of course there are novels that do offer only entertainment. Whoa, wait a minute. How about getting inside the head of any person in trouble? Sympathy? Understanding? How about turning pages more quickly to see if that person finds answers and help?  How about seeing a way to repel the advances or threats of an unwelcome male, (or female) or to untangle aggressive cattle barons who want your land and its water rights? How about . . . well, you get the picture, and know you can feel sympathy and understanding while being entertained. (Shh, don’t let the secret out.)

river-coverIn my own case I realized recently that–though I do not outline plots–I always begin a novel or short story thinking about a typical human problem that needs solving. I also know that, through danger and darkness, a solution will come, and the solution will lead to the redemption of at least one character in that story. Family trauma and alienation, greed, selfish ambition, the nightmare of seeing and causing death in wartime or during civilian criminal action, or just a yearning to find a lost family member to share love with–I have written about these and much more, and also found in my own thoughts the way we humans (via the book people I create) will find answers and at least a measure of comfort and peace.

fordice-bathhouse-2On another level, my love for the Arkansas Ozarks and a strong desire to share this area with others got me into writing as a mature adult. Want to visit a special tourist attraction or event in Arkansas?  You can do so without leaving home or buying a tour guide by crescent-room-1reading my novels, since I describe each story location accurately “down to the last doorknob or wildflower.”  Stories and crimes are based on what is plausible in any of my real locations, and  history feeding into the present-day story is accurate as well.  No, it’s not an on-site vacation, but a chance to visit vicariously and exercise imagination while doing so. Our most important solutions to any problems we face are usually born within inspired thought, and what does fiction reading give us but acquaintance with what’s possible as we search for answers? An earlier guest on Motive, Means, Opportunity wrote “Fiction needs to change you.” I say amen to author Channing Whitaker and add:  “If we get involved in the story, it always does.”indian_rockhouse_cave

As an example of places to visit in Arkansas, I share here snapshots of three locations where a crime is seen and solved in one of my fiction stories. See if you can figure out a real-sounding crime for each place.  (Maybe reading a chapter from the named novel on my web site: will help.)

Brief bio and links for Radine Nehring

radinetreesnehringFor more than twenty years, Radine Trees Nehring’s magazine features, essays, newspaper articles, and radio broadcasts have shared colorful stories about the people, places, events, and natural world near her Arkansas home.

In 2002, Radine’s first mystery novel, A VALLEY TO DIE FOR, was published and, in 2003 became a Macavity Award Nominee.  Since that time, she has continued to earn writing awards as she enthralls her original fans and attracts new ones with her signature blend of down-home Arkansas sightseeing and cozy amateur sleuthing by active retirees Henry King and Carrie McCrite King.

Website URL:

Blog URL:

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Twitter:   @RTNehring


Buy link for Portrait to Die For



A blog I contribute to recently used deception for its October theme. What better topic for October? The month of trick…or treat.untitled-design-1

Which will it be? A trick or a treat? Writers specialize in sleight of hand. Mystery writers in particular. We plant clues in plain sight. Playing fair is part of the canon of mystery-writing. We give the readers all the tools to solve the mystery, but we don’t paint them neon orange. Even if it is Halloween.

How do we do it? Sometimes better than others.

In a perfect book, all the clues are carefully laid out. Often beginning on page one. Gotta watch those writers, they’re a tricky bunch. But the clues are disguised as ordinary dialogue, or mixed into a list of items too commonplace to stand out. The clue has been dropped, a few pages later, the red herring usually follows. Red herrings are clues used to take the protagonist, and the reader on a chase to a dead end. So, if the complainant tells you it was a silent night on the moors (red herring), and you happen to be Sherlock Holmes, that’s a huge clue, eventually. In the meantime, the reader, Holmes, and Watson are led on a merry chase considering and discarding suspects until the red herring is revealed as a clue.

How do writers make that work? I have no idea how Conon Doyle did it, but I’d love to ask. If you Google him and look at his picture, you’ll note he has an amused glint in his eye. I’m betting he’s not talking.

How do I do it? Well, first let me warn you. I have never known who done it until the second draft. Sure, I’ve finished the books in the first draft, but the endings never satisfied. During the editing process, I discovered that my clues let not to x but to y. Stop the presses. Red herrings fool authors and readers. That’s a good thing. It tells me my clues are properly planted. So are my red herrings.

halloween-blogBack to the process. I start each book with the victim. I learn all I can about him—or her. In the process of dissecting a life cut short too soon, I uncover clues. I make a list of those clues. Why did that person need killing? Why did the villain think the victim needed killing? Then I decide where in the book those clues will have the most impact, and how to hide them. At the same time, I work up three (or more) alternate scenarios. Who else has motive, means, opportunity? Then I bullet point outline three (or more) different stories, each with a different ending.

Once all the background work is done, I write my book. The book is not outlined. I’m a pantser in that regard. Instead, I write from chapter to chapter letting the characters tell me the story arc. In the end, I have a beginning, middle, and end that work. But usually points me, and often the reader, to the wrong character. In the editing process, I follow the clues again and finally discover who really done it.

It’s all about the deception. The characters always control the story, and they do not play fair. Not with this writer!

Author photos 009Kait Carson lives in an airpark in south central Florida with a pilot husband, eight tropical birds, and six rescue cats. By day, she’s a practicing probate and litigation paralegal, in the evening, legal pads give way to a keyboard, and she spins tales of murder and mayhem set in the tropical heat. Kait writes two series, the Catherine Swope series, set in Miami, and the Hayden Kent series set in the Fabulous Florida Keys.

Kait loves to hear from readers, check out her website at; follow her on Facebook at, on Twitter at @kaitcarson, or e-mail her at