To Write A Mystery Novel, Learn About the Genre. Here's How.

Chalk outline of body on rain-slicked street - murder mystery!
The popular mystery genre has many permutations. Andreas Rentsch / Getty Images

Wondering how to write a mystery novel?

Mystery is one of the most popular enduring genres for readers and writers. If you're an author aspiring to write mystery or a bookseller looking to understand the category better, here's what you need to know about mystery.

Where Does Your Mystery Story Fit?

From hard-boiled to gruesome to cozy, from historic to true crime to culinary — though they all involve murder, mysteries and thrillers and crime novels run to many tastes and interests.

To position your own novel, familiarize yourself with some mystery basics, learn more about the major categories and sub-genres of mystery novels that help define the audience of readers for a mystery book.

As is recommended for any writer undertaking the task of writing a novel of any particular genre, research is key. If you're already a fan, you're ahead of the game.

And when you are writing a query letter to a literary agent or dealing with a book editor or mystery book publisher, you will be expected to know your procedurals from your thrillers and where you fit into the marketplace. Therefore... 

To Write A Mystery, Read Mysteries

Read widely in the mystery genre, know the masters, know your "comparison" titles or authors — that is, know the other books and writers whose fans you think would like what you're writing, as well.

Are you writing cozy mysteries with an amateur sleuth like Agatha Christie's Miss Marple?

Is your protagonist a hard-boiled, flawed private investigator like James Lee Burke's Jim Robicheaux?  To get you help get you started,  check out these 75-plus mystery novels by acknowledged to masters in the respective fields.

For more research, of course, your local library can be of help and searching Amazon.com's database is informative to see not only the bestsellers published by the Big Five publishers, but also what self-published e-books are popular.

  Mystery-focused booksellers such as the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City can provide current information on new releases, and other information regarding mystery book publishing.

Get Mystery Writing Community Support

For writers as well as other fans and publishing pros associated with the mystery genre, a community of readers can provide support and insights into what's current in the marketplace. As with any creative writing or bookselling endeavor, it's often a challenge to "make crime (writing) pay," especially at the beginning of a writer's career. Luckily, there's are robust mystery communities for support.

  • The Mystery Writers of America - The Mystery Writers of America (MWA) is an organization dedicated to "Making Crime Pay." Founded in 1945 by such estimable writers as Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner (creator of Perry Mason), the national organization and it's local branches function to provide tactical support,  collegial encouragement, and ongoing education. The Mystery Writer of America hosts the prestigious, annual Edgar Awards.
  • Bouchercon World Mystery ConventionBouchercon is an annual conference focusing on mystery and crime fiction and is a great place to mingle with like-minded writers. Bouchercon is generally held in the fall (the location changes annually). A highlight of the conference are the Anthony Awards, which are voted on by the attendees and are presented at the convention.
  • Malice Domestic - Held in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area each year, the Malice Domestic annual fan convention celebrates "cozy" mysteries and they honor the best writers in the cozy genre with the Agatha Awards.
  • Goodreads - The active and lively communities of mystery readers and writers on Goodreads  and can be the source of support (and of great research information). Learn more about Goodreads and how authors should use this valuable social media tool to gain readers. 

Check Out Major Awards for Mystery Novel Writing

In any genre, the winners of annual awards often reveal great information on changing reader tastes.

Getting an award can help break out a novel or writer. In addition to the aforementioned Edgars, Anthony and Agatha Awards, there are many more given out each year — here are the ones you might want to look into:

Some of the more established awards given in for mystery and crime novels as well as for other honors in the industry include: 

  • The Agatha Awards - Named after the world's bestselling author and master of the cozy genre, the Agatha Awards honor the "traditional mystery." That is to say, books best typified by the works of Agatha Christie (that is, they contain no explicit sex, excessive gore, or gratuitous violence). They are awarded at the the Malice Domestic conference. Read more about the Agatha Awards and Malice Domestic.
  • The Anthony Awards - The World Mystery Convention — commonly referred to as Bouchercon — is considered the world's premier event for the mystery and crime fiction community and are the presenters of the Anthony Awards, named after a founder of the Mystery Writers of America, Anthony Boucher. Read more about the Anthony Awards and Bouchercon.
  • The Arthur Ellis Awards - The Arthur Ellis Awards are bestowed for Excellence in Canadian Crime Writing, and qualifying books include not only "whodunits" but crime, detective, espionage, mystery, suspense, and thriller writing, as well as fictional or factual accounts of criminal doings and crime-themed literary works.
  • The Barry Awards - The Barry Award is an annual award presented by the editorial staff of Deadly Pleasures for the best works published in the field of crime fiction.
  • The Dilys Award - The Dilys Award has been given annually since 1993 by Indpendent Mystery Booksellers Association to the mystery titles of the year which the member booksellers have most enjoyed hand selling. The Dilys Award is named in honor of Dilys Winn, the first mystery-specialty bookseller in the United States.
  • The Edgar® Awards - The Edgar® Awards are bestowed each year by the Mystery Writers of America organization to recognize writing achievements in the literary genre of mystery and crime, as well as achievements outside of the scope of writing that support the mystery genre, such as publishing or bookselling. Read more about The Edgar® Awards.
  • The Hammett Prize - International Association of Crime Writers North American Branch awards the Hammett Prize annually for literary excellence in the field of crime-writing, as reflected in a book published in the English language in the United States and/or Canada. The winner receives a "Thin Man" trophy, designed by sculptor Peter Boiger.
  • The Lefty Awards - The Lefty Award honors the best humorous mystery published during the previous year. The winner of the Lefty Award is announced at Left Coast Crime, an annual event sponsored by fans of mystery literature for fans of mystery literature that takes place on the West Coast of the United States.
  • The Macavity Awards - The annual Macavity Awards are named for the "mystery cat" of T.S. Eliot (Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats) and are bestowed by Mystery Readers International, whose members vote for their favorite mysteries.
  • The Shamus Awards - The Shamus Award is given by the Private Eye Writers of America to honor excellent work in the Private Eye genre (that is, mysteries that have a "private eye" protagonist who is a professional investigator, but not a police officer or government agent.
  • The Dagger Awards - The Dagger Awards are presented by the British Crime Writers Association, and honor quality in crime writing.

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