How I Write Mysteries

When I start writing a new book, I begin with a blank piece of poster board and a strong sense of place.  A three-story, desolate-looking house in Newport, Rhode Island, an ancient white stucco church in New Mexico, a London street in relentless rain—the aura of an intriguing setting triggers all kinds of plot ideas for me.  Once place is determined, I take photos and attach them to the storyboard.

When I wrote False Impression, which takes place in Stuart, Florida, I tacked up pictures of a white sand beach, the Riverwalk at dawn, the Sailfish fountain in the traffic circle, a 1920’s house being moved down the river by barge, and a famous county road whose Banyan trees formed a canopy overhead. The result?  A spectacular setting. All it needed was people. 

Each character I create is generally a blend of two people I know—one for physical description and one for personality. I give the combo-character a working name, like Abigail, (which may change by the end of the book) and write a biography that includes eye and hair color, height, weight, age, birth sign (an Aries will be different than a Cancer) place of birth, who her parents were, marital status, manner of dress, education, job skills, speaking characteristics, etc. I do that for every character, then dig through a pile of disparate magazines searching for pictures that resemble each of them. From then on, every time I sit down at my desk to write, I’m looking at the people and places in my book.

If that sounds like a lot of work just to get started, it is.  But the fun part comes next. I go down to my favorite coffee shop and find a comfortable corner. Then I sit there sucking down cappuccinos, one ear attuned to all the fascinating conversations going on around me, and pound out the first and last chapters. That way I know how the book starts and I know how it ends.  

After that, it’s merely a question of outlining chapters 2 thru 6 (I work about four chapters ahead) and trying to remember all the important stuff I’ve learned from the world’s amazing writers.  Such as:  


1)  When you can’t get started, write crap. Sift out the good stuff later

2)   Use only ‘said’ to carry the conversation.

3)  Don’t use ‘ly’ words after said. (Ex: He said, lustily.) 

  4)  Keep the story moving.  When readers are bored, they flip. Try not to write a flipping story. 

5)  Don’t over-explain or pander to the reader. Let him figure out some of it themselves..  

6)  Don’t write six pages of description about ancient Chinese porcelain even if you’re the world’s expert.

7)  Don’t write beautifully, tell the story.

8) If all else fails, walking the beach will get you out of a slump faster than scotch.