How to Write a Traditional Murder Mystery


Edith Maxwell

Agatha and Macavity finalist Edith Maxwell writes the Quaker Midwife Mysteries and award-winning short crime fiction. As Maddie Day she pens the Cozy Capers Book Group Mysteries, set on Cape Cod, and the Country Store Mysteries. With twenty books in print and more in production, this immediate past president of Sisters in Crime New England lives north of Boston.


Some say a murder mystery is “formulaic” – but is it? I have five series under my belt, with three ongoing. If there’s a formula to follow, I haven’t discovered it. The course I will teach next summer explores the elements of the traditional mystery – character, setting, plot, puzzle – with examples from several subgenres, including police procedural, historical, and cozy. We’ll look at openings, hooks, suspense, and red herrings.

So what is a traditional murder mystery, a whodunnit? At base it is a puzzle. Someone is killed. Someone else is motivated to find out who did it, how, and why. That someone else is the protagonist. Finding out can be her job – a private investigator, a detective, an FBI agent – or she can be a regular citizen – a midwife, a chef, a bike shop owner.

At least part of the story will be told from the protagonist’s point of view. The author plays fair with the reader. The reader needs to know everything the point-of-view character knows.

By the end of the novel, the reader knows who did it and why, and all the loose ends must be tidied up and explained. The reader understands that some form of justice has prevailed.

To design your mystery, ask yourself the following:

  • Who is my protagonist? What is her occupation, what motivates her, what are her secrets, who are her allies, and who gets under her skin?
  • Where is her community (that is, the setting), who lives in it, what is her attachment to it?
  • Who will die, and why?
  • Who is the actual villain, and who else has reasonable cause to want the victim dead?


Thinking deeply about these questions before you start writing will guide your manuscript, whether you want to plot in detail ahead of time or not.