E M Powell: How to write a mystery

This week’s guest is the wonderful E M Powell whose historical thriller and medieval mystery Fifth Knight and Stanton & Barling novels have been #1 Amazon and Bild bestsellers. The third Stanton & Barling mystery, ‘The Canterbury Murders’, will be released in November 2020.

Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she lives in northwest England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. She’s represented by Josh Getzler at HG Literary.

We met many years ago at a Historical Novel Society conference and she was kind enough to say some lovely things about INSURRECTIO, “Morton’s thrilling world-building is a masterclass in alternate history. You don’t just believe her version – you live every twist and turn.” 

Over to E M to tell us the secrets of writing a mystery…

As with so much writing craft advice, you can do an Internet search of the topic and find a variety of approaches that can be almost overwhelming. So it is with advice on writing a mystery.

I can only share what works for me and my medieval Stanton and Barling series. It’s important to note that the while the medieval setting is a key component in my books, the process I’m setting out here can be applied to any era or setting. Also, all writers are magpies. Even if you don’t find every point of use, you may find bits and pieces that are worth taking away.  (Oh, how true!)

Write it Backwards

The core questions in any mystery are who killed this person and why. This is the first one I ask myself and the first one I answer. Then I work back from there.  Our investigator ultimately finds out in the course of the novel. But I will have known from page one.

A Story Never Told

I first write a story –The Secret Plot – that the reader is not going to find on the page. Now before everyone abandons all hope of wisdom, let me explain.

In any intriguing mystery, the reader does not know what’s going on. Now, I do know some writers who also do not know what is going on when they’re writing their mysteries. I am a control freak, so that approach brings me out in hives. I like to plan my mystery down to the very last detail, twist and turn.

In order to do that, I first of all need to know what my perpetrator is doing. I need to know everything about them, every act they perform and that nobody else knows about. So I write the story as if I am in the perpetrator’s head and world. The novel is the story of the uncovering of those unsavoury deeds.

First Things First, AKA Begin before the Beginning

I also need to start the story in advance of page one of the actual novel. This is part of the Secret Plot. What brings perpetrator and victim together, how and when the victim is dispatched. That brings us to the issue of throwing the body on the floor. it’s always a good to have your first or only victim quickly found.

The Secret Plot is primarily about how the perpetrator carries out the murders and why. Secrecy is key in any mystery and not just with regard to the perpetrator. In order for the reader to stay engaged, there needs to be a range of suspects. Just as important, each of those suspects should have a secret. The investigator can find out those secrets or they can be shared with the reader. What’s important to establish is that everyone is a lying liar who lies. The challenge for the investigator and indeed for the reader is to discover who is lying about killing the victim. I’ll return to this point in a moment. But first let’s have a look at our investigator.

Call the Cops – or Whoever

Successful mysteries and mystery series are those which have investigators who readers root for. They should not be perfect individuals and it helps if they are deeply flawed. Without a central investigator to care about, readers may persist to see the overall solving of the crime but they are unlikely to care. If they care, they want their investigator to succeed. That investigator, or in my case, my investigators, Stanton and Barling, should have backstories and lives that existed long before page one. Investigators that readers care about will bring readers back to subsequent books.

Mind: Blown

You’ve done work, a lot of work. You’ve come up with the protagonist. Or even a team of protagonists. You have a victim or victims. You know exactly how when and where the murders took place. You know why they took place. You have a team of suspects for your investigations to investigate.

Now brace yourself: you still may yet not have a single word of your novel on the page. And that does not matter. The fun starts here.

When I say fun, I would probably more accurately describe it as mental gymnastics of the most exercising kind. Because in/on any given sentence, paragraph or page, or within an exchange of dialogue, you have to keep the following in your head:

  1. Who knows what?
  2. Who doesn’t know what?
  3. Who is trying to keep what a secret?
  4. Who learns what when?
  5. What does the reader know?
  6. What doesn’t the reader know?
  7. Where is everybody?

And just as you have all of those pieces assembled in your head and are picking your way through the scene carefully and successfully, all it takes is the arrival of a courier with a package or a dog at your knee who is determined to let you know there’s a bluebottle in the kitchen and the whole thing is blown apart again.

One of the biggest helps to keeping yourself sane or, even worse, to keep yourself from blurting out an important plot point by accident, is writing software that keeps all the plates spinning. I personally have found Scrivener to be a life saver in terms of keeping all of my thoughts in one place as well as being able to cross reference scenes to keep track of all the different threads.

Rabbits and Hats

I did mention fun and writing a mystery really is. There is no greater pleasure to be had than reading reviews afterwards or getting a message from a reader when they say the end was a shock/it was surprising/they had no idea I’ll stop. It’s wonderful because you knew every single detail and put clues aplenty in there and yet people still didn’t guess. You pulled the rabbit out of the hat. I’m not a magician. But honestly? That feeling really is magic. You should give it a try.

A masterclass in mystery writing. I read this, nodding my head at every sentence. I’m a big fan of spreadsheets for tracking 1.-7. but goodness, you do need to keep a firm grip on the plot. But as E M says, writing mysteries (and thrillers) is enormous fun.

Connect with E M Powell

Website: www.empowell.com
Blog: http://www.empowell.blogspot.co.uk/
Facebook: www.facebook.com/empowellauthor
Twitter: https://twitter.com/empowellauthor    @empowellauthor

Discover the latest E M Powell mystery

A fire-ravaged cathedral. An ungodly murder.

Easter, 1177. Canterbury Cathedral, home to the tomb of martyr Saint Thomas Becket, bears the wounds of a terrible fire. Benedict, prior of the great church, leads its rebuilding. But horror interrupts the work. One of the stonemasons is found viciously murdered, the dead man’s face disfigured by a shocking wound.

When King’s clerk Aelred Barling and his assistant, Hugo Stanton, arrive on pilgrimage to the tomb, the prior orders them to investigate the unholy crime.

But the killer soon claims another victim–and another. As turmoil embroils the congregation, the pair of sleuths face urgent pressure to find a connection between the killings.

With panic on the rise, can Barling and Stanton catch the culprit before evil prevails again—and stop it before it comes for them?

THE CANTERBURY MURDERS is the third book in E.M. Powell’s Stanton and Barling medieval murder mystery series. Combining intricate plots, shocking twists and a winning–if unlikely–pair of investigators, this series is perfect for fans of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael or C. J. Sansom’s Shardlake.

Available now on Amazon: http://mybook.to/TheCanterburyMurders


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines… Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

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