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.

Sounds and silence

Bringing in the senses to our writing adds a layer of richness and anchors the setting. It also grounds the character in that setting. It can emphasise an awkward gap in actions between characters, or provide a dialogue beat that isn’t “he said/she said”.

But what sounds could you bring in? Surely most people’s lives don’t have a lot of sound apart from the odd car, airplane overhead or kids shouting?

I live near a small village in France and we are still in lockdown at the moment, so you’d think it would be really quiet and peaceful with no sounds interrupting my thoughts, deeds and writing. I ran an experiment to test this. I reckoned I’d note down half a dozen sounds max then get on with my day.

Was I wrong!

Here are a few from this morning…

Gurgle of the central heating  boiler and pump*
Soft hum of traffic on the main road right at the end of our road*
The fridge burbling in the kitchen*
Birds chirruping outside*
The shriek of a crow*
The neighbour’s gate clanging shut as he goes out for his morning walk.
Footsteps on tiled floors
The loo flushing
The swish of nets brushed along the curtain rails to get to the window handles.
Click of metal against wood of the window handles twisting and opening, then clicking and snapping as they are closed.
The window shutter catches creaking, then un-oiled shutter hinges squeaking followed by the shutter leaves clattering against the outside walls and the retaining hasps grating against the wood.*

Kettle boiling for the first morning cup of tea
Door handles opening
Light switch clicked on
Shower water falling and the bathroom ventilator thrumming*
Kitchen tap running hard, battering down into the sink
Coffee machine gurgling in ever rising tones*
Fridge door sucking open, then squelching shut
Cereal cascading into a bowl
Milk poured on top
The jangling inside the cutlery drawer as it’s opened

All this and it isn’t even 8 o’clock yet! Nor has the neighbour got his leaf sweeper out.

Looking at this list, I realise I have used those marked with an asterisk* in my Roma Nova novels. 🙂 How strange.

When you’re looking for a noise to fill or interrupt an action in your books, listen to what’s going on around you. You’d be surprised what you can use!


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 Roma Nova’, 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.

Cryssa Bazos: The appeal of telling (historical) stories

Today’s guest is Cryssa Bazos, one of my fellow authors of Betrayal: Historical Stories. Cryssa is an award-winning historical fiction author and a seventeenth century enthusiast. Her debut novel,Traitor’s Knot, is the Medalist winner of the 2017 New Apple Award for Historical Fiction and a finalist for the 2018 EPIC eBook Awards for Historical Romance. Her second novel,Severed Knot, is a B.R.A.G Medallion Honoree and a finalist for the 2019 Chaucer Award.

Over to Cryssa to tell you about the advantages of reading anthologies (or collections!)
Since the beginning, ‘anthology’ was used to showcase poetry collections, but over time it expanded to include short fiction. There has been a recent resurgence of anthologies that has followed a trend towards shorter fiction. With social media permeating every aspect of our lives and a general explosion of streaming and online binging, our attention span has understandably shortened. Anthologies are now experiencing a renaissance, thanks to the changing needs of readers. But can they appeal to historical fiction readers?

Size once mattered for historical fiction. It was accepted that it usually took a great many words to build the past credibly. There are histories to weave in, contexts to set, and details of everyday life to showcase. Fans of the genre generally favoured large, plummy tomes, where they can lose themselves for days without surfacing in the present world. Consider favourites like Sara Donati’s Into the Wilderness series, or any of Sharon Kay Penman’s work.

But a collection of historical short fiction can still offer a rich experience. Here are a few considerations to tempt the historical fiction reader to explore the genre through an anthology.

1. Bite-sized stories
Computers and the internet were supposed to make our lives easier and more efficient, but there is so much more vying for our attention. Not everyone has time to read more than an hour here or there, in between appointments and meetings. This is where historical anthologies shine. They offer a taste of the past which can be consumed in one sitting. A reader doesn’t need to make a lengthy commitment as they would to a series or a nine-hundred page novel.

2. Variety
The anthology has the advantage of being able to bring different authors together in one collection. Stories may be connected by theme, as in the case of our new anthology Betrayal where the stories explore treachery and betrayal in its various forms. Stories may also be linked by a historical artefact, like a piece of jewelry, that moves through each story and touches the various characters through the ages. A collection may also explore a single historical event through differing perspectives. Regardless of how the collection is organized, the reader is given an opportunity to thoroughly explore history through various lenses.

3. Discovering a new author
Everyone has their favourite authors, the ones whose work they will auto-buy the moment they learn of a latest release. Sometimes it’s hard to take a chance on a new author particularly for an established series. Anthologies give the reader the opportunity to find a new author with bite sized stories. At times the work can link to an author’s series, but even if it doesn’t, the author’s style may speak to the reader and spark an interest in their work.

4. Discovering a new era
It’s easy to get rooted to our preferred reading, and anthologies offer an excellent way to test the waters of a new historical era. It’s great way to travel back to a different time and learn more about histories you would otherwise not explore.Historical anthologies may be short fiction in a genre that prizes lengthy stories, but they are hardly lightweights. Instead, they are highly concentrated nuggets to savour and enjoy. There’s no better time than the present to expand your reading and dip into an anthology collection. You may discover a portal to another era, guided by a fresh new author.

Thank you, Cryssa. I loved reading the other eleven stories in Betrayal. And as it’s free to download, it’s a win-win gateway into other authors’ work.

Connect with Cryssa
Website: https://cryssabazos.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/cbazos/
Twitter:  @CryssaBazos  https://twitter.com/CryssaBazos
Instagram: @cryssabazos https://www.instagram.com/cryssabazos/

What’s Traitor’s Knot about?
England 1650: Civil War has given way to an uneasy peace in the year since Parliament executed King Charles I.

Royalist officer James Hart refuses to accept the tyranny of the new government, and to raise funds for the restoration of the king’s son, he takes to the road as a highwayman.

Elizabeth Seton has long been shunned for being a traitor’s daughter. In the midst of the new order, she risks her life by sheltering fugitives from Parliament in a garrison town. But her attempts to rebuild her life are threatened, first by her own sense of injustice, then by falling in love with the dashing Hart.

The lovers’ loyalty is tested through war, defeat and separation. James must fight his way back to the woman he loves, while Elizabeth will do anything to save him, even if it means sacrificing herself.

Traitor’s Knot is a sweeping tale of love and conflicted loyalties set against the turmoil of the English Civil War.

Traitor’s Knot is available from Amazon https://mybook.to/TraitorsKnotSevered Knot and from all online retailers https://books2read.com/SeveredKnot


Charlene Newcomb: Finding inspiration for a story

My guest this week is Charlene Newcomb who lives, works and writes in Kansas. She’s an academic librarian by trade (and recently retired), a U.S. Navy veteran, and has three grown children. When not at the library, she is still surrounded by books, trying to fill her head with all things medieval and galaxies far, far away. Her twelfth century trilogy ‘Battle Scars’ and sci-fi work including the recent ‘Echoes of the Storm’, have found many happy readers. She loves to travel and enjoys quiet places in the mountains or on rocky coasts. But even in Kansas she can let her imagination soar…

Charlene is the driving force behind the new collection by twelve authors of historical stories, ‘Betrayal‘, which is on on 17 November. I am delighted to have contributed ‘The Idealist’.

Over to Charlene!

A memory. A family diary. An event. A scene from another book or dramatic presentation. There are so many ‘moments’ in a writer’s life that may tick off a chain of thoughts that lead to a story.

Looking back, I think there were two main things that stirred my creative juices: the desire to be part of the crew of the Starship Enterprise; and a childhood fascination with King Arthur, Camelot, and the knights of the Round Table. The far off future, and the distant past.

If you know me, you’ll know my first published work and many subsequent short stories were in a science fiction publication. I couldn’t be part of the Star Trek crew, but I could write sci-fi.

But today, I’ll stick with the historical. King Arthur fueled my passion for the past and my interest in researching the facts. I always wanted to know more than the limited information presented in school textbooks, or the shows I saw on television and on the big screen.

I knew I wanted to write historical fiction set during the American Revolution, and with a university degree in U.S. history that seemed perfectly logical. But after an extended break from writing, I became fascinated by Third Crusade history because of an episode of a Robin Hood television series. I headed down the research rabbit hole. Inspired by that show, I wrote the Battle Scars series, a trilogy which takes place during the reign of King Richard, the Lionheart.

I am from the pantser school of writing. My novels evolve as I write, starting with a few bullet points—the ‘beats’ I know I need to hit to get from beginning to end. My first draft is the place where I get to know my main characters. I have identified the basic conflict, what the characters must overcome, and I think I know how they’ll react in a given situation. I don’t know everything about their background, but I add details to my character profiles as I plod through that first draft.

Often there is just a kernel—a line or two—in a novel that opens up possibilities for a character’s backstory. My contribution to the anthology Betrayal was born in the second chapter of Men of the Cross (Battle Scars I), after the young knight Sir Stephan l’Aigle runs into an old friend, another knight named Geoffrey.

“… It was not my fault you lost that chess game.”

Stephan planted a hand on the hilt of his sword. “You abandoned me.” He patted his coin purse. “No coin, no horse, miles from camp, and breaking Richard’s curfew.”

Geoffrey flashed a smile. “You forgot to mention ‘naked.’ Winning the clothes off your back was a delight.”

I admit I laughed out loud when I wrote those lines in Chapter Two, and they still bring a smile to my face. What led to this game of ‘strip chess’? The reader doesn’t get that backstory in the novel, only the insight into a bit of the knights’ history.

After Book III of Battle Scars (Swords of the King) was published, I decided to write a few short stories about turning points in my characters’ lives. The three stories to date are part of a series I call Passages, and Stephan’s was the first one. But I discovered that I couldn’t just write about a chess game. I had to figure out how the development of the relationship between these brothers-in-arms leads to the Stephan the reader meets in my novel.

I hope you will want to learn more about Sir Stephan l’Aigle in this short story prequel to Men of the Cross. You’ll have that opportunity if you read “A Knight’s Tale” in the historical fiction anthology Betrayal.

Thank you, Charlene, for the fascinating trip to another ‘world’.

Connect with Charlene:
Website: charlenenewcomb.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/charsimser
Twitter: https://twitter.com/charnewcomb   @charnewcomb
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/charnewc/  @charnewc
Newsletter: Subscribe-to-my-newsletter

The short story “A Knight’s Tale” is a prequel to the Battle Scars series. Read more about Men of the Cross, For King and Country, and Swords of the King on Char’s website. Or buy the books on Amazon.


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

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

Writing Challenge Day 30: Goal for the next month

The end. It’s the end of the challenge!

Yes, I feel a certain relief, but I’m also energised.

‘Next month’ takes us into the third week in November. I won’t be doing NaNoWriMo when people aim to churn out 50,000 words as I find it too organised, but I will be aiming to get 1,000-1,500 words a day under my belt. At 20,000 words into the new book, I’m getting into the feel of it; the characters have come to life and are running the story. This is a magic moment. (I let them do this for a while, then rein them in when they try to take the whole thing over. 😉 )

So perhaps I’ll be up at 55,000-60,000 words by the end of November and 80-85,000 by the end of the year.

Next month, on 17 November to be precise, my new 12,000-word Roma Nova story in the Betrayal anthology will be published.

And there may be another book surprise on the horizon by then. Who knows?

Thank you so much for following this 30-day writing journey. I hope I’ve made you smile as well as entertained you.

Writing challenges so far:

Day 29: Best accomplishment this month?
Day 28: The saddest writing/reading thing this month
Day 27: What’s your favourite trope?
Day 25 & 26: Favourite books as child and adult
Day 24: What to write next
Day 23: What did you write last?
Day 22: What’s your current word count?
Day 21: My preferred genre
Day 20: Characters’ favourite food (and drink!)
Day 19: Characters’ pastimes
Day 18: Characters’ pet peeves(!)
Days 16 & 17: Favourite outfits (combined)
Day 15: The many-hatted author
Day 14: Show your workplace
Day 13: A funny family story. Or not
Day 12: Early bird or night owl?
Day 11: Favourite writing snacks/chocolate porn
Day 10: Post an old picture of yourself
Day 9: Post 5 random facts about you
Day 8: What’s your writing process?
Day 7: Introduce your ‘author friend’
Day 6: How the writing all began
Day 5: What inspired the book I’m working on
Day 4: The setting for the new Roma Nova book
Day 3: Introducing the main characters Julia and Apulius
Day 2: Introduce your work in progress
Day 1: Starting with revealing information


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

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