Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Tips for Plotting a Mystery

It's not like plotting a mystery is fun. Reading mystery is another matter entirely. Guessing the clues, eliminating suspects--absolute fun--but weaving in all those elements and building your characters and their secrets. . .not so much.

For one, you must remember that a mystery is not a mystery without red herrings--those carefully laid clues that lead the reader down a rabbit trail and usually away from the idea that they know whodunnit. Another element? Suspects. Each must be carefully researched with a nice back story and a secret. The revelation of that secret should build the story and push the reader to consider the character a suspect. Then another character's secret is revealed and the reader thinks that one might be the culprit, and on an on this layering goes.

Writing a mystery takes very careful planning. The writer must know who the culprit is and work backwards to the beginning of the story to lay the clues. I used a spreadsheet to keep times and dates straight as the chapters progressed, with each chapter having its own column. In addition, each suspect had a row so that I knew in each chapter what their movements were and what clues they were going to plant. This was especially important since the LaTisha Barnhart Mystery series were all written from first person POV. Everything had to come through what LaTisha saw and heard and sometimes she found out things that the characters had done in chapter three five chapters later. 

This preparation to write is toughest. Writing the story itself, my trusty spreadsheet stretched out beside me, was the most fun. I enjoyed the characters and the plot and everything was so much easier because I had prepared ahead of time. So if you want to write mystery, give yourself plenty of time to prepare and plot. My method won't work for everyone, but it worked for me and I can't tell you enough how much having that spreadsheet helped to keep all the threads straight and probably saved my sanity. 

I did say probably. . . 

Murder on the Ol' Bunions is book one in the LaTisha Barnhart Mystery series. Polly Dent Loses Grip, a 2010 Carol Award Finalist, and Your Goose is Cooked, are books 2 and 3, respectively. Available through Smashwords for all platforms, or onAmazon for Kindle. For more information about S. Dionne Moore's books, visit her at

S. Dionne Moore started writing in 2006. Her first book, Murder on the Ol’ Bunions has just been released in Ebook format and her tenth book, A Heartbeat Away, releases as part of the Abingdon Quilts of Love series in May 2013. She is a two time Carol Award finalist for Polly Dent Loses Grip and Promise of Tomorrow, and was voted a 2010 Favorite New Author by Barbour Publishing.


  1. Good plot planning! So many people ask, "How do you keep it all straight?" and I have to laugh. How does anyone keep anything straight on any project they're working on? I can't wait to start reading "Murder on the ol' Bunions" Sandra - this post clarifies where to start in the series.

    Thanks for all the great information!

    ~Nancy Jill Thames, Author
    The Jillian Bradley Mystery Series

  2. Sandy,
    You are so right. Writing a mystery takes a lot of planning. I read many books of just writing mysteries to get a good sense of how it was to be written. I love your LaTisha mysteries, they are so funny and I love humor. I use Mircrosoft One Note to keep up with my plotting!
    Another good post.

  3. So true! I outline all thirty chapters of each book carefully and try to complete a chapter a day so that I'm done in a month. But I'm constantly double checking to make certain the clues are dropped and the suspects made properly suspicious along the way.

  4. One of my friends asked me if I still had the spreadsheet from Murder on the Ol' Bunions, which consisted of about four pages taped together lengthwise. I think she thought it was funny, but it SO was NOT! Those pieces of paper should have been bronzed and hung on my wall!

    Thanks for feeling my pain, Patricia, Nancy and Deborah. Only another writer can truly understand!

  5. Really good stuff, and I will try to use your advise on keeping track for my series. I just wish I could be this organized, but when I did try to outline it all out by the time I finished there is nothing of the outline left! If you want to read how I do it I'm the next post. Not quite so organized, but it works for me.