Three Tips for Writing YA Mysteries

I’ve loved mysteries since I first sat down in front of the TV on Saturday mornings to watch Scooby Doo. In the past two years, I’ve had two crime short stories published in anthologies from Mt. Zion Ridge Press. I could have written my short stories from any point of view, but I felt most comfortable writing from the POV of a teen. In the process of writing “Debt to Pay”, a country noir, and “A Rose from the Ashes,” a Christmas mystery, I learned some important lessons and want to share three tips for writing YA mysteries.

Teens make great amateur detectives.

Stories with amateur detectives have always attracted me because they are the ultimate underdog in mysteries. And I love underdog stories, making me empathize and sympathize wit the main character. Who could be more of an underdog than a teen, especially one who isn’t even a legal adult yet? Without the aid of official standing, fellow officers, or a crime lab, the amateur detective tries to solve a mystery relying solely on her intellect and abilities.

To make the amateur detective more believable as a character, I need to give her some qualities that she can apply to crime solving. She can have an insatiable curiosity or just plain nosiness. Maybe she can’t stand seeing someone bullied or has a deep desire for justice. If the mystery involves other teens, then the teen detective has an edge over the police because she can investigate in ways they can’t.


In “A Rose from the Ashes,” my teen detective, nineteen-year-old Rae Riley, shows great determination and courage as she tries to fulfill her late mother’s dying wish. She thinks if she uncovers who tried to murder her pregnant mother twenty years before, she may also discover the father she’s never met.


The investigation is about more than the investigation.

The teen detective’s pursuit of the mystery should mean more than just finding the answer. In the real world, the teen years are a time of change and discovery. Uniting those themes with a mystery makes for a richer story. The investigation can be a sign that the teen detecrive is ready for more independence or responsibility. Or maybe he’s a loner, who learns to rely on friends. Many of these themes can be applied to mysteries with adult characters, but I find them more meaningful when used within a YA mystery. In my story, Rae is desperate for a family since her mom died. She’s willing to take on a would-be killer if it leads to her father.

The teen detective must be active in the solution.

As a teen, I never wanted to read a YA book where the teen main character screws up so badly that an adult has to save him. Although it’s often true in real life, and because of that fact, I wanted something different in my fiction.

After encouraging readers to follow the teen detective through her investigation, I can’t have the police or some other adult solve it for her. Or, even worse, have the police rescue her from the criminal. Having the teen detective blunder so badly that she must be bailed out will only irritate readers.

That doesn’t mean the detective can’t make mistakes. The teen detective has to remain human. Only Sherlock Holmes can get away with perfect deductions. She doesn’t have to figure out every part of the mystery. She can unmask the criminal but maybe not understand all his motivations until after he’s arrested and questioned by the police. Or the criminal isn’t who she suspected, and when the true one comes after her, she captures him. But the teen detective must be essential to solving the mystery and never just a helpless bystander.

What are some of your favorite YA mysteries? I’d love to get some recommendations!

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