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!

How to Create Clues and Red Herrings

A lot of the fun of writing mysteries is creating clues and red herrings and then figuring out how to insert them so readers has a fair chance of solving the mystery but not a walk in the park. For those who are new to the mystery genre, red herrings are the false clues that are designed to mislead readers and the detective, or sometimes, just the detective.

At the Killer Nashville International Writers’ Conference, I attended a panel with authors Jill Orr, Mariah Fredericks, Rich Zahradnik, and Saralyn Richard, who represented a variety of subgenres. With their advice and my own experience, here are some tips about how to create clues and red herrings.

Give clues and red herrings the same emphasis.

By that, I mean each should have close to the same amount of space on the page. If the detective finds three clues but only thinks about one in depth, the reader knows it has significance and the two others not as much. Giving almost equal space to all three will make it harder for the reader to determine which are the real clues and which are red herrings.

In “A Rose from the Ashes,” my teen detective Rae Riley must find out which one of three men is her father and the person who tried to murder her mother. One man could be both. To prevent myself from telegraphing the ending, I had share Rae two scenes with each suspect, creating interactions that might point to their guilt or innocence.

A problem with this approach is that I could waste a lot of space, and readers’ time, on a red herring. So…

The red herring should reveal something important to the story.

To the story, not necessarily the mystery. The red herring can enhance a character, revealing some aspect of his or her personality or history. For example, the detective is sure an elderly woman is guilty when associates think the detective is wrong. Later in the story, it’s shown that the grandmother of the detective abused her. Now readers understands the detective saw a similarity between the suspect and her grandmother and let her past sway her judgement.

This kind of red herring provides depth and fallibility to the main character. It’s difficult for some mystery writers to let their detective makes mistakes. No one wants to follow a detective who’s a blithering idiot. But by allowing the detective to fall for a red herring based on who she is makes the mistake more realistic and understandable.

Red herrings must be explained.

This advice was mentioned during the panel discussion, but I didn’t understand it until I was working on my novel, the sequel to “A Rose from the Ashes.”

Let’s say I have a grumpy elderly male character who was seen arguing with the murder victim shortly before she dies. Then the old man lies to the detective. If the old man is not the guilt party, the detective has to find out why he argued with the victim and why the old man lied to him.

I know in real life that all sorts of interactions with people happen that leave us puzzled, and we never find a solution for our confusion. But readers expect red herrings to be explained. It’s one of the rules of the mystery genre. That’s why it’s so important to read in my genre and understand the rules.

In my novel A Shadow on the Snow, my main character Rae is trying to figure out who is sending her nasty notes about her late mother’s notorious past. I had her discover a newspaper article about a woman who was stabbed at a wild party and Rae’s mother discovered the victim. My original plan was for Rae to conduct a minimal investigation and dismiss the story as unconnected to her stalker.

But that didn’t feel right. The article felt like a major clue. It could still be a red herring, but I had to use it better, either to seriously mislead Rae or to reveal something about her personality or background or that of another major character.

Red herrings should mislead readers, not trick them.

Above all else, writers must play fair with readers. Here is the way for me to check if I’m playing fair. This approach was recommended by the panel at Killer Nashville. Once readers have discovered the solution, they should be able to go back through the story and see how the clues pointed to the solution. If they can’t, they’ve been tricked.

For example, the solution to the mystery hinges on the detective knowing the Etruscan language. But readers don’t know this is the key until the detective says so during the climax, adding that he’s studied Etruscan for years.

If a mystery offers that kind of solution, readers have every right to throw the book across the room. If it’s an ebook, I hope they can restrain themselves.

Writers, what advice do you have on how to create clues and red herrings?Readers, what mysteries have you read that used clues and red herrings particularly well? Or ones that tricked you?

The Best Way to Research Crime Fiction

I’ve been working on crime fiction long enough now to realize how much research I need to make my mysteries have at least a nodding acquaintance with reality. This fall I’ve had a special opportunity to discover the best way to research crime fiction: getting to know the men and women who work in law enforcement.

Once a year, the sheriff’s department in my county offers a citizens academy that’s absolutely free. All a resident of the county has to do is apply with a paragraph about why they would like to learn about law enforcement and give two references.

In the 11-week class, I’ve heard from officers and staff who work in:

  1. The detective division.
  2. The drug task force.
  3. The SWAT team which is composed of over twenty officers from various agencies within the county.
  4. The dispatch supervisor.
  5. The clerks in public records.
  6. A sketch artist.
  7. Patrols.
  8. CSI.
  9. K-9 unit.

The hands-on activities are what most crime writers needs. I’ve aimed a lidar gun at traffic, acted as an officer performing a traffic stop or dealing with a tense confrontation, and learned how to sweep a building. These activities also provide me with glimpses into behind-the-scenes details that writers love to work into stories if they can. Facts like many officers suffer from lower back trouble after years of service because when they wear their bullet-proof vest and belt, they carry an extra twenty-five to thirty pounds.

I’m standing in the top hatch of an armored personnel vehicle own by the sheriff’s dept.

What I find even more interesting are the stories the officers tells, such as the detective who was assigned to a ten-year-old cold case and how he and his partner finally solved it. Or how a K-9 officer found the people who had broken into an abandoned jail. Or what does a rookie cop learn on the job that he can’t learn at the academy.

Most most fascinating of all is hearing how the officers view their work. One detective said he was doing “God’s work.” The sheriff spoke to us on our first night. After four decades in law enforcement, he is now hiring deputies younger than his children. The dispatch supervisor conveyed how protective the dispatchers are of the deputies they are helping in the field.

Whatever crime fiction story you are writing, try to get interviews with people who work in the particular aspect of law enforcement you are writing about. My WIP novel is set in a fictional, rural county in Ohio. Not all that I’ve learned about my home county’s sheriff’s department will apply because it has a much bigger population. So I conducted a phone interview with the chief deputy from a rural county. I was very nervous about calling the office because I’m an author with only two short stories to my credit. But he was very nice and answered all my questions.

That’s an attitude all the officers I’ve met through the academy have had. They want the citizens they protect to understand their jobs. As Clay Stafford, found of the Killer Nashville mystery writers conference, said, law enforcement professionals are flattered when writers bother to try to accurately represent their work.

Writers, what research have you done for a crime story? Readers, what mysteries have you read that seemed particularly well-researched?

Kids Need Adventure Stories

My youngest, the Fishing Fanatic, seems to be an unusual kid. He doesn’t live for video games and has little interest in an online life. He loves to be outdoors, fishing, exploring our woods, or working on outdoor projects. He’s a high-level reader but gets frustrated finding contemporary books he likes. So many middle grade and young adult books are fantasies. Even ones advertised as mysteries or adventure stories often have a fantasy element. The books that don’t are many times set in the past. But kids need adventure stories, set in 2020, with realistic plots, to inspire them to seek their own adventures.

The Problem with the Fantasy Element

Fantasy or scifi is my second favorite genre. I understand the attraction. But other genres offer equally entertaining reads. The glut of fantasy and scifi books in the middle grade and YA markets is discouraging to someone looking for something different.

I think all these fantasy stories convince kids that adventures can only happen in their imaginations, the time of true adventures is past. Or that they have to be the Chosen One, possess some special power or position, to be eligible for an adventure.

The Problem with Technology

The ubiquitous possession of phones seems to have convinced many authors that kids can’t have adventures in current times. I think that’s why a lot of stories are set in the recent past, so the characters don’t have access to phones. In America, so many people live in cities and suburbs that they don’t realize the country isn’t completely wired.

Smart phones have made creating adventures set in the U.S. more difficult. An author doesn’t want to resort to the idiot plot, forcing the main character and his friends into making stupid decisions in order to get them into challenging situations.

For more on how technology ruins suspense, click here.

But with some research, contemporary adventures are possible.

I have firsthand proof. I live in rural Ohio. We can’t get broadband internet at our house. It’s not that it’s too expensive. It’s simply unavailable. I’ve hiked in many parts of the state where cell service is nonexistent. My phone would make a good coaster in those places, and that’s about it. Even in remote places where I can call out, it could take hours for first-responders to reach me if I was in trouble.

The truth of all these statement can be seen in the PBS series Expedition with Steve Backshall. Steve Backshall is a British explorer and naturalist. The point of the series is to explore little-known or unmapped areas of the world, like the jungles of Suriname, flooded caves in Mexico, or a mountain in Greenland. The crew and guides took a ton of gear with them, but if one person had a serious accident, getting help, in most cases, would be impossible.

The series ran here in the winter, and my whole family looked forward to sitting down together for each episode, excited to see a part of the world we know nothing about. Any of those episodes could spark a story.

My youngest has found a series he loves, The Three Investigators mysteries. Three fourteen-year-old boys run a detective business in California, and sometimes get work with the help of their friend, Alfred Hitchcock. The series was started by Robert Arthur in the 1960’s.

I want adventures stories to ignite in my kids a desire to seek their own adventures when they are old enough. I hope they see the world as a place of wonder, where mysteries still exist to be solved or explored or simply to marvel at.

Do you think real world adventure stories are important for kids to read? What books do you recommend?

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