How to Write a Christmas Mystery

For some reason, Christmas and mysteries go together like silver and gold on a Christmas tree. Christmas mysteries are a very old tradition in the genre. One of the first, and best, is “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”, a Sherlock Holmes story. Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple had Christmas cases. So did Nero Wolfe, Ellery Queen, V.I. Warshawski, Brother Cadfael, and Father Brown. Maybe the mystery of God coming to earth, fully God and and fully human, gives the whole season an air of the unexplainable. If you’d like to try your hand at this very specific sub-genre, here are a two tips on how to write a Christmas mystery.

The Story Can’t Take Place at Any Other Time

The best Christmas mysteries take advantage of what the season offers. In “A Christmas Party” by Rex Stout, the boss of an interior design firm is murdered during the Christmas office party. The man who was working the bar in a Santa Claus outfit disappears during the confusion created when the boss collapses from cyanide poisoning. Santa was so heavily made-up no one at the party can describe him.

In Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie, old, mean, manipulative Simeon Lee invites his four sons, their wives, and one granddaughter—some of whom he hasn’t been on speaking terms for years—to the family home out in the English countryside for a real, old-fashioned Christmas. Or so he says.

Neither of these stories would work at another time during the year. Except at a Halloween party, you couldn’t have a waiter or other staff help disguise themselves so effectively. In America, Thanksgiving is the only other holiday which gives a character a plausible reason to gather warring family members.

One of the many fun qualities of “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” is how well it incorporates characteristics of Christmas that existed at the time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote it. A commissionaire who is an acquaintance of Holmes, finds a precious stone, the blue carbuncle, in the crop of the goose his wife was going to roast for Christmas dinner. Holmes and Watson follow clues through a bitterly cold London night to figure how the jewel, stolen from a luxury hotel, ended up in the goose. 

Include Themes of the Season

Another quality you can take advantage of are the meanings of the season. One aspect of “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” that makes it so special is the offer Holmes extends to the culprit once he uncovers him. In “A Christmas Party,” Archie Goodwin learns just how highly his boss Nero Wolfe values him. “The Killer Christian” by Andre Klavan is about redemption. In my Christmas mystery, “A Rose from the Ashes”, I used a theme of mercy and forgiveness as my teen detective Rae Riley attempts to discover how her father is and if he tried to murder her pregnant mother.

For more recommendations of Christmas mysteries, click here.

What are some of your favorite Christmas mysteries?

Hiding the Villain in a Mystery

Hiding the villain in a mystery is the toughest task when writing a story in the genre. Planting clues and red herrings effectively is hard too, but if I don’t correctly handle hiding the villain in a traditional whodunit, I’ve ruined the whole story.

Do’s and Don’ts for Hiding the Villain

Don’t have a very minor character be the villain.

Mystery author Bill Pronzini describes this pitfall in a chapter of his book Son of Gun in Cheek when writing about his love for the old Charlie Chan movies made in the 1930’s and ’40’s. He writes that often the villain turned out to be such a minor character that it was difficult to remember what scenes he or she was in.

Part of the fun of a mystery is to reread them after the solution is revealed, noting how the villain acted and what clues I missed that pointed to his guilt. If the villain hardly appears in the story, the reader has no satisfaction in seeing him unmasked. The mystery’s solution isn’t a revelation but a shock and a cheap one at that.

Now I can have a very minor character turn out to be an accomplice. That can provide a nice twist to the plot. But this character should still have enough page time for the reader to say, when revealed as the villain’s ally, “Aha!’ instead of “Who?”

Do make the villain a major player.

He should be an important secondary character, someone who has significant interactions with the detective. But if he has too many scenes in which he plays a pivotal role, the reader may get suspicious. So …

Don’t make the villain the only major player.

As I’ve written mysteries, this tip is the one I’ve found helpful: give each suspect almost equal time on the page. Creating suspects with as much reason to be guilty as the real culprit and allowing them meaningful page time helps disguise the true villain. The drawback of this method is that if a character acts suspiciously but is innocent, my detective either has to uncover to reason or the character must explain her actions. Unlike in real life, mysteries must tie up loose ends. For more on writing about clues and red herrings, click here.

What mysteries had the best reveal of the villain?

What Makes a Mystery a Cozy?

This is an updated article from 2019. The term mystery or crime fiction covers many subgenres, cozy mysteries being a very popular one. What makes a mystery a cozy? Below are the four most prominent features of cozy mysteries, ones that I incorporated into my YA mystery, A Shadow on the Snow.

COZY MYSTERIES ALWAYS HAVE AMATEUR SLEUTHS.

One reason I think cozy mysteries are so popular is because, in the end, they are underdog stories, and these have huge appeal. The amateur sleuth can come in many flavors, but he or she can’t have any official standing within law enforcement, automatically making them the underdog. However, amateur sleuths do need some kind of advantage or skill they can rely on when they tackle a case. For more details on that special ability, click here for my post, “Three Tips on How to Build a Teen Detective.”

SECONDARY CHARACTERS ARE IMPORTANT.

Many cozy mysteries are series, and readers derive a lot of enjoyment from spending time with characters they regard as old friends. It’s important to develop secondary characters, who add a family feel to the stories.

I had a ton of fun creating secondary characters for Shadow. My main character Rae has just discovered who her father is and that she has a whole herd of relatives. As Rae gets to know her new family, so does the reader.

  • Her worry-prone, protective dad who is the sheriff.
  • Her three half-brothers: Rusty, the quiet, imaginative writer. Aaron, the enthusiastic inventor. Micah, the easy-going, practical first-grader.
  • Her laid-back, unflappable grandmother.

Rae has more relatives but those are the ones I focus on in my novel. Because I’ve created this world of complex secondary characters, I have a great raw material to work with in my next novels. In my second book, maybe I’ll focus on Rae and her cousins or on the young deputies she jams with in a band. Two of my beta readers really liked Rae’s great-grandfather. That surprised me, but I’ll try to work him into future stories.

THE CRIME TAKES PLACE IN AN INSULATED COMMUNITY.

For many cozies, this translates into a small town, like St. Mary Mead where Miss Marple lives, or Three Pines, the hometown of Inspector Armand Gamache. But the setting can be any small, tightly knit community. The members of a community theater, a sorority, or a carnival would all fit in a cozy mystery. In fact, the amateur sleuth’s membership in this community may give her an edge. Such as the teen who is investigating threats at her high school. She would be able to questions suspects in a much different way from the police.

Rae Riley is a newcomer to rural Marlin County, Ohio. It’s the kind of county where a newcomer stands out, and several generations of a family live within its borders. One of Rae’s advantages in such a community is that she can judge people without any preconceptions that might come from knowing someone for twenty years.

Although small-towns might seem cliched, I think a majority of Americans don’t know what small-town living is like and find reading about it in fiction intriguing. This truth came home to me last week. I’d been invited to a Bible study in a town of about 700 people. We were going to meet in an old bank that’s been converted into rental office space. When I got there, I couldn’t find any of the ladies who’d invited me. But I knew one owned the salon across the street, so I poked my head in and asked if I’d gotten the wrong day. She said no. We were starting at 7:30, not 7.

Later the salon owner told me that when I stopped by, she had a couple ladies from a nearby big city waiting. One of them was surprised by my visit, remarking that everybody really did know everybody else in a small town. Her reaction made me smile.

NO GRAPHIC SEX OR VIOLENCE, PLEASE.

Readers of cozies do not want heads rolling down the stairs or couples rolling around in beds. That doesn’t mean they expect a G-rated story. They know someone will be murdered. They know adultery or other plots revolving around sex are likely.  They just don’t want every grisly detail of the murder described or told exactly what the two-timing wife did in the bedroom with her boyfriend. Those details are not essential to solving the mystery.

What are some of your favorite cozy mysteries?

Three Tips on How to Build a Teen Detective

For almost three years now, I’ve spent time in the company of Rae Riley, my nineteen-year-old detective. I introduced her in the short story, “A Rose from the Ashes”, and she continues her amateur sleuthing in A Shadow on the Snow. By the way, the cover reveal is tomorrow! (Cue confetti and a blare of trumpets). But back to the post–working with my main character for so long has led me to three tips on how to build a teen detective.

Teen Needs a Reason to Detect

Like all amateur detectives, the teen detective must have another reason for sleuthing besides perpetually tripping over bodies. Maybe she has a thirst for justice. A recent teen detective is devoted to true-life crimes. Maybe he’s just plain nosy.

Rae solves mysteries because she has to. In “A Rose from the Ashes”, she investigates the murderous attack on her mother when her mom was pregnant with her in the hope of finding her father. In A Shadow on the Snow, someone is leaving Rae threatening notes. She starts her own investigation because she is getting along so well with her newly-found family that she doesn’t want to burden them with her problems and make them regret inviting her into their lives.

I gave Rae a few other traits to make it more believable for her to undertake a case. Her mother battled cancer while Rae was in high school and died before she graduated. Rae is used to looking after herself. She also moved many times as a kid and doesn’t make friends easily. So it makes sense for her to go it alone on her hunt for the stalker.

Teen Needs Specialize Knowledge

By this, I mean the teen should have some knowledge not readily available to traditional law enforcement. The teen could be solving a case involving a friend or relative and learns things from suspects who are reluctant to share with the police. Or he is looking into a cold case and brings a fresh perspective to it. Or the teen is an expert in some field and that skill aids in solving the case.

In Shadow, Rae uses the skills she developed to investigate her mother’s assault, such delving into sources at the library where she works and questioning people without letting them know exactly why. Rae also loves photography, a passion I hope to work into future mysteries.

The teen detective needs these talents or abilities because …

Teen Should Not Be Smarter Than the Cops

Readers of teen mysteries already have to suspend their disbelief to buy into a story in which a teen solves a case. As a writer, I don’t want to force readers to throw away their disbelief all together and make my teen detective the smartest person in the book for a couple reasons.

First, the era of the bumbling or stupid cop is past. It’s been done. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle started this trope for mysteries and actually changed it in some of his later stories, portraying the police as more competent and imaginative.

Second, it’s not playing fair, giving the teen detective too much of an advantage, and that could annoy readers. If every single character in a mystery is amazed by the intelligence of the detective, as a reader, I’m liable to turn against him. Only Sherlock Holmes gets away with such universal praise.

Rae’s dad is the sheriff of the rural, southeastern Ohio county where they live. She makes friends with three young cops and plays outlaw country music with them. I can’t make any of these characters look like dolts. Rae wouldn’t respect them and neither would readers.

One believable way for cops to have missed clues or become stumped by a mystery is overwork, especially in an urban setting. A city, town, or county only has so many officers who only have some much time to work multiple cases. Many small agencies can’t afford a separate detective unit. That would give a writer a decent reason for the teen detective to uncover something the police hadn’t.

Who are your favorite teen detectives? Do they have any of the three points I describe?

Cliches to Avoid when Writing YA Fiction

If you read enough YA fiction, you’ll find certain characters or plot devices repeating themselves. Here are a few cliches to avoid when writing YA fiction.

All the adults are mean and/or stupid.

All the characters in a book should have an understandable motive for how they act. In YA fiction, the adult characters should be as well developed as the teen ones. If the father of the main character is cruel to him, the author must provide a reason other than it’s convenient for the plot. If the parents don’t know what their teens are up to, it shouldn’t be because they are too stupid to realize their kids are getting into trouble. When I come across adult characters who are too mean or dumb to be believable, I close the book.

The importance of exploring character motivation was brought home to me by my friend, author Cindy Thomson. With both your major or minor character, she said I needed to keeping asking why characters act the way they do. I think this is especially important when developing a villain or developing a flaw for a character. Her motivation to do bad things can’t simply be because she’s bad.

Private Schools

Another cliche to avoid when writing YA fiction is the private school. In YA book after YA book, I find this setting. In Christian fiction, it’s often a private Christian high school. A variation is for a kid in a private school to lose her money and be forced to attend a public school. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I think most American teens never attend a private school, certainly very few attend a private high school. My kids don’t. The teens in my church don’t.

When I was in junior high, I read a short story about a boy who cheats during a test at a private school. (The main character’s name is P.S. If you recognize the short story, let me know. I’m curious to reread it). The whole story puzzled me then because the setting and his problem seemed so far removed from my life. If I remember correctly, he was expelled, he and his father had some kind of breakthrough in their relationship, and he would be sent to another private school. The consequences didn’t seem all that bad to me.

I see some advantages of this setting. The teens have less oversight if they board at a private school, giving the author more room to get them into trouble. It’s also an easy way to employ the fish-out-of-water plot: poor, deserving teen wins a scholarship to snooty private school and is set upon by rich brats.

Authors can use this setting well. It was especially effective in the novel The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks . But new authors should find other ways to get their characters into trouble or throw them into uncomfortable situations. The private school is growing old. And I think readers would appreciate seeing characters in a setting more familiar to them.

Hospital Denouement

I’ve found this scene in many YA books across several genres. The hero survives the thrilling climax, suffering injuries that usually causes him to pass out at the end of it. In the next chapter, he’s in the hospital, waking up after being unconscious for several days. A friend or relative is at his bedside and explains to him everything he’s missed, nicely wrapping up the ending for both the reader and the hero.

This technique goes all the way back to The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, one of the granddaddy’s of young adult fiction. Like the private school, I understand this is a handy plot device. An author can work in a lot of explanation without worrying about “showing vs. telling” because it makes sense for one character to inform the hero since he’s been out of the action for awhile. It’s a time- and page-saving device.

So it’s not bad. Just overused. I almost employed it when writing my denouement for my YA mystery A Shadow on the Snow. I was trying to write a hospital scene, and it wasn’t going anywhere. It hit me that I’d read this kind of scene many, many times before. So I eliminated the setting and created another one for my wrap-up.

This post is an update of a previous one. For for more tips on writing YA fiction, click here.

What are some cliches you’re tired of reading in YA fiction?

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