Writing Tip — Favorite Author

PoirotThe opening of Murder on the Orient Express in theaters tomorrow reminded me of a time when I inhaled Agatha Christie mysteries. In high school, I read almost all of them. Over the years, when I wanted a comfort food book, I often returned to my favorite novels and short stories. As I’ve grown older, I find more flaws in the storytelling than I did as a teenager, but some of the novels still can’t be beat for plotting in a mystery.

That was Mrs. Christie’s strength, mystery plots. Her characters were often one-dimensional but characters, unless they were the detectives, were not why people made Mrs. Christie the best-selling author after Shakespeare. They loved her plot twists and the opportunity to solve a puzzle along with her detectives.

Of her two main detectives, I like Miss Marple better. I like the idea of this elderly spinster being so good at reading people from her experiences in a small English village that she could apply her knowledge to just about any person she met. Like in Pocket Full Of Rye, she becomes suspicious of woman’s husband when she realizes the woman is the nice kind who always falls for troubled men.

If you want to write cozy mysteries, you must read some of Mrs. Christie’s novels and short stories. If she didn’t invent many of the conventions for cozies, she at least made them popular, such as the nosy amateur detective and gathering all the suspects together so the detective can reveal the identity of the murderer.

Recommended Reading

Breaking with conventions. In the 1930’s, certain rules had been developed about how to write crime fiction. Mrs. Christie “murdered” those in Murder on the Orient ExpressThe Murder of Roger Ackroydand And Then There Were None.

Hercule Poirot. Two of my favorite novels with the Belgian detective, Christie’s busiest creation, are Death on the Nilewhich was turned into a very good movie, and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, which is my favorite Christmas murder mystery. It has everything you expect: a large country house, a toxic family, and a clever murder with a murderer, who also breaks with conventions.

Miss Marple. Even though I like this character, I think  her novels aren’t as successful as Poirot’s. But try The Body in the Library and The Moving Finger.

Short Stories. If you like short stories, like me, read Thirteen Problems with Miss Marple and The Mysterious Mr. Quinn, who certainly lives up to his adjective.

If you like cozy mysteries, what are your favorites?


Writing Tip — Crime Fiction

Genres of Crime Fiction

This post is short because I am preparing for another writer’s conference. Since I have been posting about crime fiction, I thought a description of all the genres which fit under that umbrella title might prove helpful. This list from “Writing Prompts & Thoughts & Ideas … Oh My!” defines the main genres, but there are others, such as all the subgenres under “Suspense/Thrillers”.

A couple other categories: I have heard police procedural novels set in Scandinavia called “Scandinavian noir”. And under Cozy mysteries, you can find ones devoted to just about any hobby you care to name, from crossword puzzles to quilting to birding.

What is your favorite category of crime fiction?


Writing Tip — Crime Fiction

9 waysAt the American Christian Fiction writers conference, I attended Jennifer Dornbush’s session “Everyone Can Spot a Fake” on how to write gripping crime fiction.

Ms. Dornbush taught us how to “corkscrew your story”, creating twists and turns in the plot that bring some kind of change, whether minor, medium, or major. She discussed how writers can use the tropes of crime fiction to do this.

Tropes to Corkscrew Your Plot
  1. Explosions — Including a  literal — or is it literary? — bang in your story should create an exciting twist.
  2. Dead body — Any time a dead body is discovered the plot must change.
  3. Bad character revealed to be good and vice versa — This can be used in any genre. But I would use this trope with caution. I have watched TV shows where a character does all sort of despicable things and then declares himself a good guy. I don’t but it. The actions can be amibiguous, but if they are too awful, the character’s sudden unmasking won’t be convincing.
  4. Harm to investigator — Either threatening harm or actual harm that actually is inflicted  on the investigator.
  5. Innocent dies — Similar to a dead body, but much more powerful.
  6. Important person goes missing
  7. Evidence lost or tampered with
  8. Investigator is taken off the case — If the investigator is a govt. official, then a superior pulls her off. If the investigator is a private detective, then the client fires him. In Sandra Orchard’s A Food and his Monet, the author does an unexpected variation on this trope.
  9. Investigator makes mistakes — He or she can do this in two ways.
    • From personal experience — Something in his past, like fears, prejudices, or experiences, leads him to a wrong conclusion.
    • From misinterpreting the evidence — She simply gets it wrong

Ms. Dornbush recommended dropping in clues every 10-15 pages, which will give writers many opportunities to “corkscrews the plot. She also stressed that the investigator should have conviction for the case he is working, and the writer should give her an opportunity to grandstand and celebrate when she closes the case successfully.

I found this session fascinating and wished I hadn’t had to miss the beginning of it. When I sit down to write the murder mystery I have in mind, I will know I will refer to Ms. Dornbush’s great advice if my plot becomes flat.

What other tropes of crime fiction can “corkscrew” the plot?



Writing Tip — Crime fiction resources


Since October seems to be the perfect month for mysteries, here are some resources for crime writers I learned about at the ACFW conference in September.


I just bought Forensic Speak by Jennifer Dornbush because she presented a session at the conference. She comes by her expertise in this area uniquely. Her father was the medical  examiner fir a rural Michigan county and grew up discussing autosies and means of death.

The book has eight chapter covering everything from weapons and DNA to who’s who in the courtroom. For each term, Ms. Dornbush provides three headings to explain it: “What is it?”, “Where do I see it?”, and “How can I use it?” What I think is very helpful are the exercises listed at the end of each chapter.

Because the book is written specifically for writers for crime fiction, I find it easy to use. I’ve already learned there’s a difference between “blood spatter” and “blood splatter.”

Check out Ms. Dornbush’s website here.

Life of a Patrol Cop and Weapons

I also attended a session led by former police officer Joseph Courtmanche, who is a new author in the world of Christian fiction with his novel Assault on St. Agnes.

His session was about the work of the patrol officer. I was completely absorbed, barely able to take notes fast enough.

The biggest change in police patrols since Mr. Courtemanche left the force in the 1980’s to work for a federal agency is the amount of technology loaded onto the patrol car. I don’t know if this ti true for every police department, but many patrol cars now have computers mounted in the front and back which scan every license plate within a certain distance and check them against a database.

Since my book is set in rural West Virginia, I asked what is the biggest difference between city patrol work and rural patrol work. Mr. Courtemanche said that in the country, police officers are often alone and will not take as many chances as their counterparts in the city,.

Mr. Courtemanche said the best way to understand this kind of police work is to ride along with on-duty police in a patrol car or watch Live PD on A&E. He was also doing a presentation on weapons, such what kind of weapon would a criminal be likely to carry. When I told him I  could not attend that session, he said I could learn just as much if I subscribed to Gun Digest for a year. I did a quick search on the site for Gun Digest and could access a lot of articles without being a subscriber.

If you write crime fiction, what resources have you found helpful?

Writing Tip — Favorite Authors — Melville Davisson Post

post_abner_des_cov_cmykI only discovered the mysteries written by Melville Davisson Post in recent years. Mr. Post (1869 -1930) was born in Harrison County, West Virginia and was a trained lawyer practicing in Wheeling, West Virginia, the nearest city to my hometown. He eventually gave up the law and became a prolific writer.

The only stories I have read by Mr. Post are the twenty-two mystery short stories featuring his detective Uncle Abner. Set in the pre-Civil War days when West Virginia was still western Virginia, Uncle Abner is a landowner who raises cattle and has a thorough understanding of the law. We never learn his last name. He has a brother Rufus, whose son Martin, about ten-years-old, narrates the stories.

Uncle Abner is a fierce Christian, strong and righteous like the prophet Elijah. He uses this strength and righteousness and his ability to solve mysteries to help others, usually people who are the victims of loopholes in the law. Abner believes in abiding by the law but knows the law should serve justice, and if it doesn’t, he will.

I have no legal background, but I assume the loopholes and points of law, so pivotal to the plots, were once actual laws, and these add a layer of reality to the stories.

detective-1039883_1280Of the twenty-two stories, the first ones are the best because Mr. Post tends to repeat some of his plots in the later ones. My favorites are “The Angel of the Lord”, “The Wrong Hand”, “The Tenth Commandment”, and “The Mystery of Chance”. “The Doomdorf Mystery” is the most well-known story in the series and contains one of the most original solutions to a locked-room murder you will ever read. “A Twilight Adventure” has an interesting plot.  Abner and Martin happen upon a lynching party. Abner demonstrates how the evidence the party has uncovered points to more than one person, and they may be set to kill the wrong man.

I would love to rewrite “Naboth’s Vineyard” in a contemporary setting. Abner is convinced the judge presiding over a murder trial is actually the murderer. When he demands the judge to step down, he calls on the law to back him. But the law is not words written on a page or the local authorities. Abner calls on the true law, the people who vote for it.

Next time, I will write about how Melville Davisson’s Post’s stories have inspired my writing.


If you are interested in trying the Uncle Abner stories, they are hard to find in a hard copy. I don’t know about their availability in digital form. The book I have, Uncle Abner: Master of Mysteries, was reprinted recently by West Virginia University press and is so riddled with typos I would not recommend a first-time reader of the stories using it. I like the stories so well that I put up with the errors.

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