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Murder, She Wrote: How to Write a Murder Mystery by Sharon Dempsey

Writing.ie | Resources | Developing Your Craft
Sharon Dempsey

Sharon Dempsey

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So you want to write a murder mystery?

Here is Sharon Dempsey’s guide on what to do and what to read to inspire your writing.

  1. One of the most effective ways of ensuring that you finish writing your book is to interrogate the idea before you get started. This ensures that you don’t find yourself 10,000 words into a story that runs out of road. It helps to have an outline of where the story is going. Trust me, if you go on a trip with no map, you’re bound to make a few wrong turns along the way. Planning ensures that you work more efficiently.
  2. Be sure of what you want to write and where it sits in the market. Is your idea suitable for the crime genre? You are working in the best genre in the world – in my opinion! We have so many subgenres to draw on: noir, police procedures, hardboiled, mystery, cosy crime, domestic noir, spy thriller – the list goes on. It is worth considering where your brilliant idea fits in. Publishers need to be able to see the potential for your story to be on a particular shelf but its more than simply marketing. When your manuscript lands on an editor’s desk, they want to be able to understand quickly what it is they are reading. Which leads me to the next point …
  3. Do you have a hook? Intrigue is at the heart of good crime writing. If your premise naturally creates questions like why and how, you know that you’re on to something. Human nature loves a fraught dilemma. That’s what gets the pulse racing. Imagine putting yourself, or someone you know, in a seemingly impossible situation. What would they do to survive or protect their loved ones? Check out this summer’s smash hit, Falling, by TJ Newman: A pilot’s family are kidnapped and the only way they will survive is if he follows an order to crash the plane, killing all those on board. Similarly, the premise of Adrian McKinty’s The Chain, has that instant wow factor: your child has been kidnapped and in order to save her, you have to kidnap someone else’s child. Page turning stuff. Understanding your hook helps you to ‘sell’ the idea to others and in turn for your agent to ‘sell’ it to an editor, and for an editor to ‘sell’ at an acquisitions meeting.  (This is where the entire publishing team from editors to marketing and sales discuss potential new books). Imagine presenting Steve Cavanagh’s Thirteen at an acquisitions meeting: ‘The serial killer isn’t on trial. He’s on the jury.’ You instantly get the premise. Bam!
  4. Whose story are your telling? Be clear in your PoV. Understand who your key players are and how they interact. Let them rub each other up the wrong way. Friction is essential for moving a plot along. It energises characters and helps to create a sense of risk. Not everyone will get what they want or need and that in itself, causes friction. For strong PoV and great characterisation read We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker who won the 2021 prestigious Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. I defy anyone not to fall in love with his character Duchess Day Radley.
  5. Don’t try to make everyone likeable. Liz Nugent is the queen of making us care about badly behaved characters. She doesn’t hold back, and neither should you. For perfectly dislikeable yet intensely readable characters, treat yourself to Liz Nugent’s Our Little Cruelties or Skin Deep. Think of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Neither Nick nor Amy are nice people yet we still feel totally invested in the outcome of their lives.
  6. Use setting to your advantage to create suspense, atmosphere and narrative tension. The most effective crime fictional settings are those that reveal something about the characters and the society in which they live. Think of the classics from the Golden Age of crime writing like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. In the so-called cosy crime sub-genre violence and murder may be less explicit and off the page, but don’t be fooled. The atmosphere of the country house setting helps to create tension and suspense, telling the reader that even in a place of gentrified seclusion and faded elegance, something evil lurks just beneath the surface. Gothic fiction is the first tradition where setting acted like a character in the story and was even tied to elements of the plot. This genre often employs a remote settings, rambling mansions, and crumbling convents and monasteries. We love it for the sense of unease it instils. For a modern-day Gothic-crime story with loads of tension and atmosphere derived from the setting, read Caitriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street or The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel.
  7. Don’t be predictable. Misdirection is your friend so use it. For authorial sleight of hand check out Agatha Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide. It tells the story of a beautiful heiress who is fatally poisoned in a West End restaurant. Six people sit down to dinner at a table laid for seven. Anyone of them could have poured the fatal drink. Remember that when you’re building suspense the reader requires a good return. Claire Allan’s Ask No Questions delivers a cracking dénouement that isn’t predictable.
  8. Do your research but use it sparingly. Most crime writers I know enjoy the research rabbit hole. The trick is in knowing what to dig up and use, and what to leave behind. Too much technical detail slows the narrative pace so learn when to sprinkle your procedural and scientific knowledge and when to let the story do the talking. Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan police procedural series always gets the balance right.
  9. Remember: story is king. Plot, characters, setting, themes are all merely devices to help you tell the story better. Go back to Charles Dickens or Stephen King if you need to be reminded of this.
  10. Turn up. Put the time in. You can’t write for a couple of days and return to it a month later so show up every day. Similarly turn up for book events. Check out any arts centres and bookshops in your area for events and go listen to writers talking about their journey to publication. I guarantee you will learn something every time. And finally, keep reading and studying your craft. Writers must be readers first and foremost. The two are interdependent. For a fictional exploration of the writing world read Laura Lippman’s satirical thriller Dream Girl. She perfectly sends up the tropes, the stereotypes and what it is to be a successful writer. Stephen King’s On Writing is one of the best books on the craft you will ever find. Study it. Also read John Yorke’s into the Woods.

Happy writing!

(c) Sharon Dempsey

About Who Took Eden Mulligan?:

‘They’re dead. They’re all dead. It’s my fault. I killed them.’

Those are the words of Iona Gardener, who stands bloodied and staring as she confesses to the murder of four people in a run-down cottage outside of Belfast.

Outside the cottage, five old dolls are hanging from a tree. Inside the cottage, the words “WHO TOOK EDEN MULLIGAN?” are graffitied on the wall, connecting the murder scene with the famous cold case of Eden Mulligan, a mother-of-five who went missing during The Troubles.

But this case is different. Right from the start.

Because no one in the community is willing to tell the truth, and the only thing DI Danny Stowe and forensic psychologist Rose Lainey can be certain of is that Iona Gardener’s confession is false….
Praise for Who Took Eden Mulligan?

‘A dark, disturbing and gripping read perfect for fans of Jane Casey, Patricia Gibney and Brian McGilloway’ Claire Allan

‘Deftly and compellingly written’ Anthony J Quinn

‘A twisting tale of intrigue that never lets up.’ Brian McGilloway

‘A dark, twisting, compelling tale’ Stuart Neville

‘An intriguing, sophisticated read told in an authentic voice’ Kelly Creighton

‘Gripping and pacy’ Steve Cavanagh

‘A hugely promising debut’ Irish Independent

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Sharon Dempsey is a crime writer and academic researcher. ‘Who took Eden Mulligan?’ is the first in a new crime series published in 2021, by Avon Harper Collins. She is a PhD candidate at Queen’s University, exploring class and gender in crime fiction.

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