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Mystery, Mayhem and a dash of Murder:

Basic ingredients for Romantic Suspense

Copyright: Cheryl Wright– All rights reserved


Those first few lines, those opening sentences and paragraphs, are your first step to grabbing the reader and pulling her into your story.

With romantic suspense, it’s crucial.

Kareena Ellis slowed for the traffic lights. She didn’t need this - time was of the essence.

She looked about. Everything seemed fine, calm. She tapped her fingers against the steering wheel. She would be okay, no need to panic, no reason to worry.

A shadow came across her face, and Kareena looked up.

...His arms came down, the windscreen smashed into millions of tiny pieces. The sledgehammer landed on the steering wheel, barely missing her.

Already, the reader has connected. She wants to know why the heroine is in this situation, and she wants to know how she will get out of it alive.

Your opening lines need to act as a teaser, to get the reader in, make her want to turn the pages, and make her want to buy the book. As with any novel (or short story) conflict is an essential ingredient – the romantic suspense novel requires lots of twists, suspense and sometimes even murder.

Stopping to research in the midst of a novel is a time waster, and can be a major distraction to the flow of the storyline. Research can take days, maybe even weeks in some cases, so wherever possible do it before you start. Arm yourself with basic information, such as:

How the criminal mind works/thinks

Go to your local library and browse through the various books available on the mafia, criminals and their various activities. When starting my research in this area, I found an almost endless supply at the library. The Internet is also an excellent source.

Some helpful links on this subject:


Real crimes and real news – if nothing else, this site is a major

source of inspiration. Provides links to a huge array of related sites.


An encylopedia of true crimes – articles/information on True Crimes, Sex Crime, Organised Crimes, Serial Killers – the list is endless.


A crime statistics site - if you want to know where all that data comes from, this is the place for you.

Police procedures and rankings

Rankings may vary from state to state, and most certainly from country to country - check with your local police station or state headquarters.

Learn a little (or a lot) about forensic science, crime scene investigation and techniques.

Some helpful links on this subject:


A huge amount of information on crime scene investigation techniques and technology, forensic science, etc. is provided. This is an excellent site, and you won’t want to leave.


This site offers a host of resources for crime and mystery writers. It's geared primarily toward screenwriters, but will definitely benefit writers of novels and short stories. Many of the resources are available only to members, but the free resources are worth checking. One of the ‘free areas’ they have is a ‘crime desk’ where writers get to ask individual questions of experience police officers.


Various methods of murder (i.e. poisons)

One of my best friends (apart from my writing buddies!) is "The Crime Writer’s Handbook (65 ways to kill your victim - in print)" by Douglas Wynn. As the name implies, the book outlines various methods of murder. My personal favourite is the section on throat cutting. (I know, I know - it is worrying!)

The handbook also covers basic information about autopsies and police procedures (US based), and has acted as a good source of inspiration for short stories on more than a few occasions. Be warned – it is pricey (around $35 AU), and can be hard to get, but will become a trusted and worthy companion if mystery/suspense is your forte.

Weapons (i.e. guns, knives) and who can carry them

Never second-guess weapons information.

Firearms laws vary from country to country; ensure you check locally before using information. (For example: In Australia and the UK, Private Investigators are not licensed to carry firearms. In the US - varies from state to state.)

Your local gun shop is a good source of information, as are gun clubs and shooting ranges. If you are really interested in learning about firearms, it may be a worthwhile exercise to join the local pistol club or rifle range.

Some helpful links on this subject:

Smith & Wesson

Comprehensive information (including photos) on Smith & Wesson products


Comprehensive information on Browning products


Exactly as it appears – firearms terminology explained in laymans terms.


Any specialised information required (i.e. codebreaking)

Again, search the Internet. It is an almost endless source of information - you will be amazed at what you can find. The reference section at your local library will also be helpful. Librarians at state libraries are a wealth of information, and will help you track down whatever you need.

Methods used by Private Investigators

The best way to obtain this information is firsthand, that is, by talking to a private investigator. (It’s not as hard as it sounds – just ask!) Otherwise, contact your local investigators’ association.

You’ve probably heard it a millions times before, but I’m going to tell you again – one of the most important tools an author can have is an outline. Cram as much as you can into that outline. For authors of romantic suspense, it’s easy to get carried away, to go off track, but if you’ve got an outline, you’re more likely to keep the focus you started with.

Make sure your heroine is fiesty – most publishers of romantic suspense like the heroine to take an active part in solving the crime. Let your hero/heroine work together in bringing about a satisfactory result. Ensure your hero doesn’t overpower her – she needs to stand on her own two feet. She also needs to be strong, and smart. Her deductive skills as an amateur sleuth will see her through to the final page.

Drop some subtle clues along the way, but don’t tell all, and make sure you add a few red herrings – just to keep them guessing. There are some excellent books available on this method of mystery writing.

Working with multiple viewpoints adds extra tension. At all times, the reader knows exactly what is going on, but the heroine may not. Perhaps the hero is acting without her knowledge, trying to help her, trying to loosen the chains that are dragging her down. But because the heroine isn’t aware of what he’s up to behind her back, she becomes suspicious of him, and that adds to the tension.

Another important ingredient is the presence of a villain. The villain may only lurk in the background, and only be onstage for a few chapters near the end of the book, but he’s there, larger than life, and making his presence felt.

It’s vital for your readers to know what he’s thinking, how he intends to eliminate/kidnap/terrify/stalk the heroine. Again, you are creating added tension. Make him real, believable, even likeable. (Gone are the days of the ‘nasty’ villain.) Get inside his head, show us what he’s thinking, and let us know what drives him. Motivation is crucial.

Readers love surprises. Don’t give them the opportunity to predict the outcome. Challenge yourself to do something different, the opposite of what would be expected: use the ‘what if’ scenario. This works well in a brainstorming session, either alone or with one or more friends. Try this quick exercise: The villain has cornered your heroine. Does she meekly take whatever he dishes out? Does she run? Perhaps she pulls a gun and shoots him? I’ll let you decide which option I would choose.

Checklist for writing romantic suspense:

  • Connect your reader emotionally to your heroine

  • Show her fear, her trepidation - let her be afraid

  • Create a tough and realistic, but sensitive hero

  • Plot must be strong and plausible, not weak and watery

  • Have plenty of twists and turns

  • Use the ‘what if’ scenario and surprise the reader

  • Villains must be believable, convincing, and treacherous

  • Research thoroughly – make your content credible

  • An unlimited and unstifled imagination


About the author: Cheryl Wright is an award-winning Australian author and freelance journalist. In addition to an array of other projects, she is the owner of the Writer2Writer.com website and the Writer to Writer monthly ezine for writers.  Her publications include novels, non-fiction books, short stories, and articles. To keep up to date with her publications and new releases, visit Cheryl’s website www.cheryl-wright.com


         Last updated: August 04, 2008