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Learn to Write Mysteries




Make YOUR Query Letters Sing!



Know Your Audience

Copyright Marilyn Henderson- All Rights Reserved

My education as a mystery writer began with a bang. Unfortunately, the bang was the sound of my mentor shooting holes in the idea I had just presented to him for my first novel.

He did it kindly, but I had worked hard on the idea and was disappointed he didn't like it, but I didn't argue. He was a publishing author who made his living writing original paperback novels. He had offered to help me get started. He had already read a short story I'd written and sent it to a magazine editor he knew, and it became my very first sale.

When I confessed I wanted to write novels, he gave me six paperbacks published by the house he sold to, told me to read them and come up with and idea and storyline. He would work with me to make sure I stayed on track.

A week later, I handed him lesson one.

Now I swallowed my wounded pride and listened as he told me what was wrong and why.

"Your idea is okay, but you haven't developed it into a story for this audience. If you don't give them what they want, they don't buy. The publisher knows what kind of story his readers expects in this subgenre, and he doesn't buy any manuscripts that don't deliver it."

Then my mentor pointed out specific things that were wrong with my idea and plot outline:

First, my protagonist didn't have a provlem to solve, and there was no reason for the reader to care about him. Everything that happened in the first half of the story happened by chance or someone else's design.

The plot hinged on a coincidence that readers wouldn't accept.

There was nothing to hook readers into going beyond the opening scene, no promise of action, adventure or intrigue to lure them on.

He had a few more comments, but I already saw the light. I hadn't developed the idea into one solid enough to sustain a novel, and I hadn't developed it for the action/adventure market audience the book was aimed at.

What I didn't realize at the time was that my mentor had just taught me the most important lesson of success for a novelist: Know the audience you are writing for.

This goes far beyond age group, gender, education and other physical and mental attributes. It means knowing what scares, excites, terrifies and makes that audience buy books and keep turning the pages as they read.

Most of us read a variety of subgenres in mysteries and suspense. Sometimes the lines of subgenres are blurred or deliberately crosse, such as romantic suspense or historical mysteries. Readers of cozys don't expect or want blood and gore in their books, but readers of hardboiled detective novels look forward to a body or two before they get very far into the story.

If you decide to write a mystery or suspense novel, select a subgenre you know and enjoy. Give yourself a little refresher course by reading a stack of novels in that subgenre before you plan your book. Choose some by authors you like and the others by writers new to you. But read them as a writer instead of as a reader. Notice things they have in common, how and where in the story the mystery is introduced and what creates the suspense.

These are the building blocks of a story that will appeal to fans of the subgenre. They will help you write saleability into every page of your book.

Success isn't an accident, it's a plan. Begin planning yours today.

Until next time, happy reading and writing.


Marilyn Henderson, 42-year novelist, coach and mss critic




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