Mystery Mondays: Author Carolyn Mulford on 10 Common Mistakes

Today on Mystery Mondays I have the pleasure of hosting Carolyn Mulford. Carolyn writes mysteries and historical novels and has some sage advice on making your first draft better. At the end of this post, you’ll find a giveaway…

Beware 10 Common Mistakes by Carolyn Mulford

Working as a magazine editor, I observed that most of my well-educated contributors made the same types of mistakes in content, structure, and syntax. Then I started my transition from writing short nonfiction to writing novels. By the time my first mystery, Show Me the Murder, came out, experience in rewriting my own novels and in critiquing other writers’ work convinced me that most mystery writers also err in the same ways.

I share 10 errors common in first drafts—and sometimes the second and third. Even a newbie won’t go wrong on all of them, but even a veteran must guard against one or two.

The types of errors differ in the manuscript’s three major sections: the opening (two to four chapters), the middle (twenty to thirty chapters), and the ending (three to five  chapters).

The opening chapters

You have to grab readers fast, preferably on the first page, and keep a firm grip on them through the opening chapters. These set the tone and establish your voice for the entire book. Watch out for these problems.

  1. A lengthy backstory

Reveal only absolute essentials about your protagonist in the first chapter. Details delay the story. Later drop in the necessary backstory in phrases or sentences.

  1. Long descriptions of the setting

Select only telling details that put the reader in the time and place and establish the mood.

  1. A prologue revealing a dramatic point late in the book

Often writers use this kind of prologue, or a flashback, because the beginning lacks excitement. Consider making the prologue part of chapter one or starting the story closer to the murder.

  1. Multiple characters

How many names do you remember after a cocktail party? Readers can’t remember more than that. Introduce your protagonist immediately as readers identify with those they meet first.

 The middle chapters

We agonize over the crucial opening and lose steam in the much longer middle, the heart of the investigation and of character development. Worry about readers putting the book down at the end of a chapter. Each chapter must motivate them to read on, so avoid the following.

  1. A lack of action

Something must happen in every chapter. Check that by writing chapter headlines. Be sure you have a plot point and conflict—in solving the crime, in reaching the protagonist’s goals, in personal and professional interactions.

  1. Clues or characterizations that reveal too much

Drop in little clues here and there rather than big ones bunched together. Present three or four viable suspects and speculate on at least two motives. Draw suspects in gray rather than black and white.

  1.   Indistinguishable characters

Give each named character a memorable characteristic—appearance, mannerism, speech pattern, etc. For me, one of the great challenges and delights is portraying each character through distinctive dialogue, which involves vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and rhythm.

 The final chapters

Readers will condemn the whole book if the ending doesn’t satisfy them. They feel cheated if the solution shocks rather than surprises or characters act out of character. Readers’ frustration often comes from the following mistakes.

  1.   The first indication of the villain and the motive

From the beginning on, insert the character traits and the facts—at minimum the classic motive, means, and opportunity—needed to solve the crime. The last piece of the puzzle, or an interpretation of it, comes near the end, but clues and red herrings pop up all the way through.

  1.   Illogical, coincidental, or incredible solutions

You want readers to say, “Oh, of course. Now I get it.” Mystery readers require the writer to play fair in telling them what they need to know to solve the crime. They also expect justice.

  1. Villain reveals all

If the bad guy has to explain why and how, you need to go back and insert clues. Remember to wrap up all the loose ends, starting with the subplots. If you’re writing a series, readers accept an obvious loose end (often involving a relationship) that propels them into your next book.

Writing a mystery gives us countless opportunities to lose our readers, an intelligent and demanding group. Writing and rewriting with these 10 common mistakes in mind may help retain their attention.

One other thing that years of writing both nonfiction and fiction has taught me: If I become bored or restless in either writing or reading my own work, it’s time to rewrite.

Mulford18csmallWho Is Carolyn Mulford?

Carolyn Mulford worked on five continents as a nonfiction writer/editor before turning to fiction. Her award-winning Show Me series features Phoenix Smith, a former CIA covert operative who returns to rural Missouri and adapts her tradecraft to solve crimes with old friends and a K-9 dropout.

You can read the first chapters of her five mysteries and two YA historicals on her website:


Show Me the Sinister Snowman:

perf6.000x9.000.inddNorth Missouri has seldom been snowier and the mysteries more perplexing than in Show Me the Sinister Snowman, the fifth novel in Carolyn Mulford’s Show Me detective series.

Was the ailing congressman’s death an accident, suicide, or perhaps even murder?  And if it was murder, could it be that he was the wrong victim and the murderer might be poised to strike again?  The questions and perils build up, but retired CIA operative Phoenix Smith—with help from her faithful canine assistant, Achilles—is on the case.  We watch as the action zeroes in on a snow-bound estate to provide a new twist on the classic country house mystery.


More on Carolyn:

Go to Goodreads by April 2 to enter a giveaway of Show Me the Sinister Snowman. The giveaway begins March 24th, so be sure to check out Carolyn’s Goodreads page.

Cave Hollow Press, March 31, 2017, $14.95 (trade paperback) and $3.99 (e-book), 290 pp.; ISBN: 978-0-9713497-9-7.

((Five Star published the first four in the series: Show Me the Murder, Show Me the Deadly Deer, Show Me the Gold, Show Me the Ashes.))