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An Author's Perspective:

Write Your Mystery in Eight Easy Steps, by Lily Gardner

© 2016 - All Rights Reserved

Latest Title: Betting Blind

Publisher: Diversion Books

Release Date: March 29, 2016

Start with a What If

My inspiration in Betting Blind was a story on the radio about a therapist who fell in love with a robot on a computer dating site. Their “affair” lasted for months before he realized that the woman he’d fallen in love with was a computer program from Chechnya. Was there a story in the news that corralled your interest? A man in his nineties who won’t let go of his control on a vast business? A cop whose wife files a restraining order on him that threatens to derail his career?


I’ve always been a fan of noir movies, both old and neo-noir. And I love reading Nordic noir. Lucky for me I live in Portland, Oregon. It’s not so much that it rains all the time, but we can go for over 30 days without ever seeing the sun. The darkness creates a subtle oppression that my characters move through or fall into depression or substance abuse.


Male or female? Policewoman, private eye or amateur sleuth? What is her back story? I deliberately made my detective, Lennox Cooper, very different from myself. If you’re a typical writer, you’ll play hell trying to make a detective out of your own personality. That is unless you’re the tough, reckless type who never backs down from conflict. If that’s your deal, chances are you’re probably not sitting at a desk writing books.

Where is that hole in your detective’s heart that drives her into danger to solve the murder? Is she bipolar like Carrie Mathison in Homeland? Or physically disabled like the one-legged Cormoran Strike in the Robert Galbraith mysteries? Whether your detective is a series character or a stand-alone character, she needs some skin in the game. In A Bitch Called Hope, Lennox needed to solve the murder proving her investigative chops to the police community and regaining her self-respect. In Betting Blind, Lennox’s friend and poker partner is disgraced and indicted for murder. Lennox needs to prove his innocence and save his shredded reputation.


My murder victim in Betting Blind is a woman who preys on computer dating sites. Naturally, she’s going to have enemies. But she also needs people who loved her, who care deeply that she’s been murdered. By writing about who loves the victim, the murder victim becomes human and not just a prop in a story.

The Murderer and Other Suspects

How did the murderer kill his victim and why? Assemble a cast of characters so that each suspect has a workable means, motive and enough word count to be a credible murderer. I have to admit that I changed my murderer in both Betting Blind and A Bitch Called Hope after I’d completed the manuscripts. It’s my devout hope that I’ll be able to successfully hide my intended murderer in All In, the third book in the series.

I try to orchestrate my characters so that each is distinct. And I work on making their motives as different as their personalities.

I have a great trick for building distinct characters. I free write from prompts. The prompts are slips of paper like in a fortune cookie without the cookie. The prompt can be a word, like “yellow” or a phrase like “dirty rotten bastard.” I pull a prompt from a jar and time the writing for ten minutes. How does pulling a prompt create characters, you ask? Say the prompt is “yellow.” Hobby Glover, a character from Betting Blind, wears yellow socks. When he sits down his pants leg rides up. Brown pants and yellow socks—it’s too ugly. The kids at the high school where he’s vice principal laugh at him. Glover’s form of anger management involves a virtual reality game. I’ll leave it there…

I keep free writing until the characters emerge in my imagination. By their very natures they suggest plot and sub-plot.

On to the Plotline

I have the murder and I’ve tasked my detective with solving it. What secrets does she uncover? Do the suspects know each other, do they blame each other? What is Lennox doing when she’s not solving the crime? Does she fall in love? Lose all her money playing poker? Eventually she confronts the murderer in the climax. And solves the murder. Justice is served. Ta da!

Sorry. Unless you’re a totally different writer from me, you’re not going to make it through a plotline with one strategy.

This is what I did: I began writing Betting Blind by telling myself the story in quite a bit of detail: Location, snatches of dialogue, whatever came to mind. Each scene became a chapter. That worked great for the first 15 chapters, but then I grew slower and slower until I felt like I was marching knee deep in mud. The upside was by this time the story was real for me, and most of the characters had come to life.

Build a Bridge

Bridges are constructed by building from both ends. I used that to finish the outline. I knew several events that happened in the last quarter of the book, so I wrote each event on an index card in a couple of sentences per card. Then I gave the first 15 chapters each an index card. I lined them out on my dining room table and what needed to happen materialized. It also showed me where certain characters needed more play in the story and suggested plot twists that I wouldn’t have been able to conjure if I would’ve outlined from beginning to end.

This whole process is fluid. There are over a dozen versions of my outline for Betting Blind, but plotting the book saved me a ton of work. If you don’t like throwing away whole chapters of your mystery, or ending up with a story with no narrative tension, then begin with a plot outline.


This is the easiest part for me. Which is a good thing because there’s a whole lot of it. I belong to two critique groups, one that meets weekly and one monthly. Then there’s a critique class with my teacher, Jim Frey, twice a year. When I’ve done all I can, the manuscript goes to Liz Kracht, my agent, eventually ending up with Randall Kline from Diversion Books for his edit.

There. Wasn’t that easy?

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