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Rules to Follow When Writing a Mystery by Mackenzie Reed and The Rosewood Hunt Giveaway and IWSG Post

Happy Wednesday Everyone! Today I’m thrilled to have debut author Mackenzie Reed here to share a fantastic guest post about rules to follow when writing a mystery and her YA thriller The Rosewood Hunt. I want to read it just to see how Mackenzie followed these rules in writing this story.

Here’s a blurb from Goodreads:

Lily Rosewood dreams of taking over her family's company one day. Her grandmother, Rosewood Inc's current chair, has always encouraged her, and Lily can't wait for Gram to teach her everything she needs to know to run the business.

But then Gram dies suddenly, and Lily's world is upended. When it's revealed that Gram's quarter of a billion dollar fortune is missing, Lily can't fathom what her future will hold now.

Even in death, Gram has a few tricks up her couture sleeve. A last letter from her with a cryptic clue sends Lily and three other teens on a treasure hunt that could change their lives forever-if they can survive it. And if they pull it off, they may be rewarded with more than just money. But they're not the only ones hunting for Gram's treasure, and soon the hunt becomes more dangerous than they ever could have imagined.

Irresistible intrigue, captivating suspense, a swoony friends-to- rivals-to-lovers romance, and heartbreaking betrayal drive this thrilling debut novel to its explosive end.


Before I get to Mackenzie’s guest post, I have my IWSG post.

Posting: The first Wednesday is officially Insecure Writer's Support Group Day.

Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!

The awesome co-hosts this month are: PJ Colando, Jean Davis, Lisa Buie Collard, and Diedre Knight!

Optional Question: November is National Novel Writing Month. Have you ever participated? If not, why not?

No, I’ve never participated in NaNoWriMo. I was always too busy when I was working full-time and taking care of my late husband and daughter. Even now that I’m only working part-time, I still feel too busy to commit to such a large word count in one month with all the other things I need to do. Plus, I write really slow and think having to produce so many words in a month isn’t realistic for me.

Rules to Follow When Writing a Mystery By Mackenzie Reed

I have this belief that might be slightly controversial. 

It’s that almost every book is at least a little bit of a mystery book. It doesn’t matter what the genre or age audience is, I feel like the thing that propels us to read to the end is a mystery, whether we notice it as that or not. Think about your favorite romance book. There’s always going to be that question of, “Will the main character end up with the love interest?” and you keep reading to find out. And sure, it’s not a mystery in the most classic sense, but it’s still a mystery. You’re waiting to see the end, hoping that things might work out the way you predict. Depending on the genre, maybe they do, maybe they don’t. 

I guess that’s why I’ve always been drawn to mysteries in general. It’s also why I’ve always been a little bit confused about the current genre I write most, which is thriller, because most people who write thrillers will probably agree that mystery and thriller kind of go hand-in-hand. I think what’s most funny for me is when I write, most of the time, the mystery comes last. It’s like I know the thriller aspect and I know what the bones of the mystery should be, but I don’t actually know the mystery. Usually, I need to figure it out as I go. 

But those bones are my guiding light to doing that. They’re like rules to follow to help get your mystery up and running. So let’s talk about them. 

Here are some rules that I find helpful to follow when writing mysteries and maybe you will, too.

Rule #1: Red Herrings (plural) are a Must

A red herring is usually someone who is misleading both the reader and the main character from the actual antagonist. That doesn’t mean they can’t be an antagonist themselves, but they shouldn’t be the main one that has the big grand reveal during the second half of a book. And the more red herrings to distract from the main antagonist, the better. This took me a long time to learn how to weave into my writing because I love someone who is unapologetically a villain. However, I think that pulls over from my fantasy roots, and when writing a mystery, we usually don’t want to know who the antagonist is right off the bat because they’re likely part of the mystery itself, which brings me to rule #2.

Rule #2: Betrayal Is Your Friend

I might be biased, but I think a good betrayal can be a massive turning point in any story, especially mysteries. A gutting twist adds so many layers and so much emotional depth to the story. Also, a lot of times, it can be used to further your main character's journey. As somebody who often struggles with figuring out my main character's arc, throwing in a betrayal by someone close to them is the perfect opportunity to give them some reflection and things to think about, not to mention a crisis. Choosing someone close to the main character that they might not expect is extra gutting and will keep the reader on their toes. To add more depth to a betrayal aside from using it as a plot device or for shock value, I recommend rooting it in a morally gray perspective. What I mean by that: It’s not so much that the betraying character is doing something straight up bad, but it’s bad in the eyes of the main character. Maybe a stranger or an unbiased reader could look at it from the outside and see the reason from both perspectives. This will also create tension between characters, especially when both think their way of thinking is correct. And while we’re on the topic of characters, that brings me to rule number three.

Rule #3: Keep Characters at the Core

Obviously, characters are an important part of any story regardless of audience or genre. However, the thing about mysteries is that a lot of people read them because they like to try and catch the main twists and the ending. As the writer, we simply can’t out-think everyone. There will always be somebody who guesses your red herring for what it is and knows the actual antagonist, or somebody who senses what betrayal is coming or sees that final twist. The worst is when somebody solves the mystery within the first 10 pages. But hey, it happens! No matter how genius you are, you can’t anticipate and manipulate everyone’s thought process.

Which brings me to my second controversial opinion on mysteries: I don’t think the mystery needs to carry the story. Sure, the excitement and plot can and should, but as somebody who loves reading character-centric stories, I also like writing them. When you have characters that your readers are invested in, they’re going to want to keep reading for the characters and they’ll also want to stay to see if they’re right if they have big presumptions upfront. Fleshing out your characters by having strong, emotional arcs and personable traits that maybe don’t excuse their actions, but allow the reader to empathize with them is a big draw. And, in my opinion, I think banter and catchy dialogue goes a long way. When you write gripping characters, people want to stick with them until the end. If you’re looking to write a mystery series, that’s even more incentive to make sure your characters are as ensnaring as possible so readers will want to keep picking up books to stick with them.

Rule #4: Time-stamping Will Save You

I started time-stamping my chapters the very first mystery I wrote, and I didn’t expect it to be something that I stuck with. However, I haven’t written a book since then without it. It’s made a massive difference in my drafting and my revising process, not to mention probably saved me loads of time scrolling my doc searching. Before I even start a story, I like to figure out what calendar year it takes place in. If I’m on contract and I know when it’s getting published, I’ll aim for that year, but if I’m not, I just put it way in the future assuming it’ll hopefully, eventually, get picked up. Then at the beginning of every chapter I write the day, the date, and the time. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know the exact time things happen for everything, so I usually pick a random time, but as you write the book, times fall into place. 

In a mystery, whether you’re working with a super tight timeline –– which I typically am because most of my books only span a couple weeks –– or if you’re working with a longer timeline, I can’t stress enough how helpful it is to timestamp your chapters because it helps you move around and figure out when things happen. You might think you’ll remember and maybe you’re better than me at memorizing things, but when you’re in the throes of drafting, I find it so easy for my brain to turn into scrambled eggs and forget everything but the page I’m currently writing. Not only that, but when you have to go back to look at certain parts for editing or to fact-check yourself, it makes it so much easier to find those parts because you can start narrow it down by what day it might’ve happened which you can see in your *time-stamped chapter outline* (imagine I’m doing jazz hands right now). It’s definitely not something you have to do, but I think it’s helpful, at least in the drafting and revising stages. 

Rule #5: Foreshadowing Is Never Wasted

I’m sure this one is the most obvious, but I saved it for the end because you truly can’t discount how big of an impact good foreshadowing has on a mystery. Mysteries are usually built on clues but one of my favorite things is putting teeny clues or little mentions in the plot earlier that the main character doesn’t pick up on, but hopefully the reader might. When the big reveal happens, the reader can look back on all the things they picked up on or missed earlier in the story. It also adds a really great level of interest to the book for anybody who wants to reread it because then they might realize things that they hadn’t captured the first time. 

I personally think foreshadowing can also coincide with recurring imagery, which I am a huge fan of in mysteries. Not only is it fun, but when your book gets published, it can be really cool to see how that’s brought to life on the cover or is used for branding purposes. That’s my marketing girly brain talking and I’ll shut her up now, but just wanted to put it out there.

Rule #6: Treat the Setting Like a Character

I think mysteries thrive when the setting is ultra-specific or feels like a character in and of itself. There’s a reason that Knives Out is so well-known to take place in a mansion, or on the opposite side, why Glass Onion takes place in a glass mansion. Agatha Christie used settings on a whole other level in her mysteries, like Death on the Nile or Murder on the Orient Express, both of which take place in a compact environment which adds its own level of intrigue to the story. 

In THE ROSEWOOD HUNT, when I was building Rosetown, the fictional Massachusetts town in which the story takes place, I knew I wanted a coastal town in New England that really captures the essence of a place that suspends disbelief just a bit. The main family is rich and throws parties all summer long with a Gatsby-edge and I really wanted it to be a sparkling place with a slightly suspect underbelly. When you’re writing a mystery, I recommend taking some time to really flesh out the place where your story is set. Even if it’s a real location, making it palatable and vivid to the reader is going to help them get transported into that world so they can solve the mystery with your main character.

While none of these rules are steadfast by any means, they certainly help get me on the right track, and I hope that if you’re writing your first mystery or your second or third or fourth, they might help you, too. The most important thing to remember is that no two books are alike, and the same can be said for mysteries. I’m still realizing every single book’s process is different, but by knowing these six rules, it gives me a solid place to start. Good luck, happy writing, and I can’t wait to pull your mystery off-the-shelf one day.

If you want to stay in touch (please do!), find me on Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and Threads. To order a copy of my debut YA thriller THE ROSEWOOD HUNT, go here. Thank you!

Giveaway Details

Mackenzie’s publisher, HarperTeen, is generously offering a hardback of The Rosewood Hunt for a giveaway. To enter, all you need to do is be a follower of my blog (via the follower gadget, email, or bloglovin’ on the right sidebar) and leave a comment by November 11th. If your email is not on your Google Profile, you must leave it in the comments to enter the contest. Please be sure I have your email address.

If you mention this contest on Twitter, Facebook, or your blog and/or follow me on Twitter or Mackenzie on her social media sites, mention this in the comments and I'll give you an extra entry for each. You must be 13 years old or older to enter. This book giveaway is international.

Upcoming Interviews, Guest Posts, and Blog Hops

Monday, November 6th I have an agent spotlight interview with Morgan Hughes and a query critique giveaway

Thursday, November 9th I’m participating in the Super Stocking Stuffer Giveaway Hop

Monday, November 13th I have an interview with debut author DaVaun Sanders and a giveaway of his MG fantasy Keynan Masters and the Peerless Magic Crew

Thursday, November 16th I’m participating in the In All Things Give Thanks Giveaway Hop

Monday, November 20th I have an interview with author Natalie Richards and a giveaway of her MG thriller 13 Secrets to Survival

Friday, December 1st I’m participating in the Holly Jolly Giveaway Hop

Wednesday, December 6th I have a guest post by debut author Dana VanderLugt and a giveaway of her MG historical Enemies in the Orchard

Thursday, December 7th I’m participating in the Let It Snow Giveaway Hop

Monday, December 11th I have an agent spotlight interview with Ashley Reisinger and a query critique giveaway

Hope to see you on Monday!






Liza said...

Happy IWSG Day, Natalie. Mackenzie, lots of food for good thought here. Thank you!

Karen Baldwin said...

Love the "rules" that I think can incorporated in many genres. And I don't participate in NaNo anymore for the same reasons as yours.

Jennifer Lane said...

I also write slowly, Natalie! Congratulations to Mackenzie, and I agree about mystery being part of every story--well said.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Characters are always important.
NaNo doesn't work for everyone and that's all right.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Excellent points about writing mysteries! I agree that most books *should* include mysterious elements, to improve pacing in non-mysteries.

Computer Tutor said...

I wonder how many writers are like you, Natalie, and feel they write too slowly. It would be interesting to poll.

Jemi Fraser said...

I adore NaNo but it's definitely not for everyone!

These are great tips for mystery writers!

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

NaNo has Camp versions in the spring and summer where you set your own goals, like your own word count, etc. I wish I had remembered it myself back then! :)

emaginette said...

It does seem easy enough in the beginning but it quickly turns into a slog. Anyone that wins NaNo deserves the high praise indeed. :-)

Elizabeth Seckman said...

Excellent tips. I agree 100% that every story is a mystery. I will add that every good story also has an element of a love story too. Now, that's even more controversial a statement. :D

Brenda said...

Solid suggestions and tips for writing a mystery. Congratulations to Mackenzie, your books sounds wonderful! I've never participated in NaNo, while it sounds intriguing, I can't commit to writing that much either.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I agree with those rules. And if a book doesn't have some kind of mystery in the story, why keep reading to the end? Good luck to McKenzie.

Liz A. said...

I'm not a mystery writer, but I agree, every novel has somewhat of a mystery contained in it. I'm not a NaNoer either, and for similar reasons.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Not a mystery writer either but those are great tips.

I'm always too busy in November, too.

Sonia Dogra said...

Some great tips. Thank you for sharing. I can think of at least three mystery writers from my circle who will be happy to read this. Sharing with them.

Mary said...

THE ROSEWOOD HUNT sounds terrific! I'd love to win a copy!

Olga Godim said...

@Natalie: I've never participated in NaNoWriMo either. I write slowly and don't feel the need to rush myself.
@Mackenzie: Neat rules. I think they work for any genre.

Loni Townsend said...

Yeah, NaNoWriMo doesn't work for everyone. I think next time I go to participate, I'm going to go in with a solid outline and writing plan. But that isn't going to be for a long while.

cleemckenzie said...

We're together on the NaNo front. I think we should start a No NaNo movement. :-). McKenzie's spot on when she says keep those characters at the center of any book you write. They're what will give your story the heartbeat.

Great post as always.

Valinora Troy said...

Thank you for the guest post, I really enjoyed reading it, and the tips are excellent (makes me want to write a mystery now!)

Rebecca M. Douglass said...

As I writer of mysteries, I like those "rules," and use most of them. I also figured out about the date-stamp for chapters. Mine are broad: "tuesday morning" sort of thing, and I don't use actual dates. That gets stripped out in the final edits, once I've got everything straight.

My first mystery lacked the red herrings in the first draft, and boy was it hard going back and putting them in during revisions! Much better to plan on them from the start :)

Sandra Cox said...

Lots of good advice here. I particularly liked treating your setting like a character. Thanks for sharing. Wishing you much success on what sounds like a great read.
'Lo, Natalie.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Yeah, writing slow can be a killer. HOWEVER, if you're not worried about making it perfect, you might write faster?

Tonja Drecker said...

This one sounds so interesting! I'm putting it into my sights. As to writing - slow and steady wins the race...so I believe.

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

The Rosewood Hunt sounds like such a great read, and I love the cover. Very bold.

Yeah, NaNo is for everyone. As much as I love it, I simply can't participate every year. Life gets busy!

traveler said...

The Rosewood Hunt sounds compelling and intriguing. Wonderful post with great tips. saubleb(at)gmail(dot)com

Denise Covey said...

Hi Natalie. I returned to Pop-ups and am having a good response. Soon Google will probably catch us out and not let us use even that.

I'm with you on NaNo.
A very interesting interview. I enjoyed reading about mysteries. Yes, we all need at least a little mystery in our stories.

Deniz Bevan said...

Ooh, this book sounds intriguing! And those are some great tips, especially timestamping!

Mary Preston said...

A great post.

Email subscriber


Melissa Miles said...

This story looks amazing! I can't wait to read it. Thank you for the rules. I'm working on a mystery now and will definitely bookmark this interview.

Diane Burton said...

I'm amazed at how many IWSG'ers don't do NaNo. Can't force us to write like that.

Angie Quantrell said...

Great tips! I like your organization system as well with the time stamping! Thanks, and congratulations!

angelecolline at yahoo dot com

Kim A. Larson said...

Congratulations, Mackenzie! Thanks for sharing those helpful tips/tricks. Love the one about time stamping!

Anonymous said...

I loved this and all the tips! My YA has a bit of a mystery, and I will use some of these!

I also shared on X.

Kate Larkindale said...

Great tips for mystery writing. I could have used those a couple of years back!

Claire Annette said...

I've never written a mystery bu they are my favorite books to read. I love the insights Mackenzie shares - especially the role of setting as a character which is advice that can apply many genres. The Rosewood Hunt sounds fascinating and is now on my "to read" list.

I write picture books so I don't use word count as a marker for NaNoWrMo. I'm using time with the goal of having a draft, revisions, and a picture book submission ready by the end of the month. Tis means that I am committing to working on my book every morning during November.

diedre Knight said...

Hi Natalie!

While I admire anyone who participates in NaNo, let alone WINS, I just can't commit to the stress level - ha! I write short stories because that's where I'm comfortable. I did once participate in Memoir Writing Month (which also occurs in November) and seemed to do alright.
The Rosewood Hunt sounds fantastic!
Happy November!

Danielle H. said...

Blogger had issues, so trying again...I love reading mysteries, especially character driven ones so I care about why this mystery needs to be solved. I follow both the author and Natalie on Instagram, Natalie on Twitter, and shared this on tumblr.

Samantha Bryant said...

It's good to know yourself and what works for you. NaNoWriMo is definitely faster than my usual pace, too. @samanthabwriter from
Balancing Act

Victoria Marie Lees said...

No, Natalie, I don't participate in NaNo either. I, too, am a slow writer.

Bravo Mackenzie on your new release. Great tips on creating mysteries. I believe all stories are character driven. Readers need to connect to our characters. We need someone to care about.

I'd love to win a copy. I follow your blog, Natalie, and I've connected with Mackenzie and you where I can. Thank you for this opportunity. vmleeswriter at gmail dot com

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

Great tips!
I haven't done NaNo in a while -- too much pressure!

Ronel visiting for IWSG day Done and Dusted. An Author’s Year in Review 2023

Megan said...

Thanks so much for the fab giveaway Natalie! I'm so excited for this book!
Bloglovin': ChickensGal
Tweet: https://twitter.com/WordsThatStay1/status/1720568267889107403
Email: megan(dot)clarsach(at)gmail.com
I also follow you both on social media :)

Carol Baldwin said...

I AGREE-- all books are mysteries to some extent. Lots of other goodies in this blog. Thanks for sharing.

tetewa said...

Congrats on the release, love discovering new authors! I would love to get a copy! tWarner419@aol.com

Leela said...

I'm an email subscriber.

Rosi said...

This is a really useful post. I've never written a mystery, but I have long wanted to try my hand at it. The book sounds terrific, but I'll pass on the giveaway. I am buried in books right now. Thanks for a great post.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing that with us. It was something that I will use in the future when writing myself.

Darla Kidder said...

I'm a reader not a writer , but I love reading mysteries and thrillers .

Betty Curran said...

I agree that every good story has an element of mystery. I follow with BlogLovin and I'm an email subscriber.