I write “by the seat of my pants.” If I outline, which I dislike doing in the first place, I lose interest in writing the story–it’s like reading a book for the second time immediately after you just read it for the first time.


But I’ve found out after writing several novels, that there are some tricks that can help me with both character AND plot.

So, what I do now is think of several characters and start writing. After one or two chapters, I probably know what they do for a living, what they look like and some tiny bit about their personalities.

But I need more. I need to know their secrets. The sooner I know their secrets, the more I can ratchet up the conflict and tension for them. Because of course, they don’t want anyone else to know their secrets, so they’ll often do things than are unreasonable to keep them.


Each character also needs to be motivated by something. And then I have the fun of putting obstacles in her way to creative tension and conflict here, too.

So, two important ways to help yourself have interesting characters your readers will care about is to give each one (even many of the minor characters) a secret or two, and something they want badly.  If could be that what they want badly is to hide their secret.

It’s up to you when to divulge the secrets. Often it’s best to wait awhile to do that, but other times it’s good for the reader to know almost right away because it explains why the character acts as she does. And it’s always delicious, isn’t it, to be in on other people’s secrets?


Some very basic ideas to help you plot a mystery.


  1. Every character has at least one secret, although the reader may never learn about it if it doesn’t add to the plot as you go. Set these secrets up before you begin, or, if you’re a non-plotter, you should come up with these secrets as the character appears and before you’ve written much about him or her.
  2. Most every character is reluctant to talk to the detective for a good reason.
  3. Every character tells at least one lie when talking to the detective.hercule_poirot by Almeidah - A stylized composition of the famous character from the books of Agatha Christie, the detective Hercule Poirot
  4. The detective suspects everyone he talks to, finds out if person had motive, opportunity and means. In one out of two interviews or more, he finds a clue and/or red herring–may not know it’s a clue when he notices it. Scatter them around. Use senses–see, hear, smell, taste, touch.
  5. Most every character the detective talks to has a reasonable motive for murdering the victim.
  6. Most every character had the opportunity to murder the victim.
  7. Most every character had the means to murder the victim.
  8. Several characters implicate another character, either overtly or subvertly. They give possible motive, opportunity, and/or means for other characters.


  1. When the detective asks in interviews about opportunity and means, she upsets suspect.
  2. When the  detective finds an interviewee in a compromising position.
  3. When bad guy begins to stalk detective.
  4. When police become annoyed at detective for interfering.


  1. At least one unique location.
  2. One character at least with a unique/interesting occupation or hobby.
  3. One character who is quirky or funny or eccentric.

All the above is a start. But I believe if you use most or all of these ideas, your story will be richer and better for it.


Re: plotting a mystery. I don’t plot ahead or outline.  I rarely know who done it until I’m at least two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through the manuscript.  But I do have a plan.

By the time I need to know who done it, every character has a secret or two to hide, everyone, just about, has a motive, and most of them the opportunity, and some of them the ability (strength, or marksmanship, and so on) to commit the crime.  And there are a few clues that could point to any of them.  Those clues that don’t finally point to the killer are the red herrings.

Easier than going back and putting stuff in.  It should almost all be right there.  Then you can pick the suspect you believe it will be hardest for the reader to guess.

Piece of cake.  Right?  Well, maybe not, but it’s a start.

Pink cake by Anonymous - Pink cake by Gabrielle Nowicki. From old OCAL site.

However, if you’ve already finished the book and discover you didn’t hide the villain well enough, I suggest going back and taking three or four other characters, give them each a motive and a clue or two that leads to them, and have your protag eliminate them one by one. Then go through the manuscript on screen, search for each character’s name, and read through each scene he or she is in to be sure it all holds together.

Then have another piece of cake.