Thursday, January 28, 2010

Why I Write Mysteries - Penny Warner

Editor's Note: Welcome today to a wonderful Thursday edition of 'Why I Write Mysteries'. This installment features Penny Warner, author of the fun mystery 'How To Host a Killer Party' (Signet - February 2010 - Available Now!) This prolific author walks the walk and talks the talk, having written numerous non-fiction party handbooks. Enjoy, all!!


By Penny Warner

I didn’t plan to be a writer when I grew up. When I was a kid, I placed writers on pedestals—“writers” like Carolyn Keene, “author” of the Nancy Drew series. Larger than life, they seemed as fictional as their characters. Turns out some of them were—like Carolyn Keene. But not my other favorites like E.B. White, A.A. Milne, L. Frank Baum. With authors like that, I found it hard to believe that an ordinary person like me could become a writer.

Then, when I was in sixth grade, I got mono and missed two months of school. That’s when my mother handed me a copy of my first Nancy Drew mystery—“Secret in the Old Clock.” It wasn’t long before I became obsessed with the girl sleuth. I started wearing a trench coat, made my own sleuth kit, and wrote my first mystery, “The Mystery of Mr. X.” While Nancy Drew was fiction, she inspired me to follow my passion—and that passion turned out to be writing mysteries.

I’ve had 50-plus books published over the years, including eight mysteries and THE OFFICIAL NANCY DREW HANDBOOK. Now the first book in my new mystery series, HOW TO HOST A KILLER PARTY will debut on February 2—and I owe it all to Nancy Drew. I’ve come to realize that everything I know about writing, I learned from reading Nancy Drew mysteries. I thought I’d share some of Drew’s clues to writing that worked for me.

1. Create unforgettable characters: “You know Nancy.” All agreed she possessed an appealing quality, which people never forgot. ~ Clue in the Diary

All stories are based on interesting characters—there are no exceptions. Introduce us to your character a little at a time, using action and dialogue (showing), rather than a thumbnail sketch (telling). Create realistic characters without using stereotypical traits, and include some surprises about the character that are believable. Finally, give the characters conflict—happy characters make dull characters.

2. Use dialogue: Suddenly the young sleuth snapped her fingers. “I know what I’ll do! I’ll set a trap for that ghost!” ~ The Hidden Staircase

Dialogue makes a story come alive. It also helps move the story along, increases pace and creates drama. Listen to real conversations for realism, then edit and tighten them to make the dialogue readable. Keep attribution simple—use action or “said,” rather than adverbs and euphemisms for “said.” Finally, read your dialogue aloud.

3. Set the scene: Many Colonial houses had secret passageways. “Do you know any entrances a thief could use?” ~The Hidden Staircase

A vivid setting pulls the reader into the story. It also intensifies suspense and becomes a character in itself. Show the setting through the character’s eyes and include all five senses, telling details, and occasional metaphors.

4. Add mood and atmosphere: Nancy had heard music, thumps and creaking noises at night, and had seen eerie, shadows on walls. ~ The Hidden Staircase

Give a sense of foreboding through description. Mood and atmosphere give the story depth and stimulate the emotions of the readers. Use foreshadowing to give the reader a feeling of unease.

5. Outline your plot: Ellen was alarmed. “We must do something to stop him!” “I have a little plan,” Nancy said. ~ Quest of the Missing Map

Before you begin writing, outline your plot so you know, generally, where the story is headed. You can keep it simple and just jot down the major plot points of the story—where the story takes a surprising turn and how it ratchets up the suspense. Or you can write a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline, with the option of veering off if the story requires an alteration.

6. Start the clock ticking: “Hurry, girls, or we’ll miss the train to River Heights!” Nancy knew being on time was important. ~ Secret of Red Gate Farm

Begin with the inciting incident, which starts the clock ticking. Include not only the situation, but where it takes place, and who’s involved. This is where you ask the story questions: What if….? Think about your goal as start the story and where it will lead.

7. Create conflict: Nancy struggled to get away. She twisted, kicked and clawed. “Let me go!” Nancy cried. ~ Secret of the Old Clock

There is no story without conflict. The protagonist must come up against an antagonist, which can be a person, an idea, a corporation, or some kind of evil. Conflict helps reveal the protagonist’s needs, values, and fears, and causes her to confront her demons, challenge herself, and become a hero of sorts.

8. Pack it with action: “How do we get in?” “Over the top, commando style,” George urged. “Lucky we wore jeans.” ~ Clue in the Crumbling Wall

Today’s reader wants action, so give your protagonist opportunities to do something physical. Give her a choice between fight or flight, and when she fights—make her strong but still vulnerable.

9. Spark reader’s emotions: Nancy was too frightened to think logically. She beat on the door, but the panels would not give way. ~ Secret of the Old Clock

Crank up the reader’s involvement but increasing the character’s emotional risk. This way the reader will care about the story. If she can relate to the protagonist’s emotional jeopardy, she’ll be hooked on finding out what happens.

10. Raise the stakes: In a desperate attempt to break down the door Nancy threw her weight against it again and again. ~ Secret of the Old Clock

The story begins with a challenge for the protagonist. But that’s not enough. As the story moves along, something worse must happen. And just when you think it’s safe to go back into the water, things become even worse. Keep raising the stakes to keep those pages turning.

11. Make the situation hopeless: “We’re locked in!” Nancy exclaimed, and began banging on the door with her fist. ~ Nancy’s Mysterious Letter

When all seems lost and the protagonist is about to give up because she’s running out of time and is under extreme pressure, she must find the courage to go on, make another decisions, and get herself out of this devastating trouble.

12. Give the protagonist strength: “Girls don’t faint these days,” George scoffed. ~ Secret of Red Gate Farm

As the protagonist comes face to face with the antagonist, she must pull out all her reserves and use her own skills to change the situation. This heroic attempt must also create growth and change in the protagonist.

13. Don’t give up: Nancy tried to open the door. It was locked. Not easily discouraged, she tried a window; it was unlocked. ~The Hidden Staircase

I really believe the reason I’ve had over 50 books published is simply because—like Nancy Drew—I followed my passion and never gave up!

Penny Warner is the author of THE OFFICIAL NANCY DREW HANDBOOK, and the upcoming mystery series, HOW TO HOST A KILLER PARTY, from Penguin. She can be reached at


  1. Hi Donna,
    Thanks for letting me share space on your blog.
    It's wonderful! My daughter went into labor this morning so I'll be checking it from time to time!

  2. Ooooh!! Congratulations, Penny! I wish you all the best!

  3. What an interesting post; concise and informative. I'll apply these rules when I'm writing both my novel and my mystery games.

  4. Great, informative post. I loved Nancy Drew too when I was younger and I think "Secret in the Old Clock" was one of the first ND mysteries I read.

    Thanks for introducing a new author to me, Donna, and best wishes on the birth of your grandchild, Penny!

  5. Hi Elspeth,
    Thanks for the kind words.
    Hope they help. Nancy was my role model
    in more ways than one.

  6. Hi Lori,
    She's about 3 cm at this point!
    Getting very exciting.
    I wonder what Nancy Drew would do...

  7. Penny - great post! I also loved the Nancy Drew mysteries, but I'd never seen how clearly they embodied the essentials of a good adult mystery, too. Thanks for that, and much success with your new series.

  8. Hi Glenys,
    Thanks for the kind words.
    Nancy was pretty amazing.
    Check out my book, THE OFFICIAL NANCY DREW
    HANDBOOK, and you'll find all kinds of tips
    I learned...such as how to write SOS with lipstick when your hands are tied behind your back and you're locked in an attic.....

  9. Wonderful post. Great book cover too. Looking forward to this series. Hope all is well with your daughter and new grandchild.