Shortwave Magazine

NonFiction / Writing

How to Write a Mystery Series

an essay
by Nicole Dieker

January 23, 2023
1,424 Words

Last spring, Alan Lastufka offered me a contract to write the Larkin Day Mystery Series in collaboration with Shortwave Publishing.

We agreed to release two books a year.

I outlined the first five titles.

Then I started writing.

I’ve written novels before. I’ve even written sequels. But this is my first time writing a series. My first time writing a collection of novels, with a cast of compelling and recurring characters, that can either stand alone or be read in sequence.

(They could even be read out of sequence, which means that I have to be very careful to ensure that no subsequent mystery spoils the solution to a previous one.)

When you write, revise, and publish two books a year, you have to work quickly.

You also have to learn quickly.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

My characters will change—and that’s a good thing.

Like, Subscribe, and Murder is the second Larkin Day Mystery—and although I had the opportunity to keep the characters exactly as they were in the first Larkin Day Mystery, in terms of their quirks and foibles and various approaches to decision-making, I decided to let them evolve.

Larkin is smarter in this book than she was in her debut. She’s no longer fighting the circumstances that landed her in small-town Iowa, and she’s actively trying to become a better detective. This is what you’d expect for a second book in a series that focused on a Millennial-aged amateur sleuth: standard character development, with a payoff that has delighted every single one of my advance readers.

But I also let the supporting characters evolve, which is a little less standard. In many of these kinds of series, the tightly wound best friend never loosens up. The supportive boyfriend never stops playing the role of a handsome lamp, always ready to reflect on how well the amateur sleuth is doing. The mother is always halfway through the same repetitive activity that got written around her in the first chapters of Book One.

I decided, in the first chapters of Book Two, that I would not allow my cast to get caught up in cliches and catch phrases—which means that I was also smarter with this book than I was with my debut.

I’m allowed to drop the elements that don’t work—even if it means allowing a dog to die.

When I began drafting Ode to Murder, the first Larkin Day Mystery, I gave each of the supporting characters a unique, repeating attribute. Anni says shiitake mushrooms instead of shit, for example. Ed makes puns. Larkin and her mother twitch their noses at each other, Bewitched-style, when they want to say “I love you.”

These applications turned out to be functionally useless. They sat on top of each character like a hat, and as I began drafting Like, Subscribe, and Murder I kept slamming those hats back down on each of their respective heads (making sure that noses were twitched, and puns were intended) and by the time I got to the middle of my draft I was already thinking about how to let them go.

Including the dog, by the way—a golden retriever named Pal who was written into the first book as a shortcut to character development. The trouble is that dogs in books are a lot like dogs in real life; you have to feed them and walk with them and play with them, otherwise you get to the end of a chapter and realize that your main characters have gone an entire day without interacting with their beloved Pal.

When I went over the first draft of Like, Subscribe, and Murder with Larry (the gentleman of the house, the great love of my life) he said, “You are going to kill off that dog, aren’t you?” and I said, “Of course I’m killing the dog, I’ve already gone back through the draft and added the words aging or elderly every time that damned golden retriever appears.”

My first readers are my greatest assets—especially when I incorporate their suggestions.

I am lucky to have four first readers whom I trust completely. I am even luckier in that each of my readers takes a slightly different approach to the manuscript:

  • Larry listens carefully as I read the latest chapters aloud, and I watch him carefully to learn what lands and what falls short.
  • Alan Lastufka, founder of Shortwave Publishing and author of the award-winning Face the Night, provides the marketability perspective and helps me shape the draft into a Shortwave product.
  • My father, who got me started on Christie and Conan Doyle when I was a young child, comments on the mystery plot.
  • My mother goes through the book with a red pen, noting comma and continuity issues.

I incorporate nearly everything my readers suggest, with one (partial) exception. Sometimes one of my readers will say, “I don’t think people will understand this,” even though they understood it perfectly well. I appreciate that my first readers are looking out for my second readers, but that stuff stays stet.

Other times, they’ll say, “I don’t think people will understand this” as a substitute for “I didn’t understand this.” Those are the parts of the draft that get fixed first.

My mystery novels work best when they address the mystery of life.

When you read a Larkin Day Mystery, you’re going to get exactly what you’re hoping for in a comedy cozy set in Eastern Iowa’s Creative Corridor. A lot of good jokes and a few bad ones. Subtle clues and bright red herrings. Unexpected storms that leave amateur detectives stranded.

You’ll also get—well, in Like, Subscribe, and Murder you’ll get fitness influencer culture, computer programmer humor, a subplot about a former magician, and an extended riff on Dungeons and Dragons.

More importantly, you’ll get the second installment in my investigation of the real mystery.

The one that each of us has to solve on our own.

The whodunit is the MacGuffin. (It always is.) What I’m really doing is writing a multi-volume narrative on the process of becoming an adult. Both my readers and my reviewers have picked up on this—IndieReader called it “a great read for anyone who, like Larkin, is searching for a new story that can reach them in surprising, unexpected ways,” and BookLife noted the “surprisingly profound finale”—and I’m hoping it’ll become the biggest reason people pick up the series. 

My writing will change—and that’s a good thing.

Right now, I’m 17,000 words into the third Larkin Day Mystery, Shakespeare in the Park with Murder. I’ll turn in my 60,000-word final draft on April 1, 2023—and yes, I know you want me to write a Shortwave Magazine article on how I write so many words in such a short amount of time; consider it forthcoming—and then I’ll turn my attention to the fourth Larkin Day Mystery, Murder on the Nerd Cruise.

I can’t tell you much about Murder on the Nerd Cruise yet, except that it’ll be my first attempt to write a novel that includes all of the necessary cozy mystery tropes and as many horror conventions as I can squeeze into a cruise ship ballroom.

Much of Shortwave’s catalog focuses on horror, after all—both physical and psychological—and I would be remiss if I didn’t try to write at least one Larkin Day Mystery as a crossover.

Will the book work? We’ll have to find out. I’m already thinking about how to incorporate the squicky uncertainty of horror into a cozy mystery series. I’m also researching how to discorporate a body since this mystery will begin with a severed head.

Will I evolve as a writer? Absolutely.

This evolution is going to take time and energy and a lot of blood spatter pattern analysis, but it’s going to be as good for me as Larkin’s growth is for her.

We both need to get better at what we do, after all.

Otherwise, nobody would ever need to read more than one Larkin Day Mystery.

And I hope to write as many as I can.

Like, Subscribe, and Murder is available now in Paperback and eBook. Or view the entire Larkin Day Mystery Series.


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About the Author

Nicole Dieker is a writer, teacher, and musician. She began her writing career as a full-time freelancer with a focus on personal finance and habit formation; she launched her fiction career with The Biographies of Ordinary People, a definitely-not-autobiographical novel that follows three sisters from 1989 to 2016.

Dieker writes the Larkin Day mystery series. She also maintains an active freelance career; her work has appeared in Vox, Morning Brew, Lifehacker, Bankrate, Haven Life, Popular Science, and more. Dieker spent five years as writer and editor for The Billfold, a personal finance blog where people had honest conversations about money.

Dieker lives in Quincy, Illinois with the great love of her life, his piano, and their garden.

Copyright ©2023 by Nicole Dieker.

Published by Shortwave Magazine. First print rights reserved.

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