The Building Blocks of Mystery: Two Mastermind Writers on the Keys to Their Craft

By Erin Hall

“Good mysteries do at least two things,” says mystery author Emmeline Duncan. “They give the reader a puzzle to solve and, through the shock of a crime, shed light on what it means to be human.”

Frank Zafiro, author of gritty crime fiction, has a similar take on the draw of the genre. Frank says, “There are two things about the crime fiction genre that keep me coming back to it as a writer and as a reader. One: The stakes are always high (while still plausible). And two: The human condition gets explored at its basest level. All the rest is gravy.”

Even though Frank and Emmeline write from different corners of the mystery genre (Emmeline writes cozy mysteries, Frank’s work is more hard-boiled), the building blocks they use to create successful stories are the same. 

Heading back to class

In a few weeks I’ll be settling into a day-long mystery writing masterclass with these masters of mystery for a class called Diving Into The Heart of Your Mystery: The Building Blocks You Need To Write Stellar Crime Fiction.

As luck would have it, I got to have a sneak peak at their class syllabus. Frank and Emmeline’s masterclass will offer writers from every sector of the mystery genre (cozy to gritty, and everything in between) an insider look at building a successful mystery using elements that are useful in any mystery story. 

When I asked how they’d approach this class together, given their different writing styles, they both assured me that it’s because of their differences that this class will be so much richer. 

“We’re not carbon copies of each other,” Frank says. “We cover all the beats without overlapping.” Even though their writing styles and content may be different from each other, the storytelling tools both Frank and Emmeline use apply to all flavors of mystery.

Emmeline says, “The kind of clues you focus on, and what you show versus what’s left off-page–that all determines what kind of story you’ll have. How you present the mystery changes a story from something cozy to something harder.”

(Click here to register for the Willamette Writers conference, then be sure to select Frank and Emmeline’s workshop as an add-on.)

This masterclass will cover how to write a strong protagonist and believable villains, how to shape the central puzzle of your story, and how to use the right clues and red-herrings to build intrigue through your story. We’ll explore how subplots reveal the inner workings of your characters, and how the setting of your story can tie into the storyline. Finally Frank and Emmeline will talk through how to create a satisfying ending to your mystery story, and how “satisfying” can mean something different for a cozy, procedural, or hardboiled mystery. 

Following the clues

As I wrote my first novel–a historical mystery–I had to figure out how to create a puzzle in the first place. That meant figuring out what clues my hero would discover, what clues the reader would learn before the protagonist does, and how to tie the pieces together in a way that would be satisfying to the reader. 

Beyond that…well that was the first mystery. How would I get started? How would I find my story–and the plot and subplots that make the whole thing work? How would I piece together a puzzle when I wasn’t sure what the final picture would look like? 

As I gear up for writing the second book in my mystery series, I’m thrilled to be going into it with the guidance of Frank and Emmeline.

Author Emmeline Duncan Headshot

Follow Emmeline Duncan

Facebook: @WriterEmmelineDuncan
Instagram: @WriterEmmelineDuncan
Twitter & Tiktok: @DuncanEmmeline

Author Frank Zafiro Headshot

Follow Frank Zafiro

Facebook: @frank.zafiro
Instagram: @frankzafiro370
Twitter: @frank_zafiro

Diving Into The Heart of Your Mystery: 
The Building Blocks You Need To Write Stellar Crime Fiction

Friday, August 4, 2023
9:00 am – 3:00 pm

Register Now

What do all crime novels have in common? Join Emmeline Duncan and Frank Zafiro for an intensive dive into the key elements of crime novels, from the cuddliest cozy to the darkest noir and everything in between. With their varied background, this pair of authors will bring in knowledge and helpful tips to help attendees identify the flaws in their works-in-progress and develop strategies to fix them. 

In addition to breaking down the key building blocks of mysteries, Emmeline and Frank will discuss some of the common mistakes writers make in crime novels. They will give tips on how to research these issues further to help writers learn how to make their work feel accurate, even if they decide to ditch the rules. Emmeline and Frank will also touch on common mystery tropes. Plus, there will be time to discuss traditional and self-publishing in the mystery genre. This Master Class will help you get to the heart of your novel.

Erin Hall (she/her) is a writing instructor, small business marketing coach, bookseller, and author of personal essays, short stories, and historical fiction. She lives and writes in Oregon Wine Country. Follow her on Instagram @ehallwrites.