Playing Fair When You Write a Mystery

Let’s give a big welcome to Anne Canadeo, author of the Black Sheep & Company Mysteries. Enjoy her behind-the-scenes look at the making of a mystery. 

Take it away, Anne! 

Spoiler alert!  If you’re a mystery fan and you don’t want to know how a villain is hidden in plain in sight, read no further. However, even after trade secrets are revealed below, I’m fairly certain we can still trick you.

Like many authors of the genre, a life-long love of mysteries inspired me to spin my own.  My hall of fame includes the astonishing Sherlock Holmes, ever persistent Miss Marple, and audacious Kinsey Malone.  The plot may twist and turn as a favorite sleuth solves a case, but the killer’s identity always makes sense in the end. “Elementary, dear reader.” And I feel downright cheated if the solution seems pulled from thin air.

As a fan of the genre and as a writer, I want a mystery to play fair.  I want readers of The Black Sheep & Company Mysteries to be stumped and surprised, but look back and see that the clues were all there.

I recall the “connect the dots” puzzles I worked on as a child. “Can you find the cat?” the instructions would say. A good analogy for devising a mystery plot; making up such a puzzle, I mean. Writers try hard to camouflage the culprit’s identity in the noise and activity of the narrative. But we also try to embed a few other images in that field of dots and subtly encourage you to connect them the wrong way. Yes, there’s a cat. The cat may have done it. But wait, there’s a dog, too. And what about that hamster? He had means, motive, and opportunity.

It seems to me the trick is not just presenting a cast of suspects, but suspects who vary in culpability. A seasoned reader will sift out the obvious red herrings and decide they have picked the real offender. Sorry, it’s even more complicated than that.

Most of the heavy lifting happens in the outline stage, when it’s much easier to rearrange the puzzle pieces on the page. Once the first draft of the manuscript is finished, I always go back and plant more misleading hints that encourage even the sharpest fan to make the wrong connections. Like a final touch of salt on a dish, before it’s brought to the table.  I usually present at least one character who is actually guilty of something—blackmail, adultery, fraud—but not the murder. When the real killer steps forward, hopefully, there’s an aha moment and it all falls into place.

Creating false trails and optical illusions is truly the hard work of building a solid plot, but the real fun of the job, too. The very satisfying fun that keeps me writing mysteries.

Anne Canadeo is the bestselling author of more than thirty books, including the popular Black Sheep & Company Mysteries, and the Cape Light series, written as Katherine Spencer. When she’s away from her keyboard, Anne enjoys roaming on her bike, walking her dog, cooking and “extreme” gardening. She was recently honored by New York State for her volunteer work, which includes managing a food outreach, helping the homeless and bringing free books to      children in need of literacy support.  She lives in Northport, N.Y. with her husband, daughter and canine office assistant. Anne loves to hear from readers. Contact her on Facebook, Instagram or at:

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Lily, Anne’s dog and writing assistant, is also on Instagram as the LiteraryHound

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Playing Fair When You Write a Mystery — 16 Comments

    • Thanks, Amy. I had many ideas for mysteries and wanted to write in this genre for a long time, but found it very hard to put together a mystery plot. I did a lot of research, reading many, many different types of mysteries and authors, and also, a few “how-to” books. One in particular really made constructing a solid plot clear for me and I was finally able to put it all together. I’ve been trying hard to improve my sleight of hand ever since.

  1. I agree with Amy. Anne makes it sound easy, even though we all know it’s not. Good food for thought and an excellent post and thank you for sharing.

    • Thanks, Marja. As noted above (in my reply to Amy) at first, creating a mystery plot was a challenge. I won’t say it’s easy now, either. Though I have confidence I can figure it all out and eventually, come up with interesting, unexpected embellishments.
      If I find it too easy to figure out the plot, chances are readers will too. So I don’t want to stop there.

    • I remember, now that you mention it. I’m sorry I never wrote to her and told her how much it helped me.

  2. Your blog is very well written, which speaks well of your plotting ability. Write on.

    • Thank you, Glen. Sometimes I feel it is harder to write 500 words than it is to write 65,000. 🙂 I did go off the track in the first drafts and cut out a lot. Which speak to the point of how important is to be a ruthlessly editor of your own work. But that is territory for some future post.

  3. Anne, I love your books! Question: do you ever get surprised? I mean, as the author, do you feel one character is the culprit, and then suddenly another character pops in and says—it’s not him/her, it’s me!

    Your books are fabulous!

    • Thanks so much for your wonderful compliment, Mary. Writing is a solitary business and it’s great to hear such an encouraging response from a reader.
      Your question is very interesting. There are times while writing an outline that I’ve changed my mind about who the murderer should be. This happened recently, while writing Purls and Poison, which will be out this fall. But while writing Till Death Do Us Purl, it did occur as in the midst of the story, that the character I had set up as the murderer could not do it. I don’t want to say more for those who may not have read the book. But if you have read it, you probably understand. ?