Monday, October 11, 2010

Start your Mystery With a Bang! by Kathleen Ernst

Ernst06 GeroldI’m grateful to Elizabeth for allowing me to be a guest here on Mystery Writing is Murder. And I’m grateful to readers! I love my work, and I’d be nowhere without you. Leave a comment here, and your name will go into a daily drawing for one free book. The winner can choose any of my sixteen titles. Old World Murder, one of my American Girl mysteries, a Civil War novel—the choice will be yours!

Start Your Mystery With A Bang!

By Kathleen Ernst

There’s been a lot of talk over the past few years about the importance of having the actual murder show up quickly in a mystery novel. I recently heard a speaker say that having a body in the first chapter is good; in the first paragraph is better; in the first sentence is best of all.

This advice may, or may not, make sense for your novel. I’ve seen some mysteries turned inside-out in order to present a dead body quickly, with leaps back and forth in time. Sometimes this works wonderfully. Sometimes…well, not so much.

It is important to grab agents, editors, and readers quickly. But there are lots of ways to do that! Want to hook readers with your first sentence or two? Let’s look at a variety of techniques:

1. Grab readers’ attention.

“It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby.” (In The Bleak Midwinter, by Julia Spencer-Fleming)

“With the exception of a nine-week-old Australian shepherd puppy, sniffing and whining as if he’d discovered a treasure chest and sought a way inside, everyone was politely pretending Anna didn’t stink.” (Blood Lure, by Nevada Barr)

2. Drop readers into the action…

“January, as usual, was meat locker cold, and the girl had already been missing for nearly two days.” (Blood Hollow, by William Kent Krueger)

“In his last conscious moment, the burning man spoke three words.” (Wild Inferno, by Sandi Ault)

“I flinched as a rifle shot fractured the air.” (Mint Juleps, Mayhem, and Murder, by Sara Rosett)

3. …or into a revealing conversation.

“‘He was healthy yesterday,’ said Maude.” (Three Bags Full, by Leonie Swann)

“All of them? Even the children?” The fireplace sputtered and crackled and swallowed his gasp. “Slaughtered?” (The Brutal Telling, by Louise Penny)

4. Set the stage.

“The tale I am about to tell begins on a bright, clear, April-sweet morning in the Lake District village of Sawrey. (The Tale of Cuckoo Brow Wood, by Susan Wittig Albert)

“When Rachel Goddard turned onto Ben Hern’s property, she couldn’t see the other car barreling toward hers down the long, curving driveway. All she saw up ahead were the massive rhododendrons and trees in summer leaf that formed a screen on both sides.” (Broken Places, by Sandra Parshall)

5. Set the tone.

“The desert surrounds the moving bus like an earthly vision of hell.” (Panic! by Bill Pronzini)

6. Create a beginning that mirrors the ending.

Return characters to the first scene’s setting to emphasize their emotional growth. I did this in my children’s mystery, Midnight in Lonesome Hollow. I hoped that using the same setting would emphasize how the characters have grown and changed.

7. Simply state the crime….

“The bodies were discovered by Mrs. Trepol, widow, occupation housekeeper and cook to the deceased.” (Wings of Fire, by Charles Todd)

“Lyell Overton Minskoff-Hardy, literary light and cultural personage, perished a few days before Christmas beneath a stainless steel toilet on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.” (A Dog About Town, by J. F. Englert)

8. …or the protagonist’s take on it.

“I got there too late to save Jerome Santana.” (Wild Indigo, by Sandi Ault)

9. Set a protagonist up for a fall.

“Officer Bernadette Manuelito had been having a busy day, enjoying most of it, and no longer feeling like the greenest rookie of the Navajo Tribal Police.” (The Wailing Wind, by Tony Hillerman.)

10. Intrigue readers with introspection.

“At the end, there was so much blame to spread around that we could all have taken a few shovelfuls home and rolled around in it like pigs in stink.” (The Fault Tree, by Louise Ure)

“Till the night when the habit of killing returned to him, he had almost forgotten the quickening joy of it, how it scourged the smear of shame from the heart and made it live.” (The Burning Bride, by Margaret Lawrence)


I recently dug out the earliest version of my new novel, Old World Murder. Here’s the first line of my first draft: “Evenings, when the hordes of visitors had straggled to the parking lot, and the thirsty interpreters stampeded after them, were my favorite times on the historic site.”


Here’s how the published novel opens:

“As Chloe Ellefson walked from 1982 into 1870s Wisconsin, a white frame church emerged from the trees, prettily framed against a cloud-studded blue sky. The view alone was enough to make most visitors pause, appreciate the simple elegance of the restored church, perhaps even wonder about the lives of those women and men and children who had first worshiped within its walls. For Chloe, the historic site’s newest employee, the scene represented a fresh start.”

There’s no body. But I did manage to raise a question (why does Chloe need to make a fresh start?) and to squeeze some important bits of information (she has started work at a lovely and thought-provoking historic site, and her story takes place in 1982) into those three sentences.

There is, of course, no “best” way to open a novel. Only the author can decide what works for any particular story. I suggest that the very last step of the editing process is one final, thoughtful, and assessing eye at the mystery’s first sentences. Are they as strong as they can be?

If so, you’ll have readers eager for more.

OWM Kathleen Ernst is celebrating the publication of her first adult mystery, Old World Murder (Midnight Ink). She has also written eight mysteries for young readers. Several have been finalists for Edgar or Agatha awards. For more information see her website,, or her blog,

Thanks so much for blogging on Mystery Writing is Murder today, Kathleen! Kathleen is a fellow Midnight Ink author who I was fortunate enough to spend some time with at the Malice Domestic mystery conference in April. Congratulations on your release!