Guest Post: Marilyn Levinson

Twelve Things to Remember When Writing a Mystery Series

  1. Your sleuth should be likable, interesting and resourceful, with a definite personality that includes quirks and personal issues that have yet to be resolved. Your sleuth needs to have a personal stake in solving the mystery.
  2. Consider your setting a major character. Use your setting well–its geography and flavor, its contrasting neighborhoods, businesses, parks and restaurants. Set your scenes in various locales to avoid monotony.
  3. Occasionally change your setting. If most of the books in your series take place in a small town, you might have you sleuth solve a murder in Manhattan.
  4. Your sleuth needs a best friend or confidant with whom to brainstorm. Consider his/her having a nemesis, as well, to up the tension and add red herrings to the mix.
  5. A love interest or interests spices up your plot and adds another dimension. While your reader enjoys the puzzle-mystery aspect of your novel, his/her ties to your sleuth are even stronger.
  6. Choose your victim carefully. Why was he/she murdered? What connects the victim to the suspects? Why was the second victim murdered?
  7. As for suspects, have many, with various motives, and with varying connections to the victim(s). Don’t telescope the identity of the murderer, but let your murderer appear often enough so that your reader doesn’t feel cheated when all is revealed.
  8. Secrets relating to the past are like chunks of dark Belgian chocolate in a chocolate brownie. Every character should have a secret or two. Reveal each secret only when necessary. Use them to your advantage.
  9. Every mystery should have a theme. Be it a dispute regarding an inheritance, collecting butterflies or coins, each mystery should include a theme that reflects the concerns of the village or the outside world.
  10. Decide what role official crime solvers play in your mystery. Even if you’re writing a cozy series, the police must appear in your books. Is your sleuth friendly with the homicide detective? Do they have an adversarial relationship?
  11. Sub plots are essential to any novel, including your mystery. They arise from the theme such as a dispute over land development, or from an issue in your sleuth’s personal life.
  12. Make sure your personal viewpoint comes through in your writing. You are unique. Your take on the human condition will help make your series stand out.


A former Spanish teacher, Marilyn Levinson writes mysteries, romantic suspense, and books for kids.
 Two of her mysteries, Murder a la Christie and MIITAFinalMediumA Murderer Among Us–the first book in her Twin Lakes Mysteries series–are on Book Town’s 2014 Summer Reading Mystery List. A new e-edition of Murder in the Air, the second in the series, is now available. All of her mysteries take place on Long Island, where she lives. Her books for young readers include No Boys Allowed; Rufus and Magic Run Amok, which was awarded a Children’s Choice; Getting Back to Normal, & And Don’t Bring Jeremy. Marilyn loves traveling, reading, knitting, doing Sudoku, and visiting with her granddaughter, Olivia, on FaceTime. She is co-founder and past president of the Long Island chapter of Sisters in Crime.
Her website is:

19 thoughts on “Guest Post: Marilyn Levinson”

  1. The title should be Twelve Things to Remember When Writing One Kind of Mystery Series. There are lots of mystery series that are not written this way. I’m reading a Perry Mason mystery currently and I’m not noticing any quirks or personal issues at all. No love interest, except the one readers imagine exists between Della and Perry even though there’s nothing whatsoever in this book to support that theory. Perry doesn’t collect coins. I don’t remember Jack Reacher having any kind of hobby either.

    It’s one of my pet peeves that most cozy mystery series today are cookie-cutter clones of one another. For the most part, I’ve stopped reading them.


  2. Elise,
    You are so right. Not every mystery has a love interest. I did say love interest OR interest of some sort. I believe a mystery is a novel and needs to have more substance than simply that which is necessary to solve a murder or a crime. I’ve learned about bookbinding, cleaning a Persian rug and many other subjects while reading mysteries.


  3. Wonderful advice, Marilyn! The hardest book I ever wrote was the second one in my mystery series. Perhaps this is why I flit between genres? 🙂 I shall keep your list beside me when I tackle the next one.


    1. So glad you find this helpful, Sue. I love series because I get to explore the various aspects of my sleuths’s personality and character. in Murder the Tey Way, the second in my Golden Age of Mystery series and the book I’m currently editing, my sleuth Lexie has to deal with her relationship with her irresponsible younger sister.


  4. I don’t think a writer needs to follow ALL of these things. As pointed out, Perry Mason doesn’t (and it’s an incredibly popular series) as does Jack Reacher (or is it my imagination that although Jack has no romantic interest in anybody, that does not stop women from being interested in him?). But I do think you need some of these. The key is to make your characters interesting beyond figuring out “whodunit.”


  5. Hi Marilyn: Thanks so much for visiting us! Lots to think about here–loved reading your list.

    Btw, I am just about to finish MURDER A LA CHRISTIE and have enjoyed it very much. I’m so glad to hear that a second one is on the way! 🙂


  6. Cynthia,
    Thanks so much for having me as your guest. I’m glad you enjoyed reading my list. Even more delighted that you like Murder a la Christie so much.


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