"The reason I switched from writing romance novels to mysteries is because I ran out of sexual positions."
-- Janet Evanovich, from
How I Write



Writing books. Every writer I know has a shelf of them, probably gathering dust. I have one. The Girl Detective has one.

Anyone who ever seriously dreamed of writing slowly accumulates a ton of 'em, and we read 'em cover to cover when we start out. And then, as our careers start to chug along, we tend to forget 'em.

But don't despair. Even the most outdated tome (and the following list is full of them) may be offer a thought, a hint, a unique piece of advice --it may be just the spark to get the crazy train rolling again.

Sorted, by author, then chronologically

  • Beinhart, Larry, and Cathy Repetti
    How to Write a Mystery....Buy this book
    Ballantine Books, 1996.

This one comes highly recommended. Beinhart, an Edgar Award-winning P.I. author, takes a break from writing thrillers to reveal "all the twists and turns of creating the twists and turns of a good mystery." He uses examples and advice from everyone from Chandler to Spillane. James Ellroy tagged it a "post post graduate course in writing great crime fiction” and even Anthony of Judas E-zine liked it: "This is a great book for both the beginner and the experience writer. It walks you through the process without holding your hand. Outlining the process from start to finish it can help the self-taught refresh their memories and to double check themsleves while providing a start to finish map for the new author to follow. Even for those who don't need the information contained within its covers, this is a good read that makes you think about the subject."

  • Bintliff, Russell,
    Police Procedural: A Writer's Guide to The Police and How They Work
    Buy this book
    Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1993.

One of many fine books in Writer's Digest's "Howdunit Series" (see Private Eyes: A Writer's Guide to Private Investigators, especially). But even those not specifically dealing with private eyes are well worth reading, including this one.

  • Block, Lawrence,
    Writing the Novel from Plot to Print ...Buy this book
    Cincinnatti: Writer's Digest Books, 1978.

The first of what would turn out to be a long string of books about writing by Block, who by now has written more books about writing than some writers have written, period. Regularly reprinted, and eventually updated in 2015 to include digital publishing, but this one remains a stone cold classic, timeless and absolutely essential.

  • Block, Lawrence,
    Telling Lies For Fun and Profit.....Buy this book....Kindle it!
    New York, New York: Arbor House, 1981.

A collection of Block's columns from his 14-year stint as a columnist for Writer's Digest, one of the very best books on fiction writing ever written. Sue Grafton, no slouch herself, says it "should be a permanent part of every writer's library."

  • Block, Lawrence,
    Write for Your Life: The Book About the Seminar....Buy this book....Kindle it!
    Lawrence Block Productions, 1986.
    Revised, 2014.

Perhaps Block's the most cockeyed genesis of all his books on writing, being a self-published book about his own "Write for Your Life" seminars that he and his wife Lynn presented for several years, which in turn were inspired by his previous books on writing which were based on his columns from Writer's Digest, but still contains a hefty serving of writing advice, although Block now feels the original version was perhaps a little too "Gee Whiz" for more modern sensibilities. So he revised it in 2014, and gave it a new subtitle: "The Home Seminar for Writers." But the original still contains a wealth of useful advice, wry asides and pointed examples.

  • Block, Lawrence,
    Spider, Spin Me a Web: A Handbook for Fiction Writers....Buy this book....Kindle it!
    New York, New York: Quill, 1988.

Picks up where Telling Lies for Fun and Profit left off, offering tips on increasing your creativity, setting up a place to write and tons of other insights from one of the true masters of the crime fiction genre.

Anyone interested in writing, crime fiction or Lawrence Block would do well to check out this jigsaw puzzle memoir, consisting of assorted introductions and afterwords from the countless re-issues and collections over a long, distinguished and still thriving and throbbing career. Not a formal memoir, perhaps, but a cheeky, spunky and fascinating look at the works.

Collection of essays on writing, gleaned from the author's fourteen-year run as fiction writing columnist at Writer's Digest.

More columns from Block's run as a columnist for Writer's Digest, plus an illustrated biography of the author, including rare photos and never-before-seen documents from the authorís personal collection.

  • Block, Lawrence,
    Write for Your Life: The Home Seminar for Writers....Buy this book....Kindle it!
    Lawrence Block Productions, 2014.

An updated and revised version of the original, still packing oner helluva punch. Gee whiz.

Long awaited update of 1978 classic, one of the best writing books ever, dragged kicking and screaming into the digital age. But Block, still one of publishing's shrewdest tacticians for decades, holds true to his original thesis, that every novel is different, and so is every novelist; his aim is to give you the tools to enable you to find your own way. Absolutely essential.

  • Blythe, Hal, Charlie Sweet and John Landreth
    Private Eyes: A Writer's Guide to Private Investigators....Buy this book
    Cincinnatti, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1993.

Just what it says. It's an indispensible guide to for writers on all the behind-the-scenes stuff they need to know. Part of the excellent Howdunit series, which also includes such tomes as Armed and Dangerous: A Writer's Guide to Weapons and Deadly Doses: A Writer's Guide to Poisons.

  • Borcherding, David H., editor
    Mystery Writer's Source Book: Where To Sell Your Manuscripts....Buy this book
    Cincinnatti, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1995 (2nd edition)

Handy reference book, listing potential markets for both novels and short fiction. It would be totally useless by now, except for a handful of still relevant essays by folks like Michael Seidman, Jan Grape, Don Maass and Robert Randisi, among others, that still packs a wallop, full of timeless advice.

  • Brean, Herbert,
    The Mystery Writer's Handbook by The Mystery Writers of America...Buy this book
    New York, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1956.

The star-studded predecessor to Sue Grafton's Writing Mysteries, featuring contributions from such luminaries as Rex Stout, Harry Whittington, Bruno Fischer, John D. MacDonaldm Stanley Ellin, Frederick C. Davis, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Stuart Palmer, Harold Q. Masur, Lester Dent, Frederic Brown, and Anthony Boucher, among others. Worth seeking out just for Dent's "The Master Fiction Plot."

  • Bruccoli, Matthew, and Richard Layman, editors,
    Hardboiled Mystery Writers: Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammett, Ross Macdonald: A Literary Reference...Buy this book
    Carroll & Graf, 2002.

One of the better books on hard-boiled writers and their work that I've read in a long time. Like the Amazon blurb says, "Amply illustrated with personal photographs and with reproductions of manuscript pages, letters, print ads, movie promotions, dust jackets, and paperback covers, this volume provides a documentary chronicle of the life beyond and the work behind the creation of some of the most masterly detective novels in popular American literature."

  • Burack, A.S.,
    Writing Detective and Mystery Fiction
    Boston, MA: The Writer, Inc., 1945; revised 1967.

The be-all and end-all of how-to-write-amystery, this seminal work features contributions from Dorothy L. Sayers, Raymond Chandler, George Harmon Coxe, Frances Crane, John Creasey A.A. Fair, Ed Lacy, Robert Martin, Harold Q. Masur, S.S. Van Dine, Mary Stewart and Robert Martin.

  • Burack, A.S.,
    Writing Suspense and Mystery Fiction
    Boston, MA: The Writer, Inc., 1977.

Revised and updated sequel, of sorts, to Burack's own Writing Detective and Mystery Fiction, reprising choice chapters from the likes of Chandler, Fair, Van Dine, and Masur, and adding all new contributions from Rex Burns, Joe Gores, Ed Hoch, Bill Pronzini, Collin Wilcox and Albert Nussbaum, among others.

  • Corvasce, Mauro V., and Joseph R. Paglino,
    Modus Operandi: A Writer's Guide To How Criminals Work....Buy this book
    Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1995.

Another great book in theWriter's Digest "Howdunit Series" (see Private Eyes: A Writer's Guide to Private Investigators, especially). The authors are both cops in New Jersey, and they cover all sorts of fun stuff: forgery, smuggling, arson, scams, prostitution and that old favourite, murder.

  • Ephron, Halle,
    Writing and Selling your Mystery Novel: How to Knock 'em Dead With Style
    Buy this book
    Cincinatti, Ohio: Writier's digest Books, 2005.

Filled with charts and interactive exercises that force you to really think about what you're doingh, this grade-school approach to writing is actually far from simplistic, and may be just what you need to get going. With a foreword by S.J.Rozan, it's one of the best writing books I've seen in a while for practical advice on getting off your duff and actually doing it, followed by some savvy tips on selling your masterpiece.

  • Evanovich, Janet, and Ina Yalof,
    How I Write: Secrets of a Best Selling Author...Buy this book
    St. Martin's Griffin, 2006.

Evanovich doesn't really break any new ground here, but damn it, she can write. Which, really, is the point. Packed with examples and behind-the-scene tales from her own works, it's one of the most entertaining and downright readable books on writing since Stephen King's On Writing. You may not end up being able to write like Evanovich, but you're definitely going to want to try.

  • Fallis, Greg, and Ruth Greenberg, ed.
    Be Your Own Detective...Buy this book
    New York: M. Evans and Company, 1989.

Interesting, practical, enlightening (but outdated) guidebook.

  • Fallis, Greg,
    Just the Facts, Ma'Am: A Writer's Guide to Investigators and Investigation Techniques...Buy this book
    Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1998.

Yet another of Writer's Digest great "Howdunit" books, and simply one of the very best. Indispensable for those of you who want to get your facts straight. A great follow-up to his previous book, Be Your Own Detective, and although much of it may be outdated there's still plenty to chew on here.

  • Faron, Fay,
    Rip-Off: A Writer's Guide to Crimes of Deception...Buy this book.
    Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1998.

Detective and syndicated newspaper columnist Faron ("Ask Rat Dog") rips the lid off every con in the book, including the pigeon drop, Latin lotto, Gypsy-sweetheart scams, guaranteed-prize mailers, charity scams, buisiness frauds, carney cons, bait-and-switches, biz-op scams, the Texas twist, identity theft, carny cons, chain letters, psychic hotlines, three-card monte, Ponzi schemes, 809 phone numbers, and gambling stings. She also tells how to spot a mark and explains the lingo.

  • Frey, James N.,
    How to Write a Damn Good Novel: A Step-by-Step No Nonsense Guide to Dramatic Storytelling...Buy this book
    New York, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.

P.I. novelist Fry (the creator of gumshoe Joe Zanca and NOT the A Million Little Pieces guy) is a well-respected and internationally acclaimed creative writing teacher and workshop leader, who's had many of his workshop participants go on to publish with major houses. In this writing guide, he shares his tactics on writing. He's big on planning ahead -- plot outlines, character bios, charting out scenes,etc., and he takes you step-by-step through the process. No writing down the bones type touchy-feely stuff here -- he favours a no-nonsense approach, clear-headed and to the point. But he keeps it light and enjoyable throughout, making it not just a handy reference work but a damn good read. A sequel followed in 1994.

  • Frey, James N.,
    How to Write a Damn Good Novel II: Advanced Techniques For Dramatic Storytelling
    Buy this book
    New York, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

Sequel to Frey's first writing guide, this one revisits and expands on the themes he first explored. Once again, he cuts through the crap, offering practical advice and tales out of school.

  • Frey, James N.,
    How to Write a Damn Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript...Buy this book.
    New York, New York: St. Martin's Press, 2004.

The inevitable follow-up, this time geared to the wannabe mystery writer.

  • Fugate, Francis L. and Roberta B.,
    Secrets of the World's Best-Selling Writer: The Storytelling Techniques of Erle Stanley Gardner....Buy this book
    New York, New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1980.

Using the mountain of personal papers, journals, notebooks and scraps of paper, coctail napkins, matchbook covers and Lord knows what else that Erle Stanley Gardner left behind, the authors try to explain his phenomenal success. A fascinating insight to the man, but I'm not sure how practical the advice is for writers. Still, it's well worth reading.

  • Gorman, Ed and Martin H. Greenberg, editors
    Speaking of Murder
    Berkley Prime Crime, 1998.

Interviews with Stephen King, Mickey Spillane, Sue Grafton and others.

  • Gorman, Ed and Martin H. Greenberg, editors
    Speaking of Murder, Volume II: Interviews with Masters of Mystery & Suspense
    Buy this book
    Berkley Prime Crime, 1999.

Interviews with Dean Koontz, Evanovich, J.A. Jance, Robert B. Parker, and others.

  • Grafton, Sue, ed.
    Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by The Mystery Writers of America...Buy this book
    Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1992.

Indispensible, comprehensive guide to writing mysteries, edited by Kinsey Millhone's creator, Sue Grafton. Includes pieces by Sara Paretsky, Lawrence Block, John Lutz, Jeremiah Healy, Ed Hoch, etc.

  • Grafton, Sue, ed., with Jan Burke and Barry Zeman
    Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by The Mystery Writers of America...Buy this book
    (2nd edition)
    Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 2002.

Revised and expanded version of Grafton's classic mystery writing guide, reprising chapters from Lawrence Block, Sara Paretsky, Jeremiah Healy, etc., while adding new ones by Michael Connelly, Stuart Kaminsky and George C. Chesbro, among others. Ten years on, and still one of the very best out there.

  • Grant-Adamson, Lesley,
    Crime & Suspense Fiction: And Getting Published...Buy this book
    London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1996.

The author of several crime novels (and the creator of Brit P.I. Laura Flynn) takes a shot at writing a how-to book. She's also taught creative writing in university, writer's groups and even prisons.

  • Hager, Jean, Genell Dellin (Editors)
    How To Write & Market Your Mystery Novel: A Step-By-Step Guide from Idea to Final Rewrite and Marketing...Buy this book
    Tulsa, OK: Soutmont, 1998.

  • Hayden, G. Miki,
    Writing the Mystery: A Start to Finish Guide for Both Novice & Professional
    Buy this book
    Intrigue Press; 2001.

A breezy but practical guide that takes a varied approach, offering writing exercises, classic wisdom (okay, the author's personal opinions), marketing tips, submission dos and don'ts, and interviews with mystery authors such as Elmore Leonard, Sujata Massey and Laura Lippman.

  • Highsmith, Patricia,
    Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction...Buy this book
    New York, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983.

Tips on the trade, by one of the more delightfully nasty writers around. It was Highsmith who gave us such wicked delights as Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley.

  • James, P.D.,
    Talking About Detective Fiction...Buy this book
    New York, New York: Knopf, 2009.

One of crime fiction's most popular and respected writers lifts the lid on "the human appetite for mystery and mayhem," and lets us get a good look at the works in this wide-ranging survey, dishing up the goods on (among others) Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Peter Lovesey and Sara Paretsky, her own writing process and what she sees as the recent renaissance of detective fiction.

  • King, Stephen,
    On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft...Buy this book
    Scribner, 2000.

Part memoir, part writing guide, all blood and guts, written at a point where it seemd that -- at least to me -- he'd lost his mojo. Can't seem to write? Read this. The first part is a surprisingly personal memoir, candid and oddly inspiring, but the real juice is the second half: a balls-to-the-wall practical, bullshit-free guide to how to write, as King works his way through all the tools a serious writer should master: vocabulary, grammar, narration, description, dialogue, character, pace and theme.

You could probably handwrite the entire text on a cocktail napkin and still wipe your mouth. Leonard's guide to writing is essentially a magazine article sandwiched between two slabs of cardboard, running less than a hundred pages -- and that's with gigantic type and leading, enough white space to park an aircraft character, and numerous large cartoony illustrations from Joe Ciardiello. It's obviously intended as a gift book, yet its common-sense expansion of what Leonard calls "'the rules I've picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I'm writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what's taking place in the story" is a bracing bit of advice well worth hearing -- if not exactly worth the price. Which is why they publishers stress that it's a "gift book."

  • McAleer, John and Andrew,
    Mystery Writing in a Nutshell...Buy this book
    Rockville, MD: James A. Rock & Co., 2007.

It bills itself as "The World's Most Concise Guide to Mystery Writing" but "guide" is far too generous a tag for this slim but useful volume. It's more a series of tips, pointers and suggestions, plus some random ponderings and rhetorical musings on mystery writing from the father and son authors (both writing professors), plus input Robert B. Parker, Robin Moore and Ed Hoch, who also contributed an introduction. Nonetheless, both novice writers and seasoned pros will find more than a few choice morsels to chew on here, and beginners in particular will enjoy the informal approach. John McAleer is the acclaimed biographer of Rex Stout, while son Andrew is the editor of the Crimestalker Casebook and the writer of the James P. Hillton mysteries.

  • Mosley, Walter,
    This Year You Write Your Novel...Buy this book
    Little, Brown and Company, 2007.

Mosley hits on one key note again and again (but it's a good note) in this primer for beginning writers: a writer must write every day at a prescribed time to be a writer. No excuses, he says. "Let the lawn get shaggy and the paint peel from the walls." I'm all for that.

  • Newton, Michael,
    Armed and Dangerous: A Writer's Guide to Weapons...Buy this book.
    Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1990.

Great writers guide to guns, bombs, and all manner of things that go "boom." Invaluable.

  • Norville, Barbara,
    Writing the Modern Mystery...Buy this book
    Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1986.

A 1986 writing guide by mystery editor Barbara Norville, who worked with Ed McBain, Gregory McDonald, Dorothy Uhnak and Robert Fish, among others. Sometimes she sounds hopelessly dated, as when she attempts to give us her personal view of the history of the mystery, yet when she cuts to the chase, some of her advice is razor sharp and timeless, particularly on plot. A good practical guide, with plenty of food for thought.

  • O'Cork, Shannon
    How To Write Mysteries...Buy this book
    Cincinnatti, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1989.

Oh. So that's how it's done. With an introduction by Hillary Waugh.

  • Randisi, Robert, ed.
    Writing the Private Eye Novel...Buy this book
    Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1997.

Excellent kick-in-the-butt book by Robert Randisi, founder and president of The Private Eye Writers of America. Includes chapters by Lawrence Block, Loren D. Estleman, Sun Grafton, Parnell Hall, Ed Gorman, Max Collins and all the usual suspects.

  • Ray, Robert J.
    The Weekend Novelist...Buy this book
    New York, New York: Dell, 1994.

The legend goes that Ray, the man responsible for the Matt Murdock private eye novels,wrote his first published book mostly on weekends, while teaching full-time. Herewith with he reveals his secrets. Or, as the blurb puts it, it's a "dynamic 52-week program to help you produce a finished novel...one weekend at a time." Ray did a later book that focussed specificaly on writing mysteries, entitled, appropriately enough, The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery.

  • Ray, Robert J., and Jack Remick,
    The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery...Buy this book
    New York, New York: Dell, 1998.

The logical sequel to his first writing guide, The Weekend Novelist. This one promises "From empty page to finished mystery in just 52 weekends -- a dynamic step-by-step program."

  • Roberts, Gillian,
    You Can Write a Mystery (You Can Write It)...Buy this book
    Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1999.

The author of the Amanda Pepper mystery series (okay, we're not exactly talking hard-boiled, here) delivers the goods for aspiring crime writers, and indeed, any writer interested in writing better. Avoiding pat adages, she cuts to the core, getting the novice writer to ask themselves the hard questions they should be asking, such as "What has to happen before the rest can happen?" She particularly shines on matters of plot mechanics.

  • Rodell, Marie F.,
    Mystery Fiction: Theory and Technique
    New York, New York: Hermitage House,1942
    Revised 1953.

  • Roth, Martin,
    The Writer's Complete Crime Reference Book...Buy this book
    Cincinnati, Ohio: Writers Digest Books; revised 1993.

A good, basic reference for writers covering numerous aspects of crime, from weapons and jargon to standard operating procedures for criminals and various law enforcement agencies.

  • Seidman, Michael
    Fiction: The Art and Craft of Writing and Getting Published...Buy this book
    New York: Pomegranate Press, 1999.

Seidman's the real deal. He doesn't suffer fools glady, and he calls a spade a spade. Straight, no-nonsense talk from one of the best editors in the mystery field, it's an insider's comprehensive look at publishing fiction, covering everything from the art to the business of writing. Seidman doesn't pull punches, or mouth platitudes. If you've been reading DorothyL for any length of time, you know what I mean. Simply one of the best writing reference books available.

  • Spizer, Joyce,
    Power Marketing Your Novel: Marketing and Promoting Fiction and Nonfiction
    Buy this book
    Intercontinental Pub, 2000.

A short (148 pages) how-to book for writers intent on learning how to toot their own horns, by the creator of the Mel Walker P.I. mysteries.

  • Tapply, William G.,
    The Elements of Mystery Fiction: Writing a Modern Whodunit...Buy this book....Kindle it!
    Writer, 1995.

The creator of lawyer/sleuth Brady Coyne weighs in with his own thoughts on writing crime fiction.

  • Waugh, Hillary,
    Hillary Waugh's Guide to Mysteries & Mystery Writing...Buy this book
    Writer's Digest Books, 1991.

Edgar nominated book combines a history of the genre with tips on writing (some previously published) and a discussion of the various sub-genres.

  • Weber, Ronald.
    Hired Pens: Professional Writers in America's Golden Age of Print
    Ohio University Press, 1998.

A intriguing look at American commercial writers and editors from the 1830's until the 1960's, covering everyone from Edgar Allan Poe to Edgar Rice Burroughs.

  • Wells, Carolyn,
    The Technique of the Mystery Story....Read this book
    Springfield, Mass: The Home Correspondence School, 1913.

Probably the first book on writing crime fiction. Written by the creator of master detective Fleming Stone and who at the time had only written four mysteries (although she went on to write over eighty of them), it boasts that its "A Complete Practical Study of the Theory and Structure of the Form with Examples from the Best Mystery Writers." It was revised in 1929, but you can read the original online as part of Gaslight, an Montreal-based Internet discussion list. The book is full of god-awful clunkers, like the solemn pronouncement that "The enjoyment of puzzles or mysteries is as old as humanity itself" and quaint lectures on "correctness," but it's still worth checking out. Some wisdom is truly timeless. In fact, Bill Pronzini claims Bill Pronzini in 1001 Midnights says that The Technique of the Mystery Story is "far more readable today than (Wells') novels which are riddled with stilted prose, weak characterizations, and flaws in logic and common sense."

  • Wilson, Keith D.,
    Cause of Death: A Writer's Guide To Death, Murder & Forensic Medecine...Buy this book
    Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1992.

Yet another solid book in the Writer's Digest "Howdunit Series" (see Private Eyes: A Writer's Guide to Private Investigators, especially). If you're not a doctor, and you plan to write crime fiction, you NEED this book. An indispensible, well-thought-out guide to everything about death, murder and forensic medecine that you'd probably rather not learn about firsthand.


RELATED LINKS

Lawrence Block Writes (and Writes) About Writing

Compiled by Kevin Burton Smith.Thanks to Randal Brandt and Monte Herridge for their contributions to this page. And to D.L. Browne for her guidance and her library (Don't worry -- I'll put 'em back).


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