Friday, April 25, 2014

Six Ways to Find New and Exciting Plot Ideas for Mystery Novels

Novel ideas come to writers in many different ways—by what they’ve personally seen or experienced, through an interesting event they’ve heard about, or because of something read about in a nonfiction book.

As an author, sometimes ideas just come to you, other times you have to dig for them.  Here are a few places to look for plot ideas.

1. Read the Newspaper

The newspaper is a good place to find mystery plots or those involving intrigue and scandal.  Murders and other crimes, the details stranger than fiction, are planned and executed daily by real criminals.  Who would believe that a man could get away with keeping women hostage in his house for decades without being apprehended?  Celebrities are always getting into mischief.  Husbands and wives sometimes commit murder for unknown reasons.  How many books have been spin-offs of the Scott Peterson case?  If you get ideas from a news source, it is best not to use real names and to change the events and the settings for legal reasons and so your book will not be just a re-hash of the news.

2. Search the Internet

There’s also a wealth of information in the Internet about true crimes, forensics, and other aspects of murder.  By “googling” certain keywords such as “murder”, “crime” or “forensics” a list of good sites to browse will likely appear.

Crime Library ( has a huge listing of serial killers, gangsters, and spies.  The Writer’s Forensic Blog (D. P. Lyle, MD) (  also has quite a few good links for crime and mystery writers.

3. Watch True Crime TV Shows

TV documentaries such as the Forensic Files (on Netflix) can provide valuable information on the details of crime scene investigation.  Taking notes while watching these types of true crime programs can add realism to fictional crime scenes.

4. Read Books on Crime and Forensics, and History

There are many good books on true crime and forensics where a reader can find ideas.  Author Jay Robert Nash has about ten books on murders and disappearances in the United States.  Two books that are good for starters are: Murder, America and Homicide in the United States from the Revolution to the Present.

History books also can provide good ideas for stories that might happen in a certain time era.  Loretta and I often read books on the Old West and travelogues of certain areas to get background and ideas.  When traveling, it is a good idea to visit the book rack of tourist attractions for stories about unusual crimes, ghost sightings, and other bits of history related to a certain area.

5. Visit Museums

A trip to a museum can often be rewarding when it comes to finding an idea for a story.  My sister and I have found several in that way.  Sometimes a display or one of the stories below an exhibit will spark the imagination.  We were going through a museum when we came upon an old class photograph.  Under one name someone had written in pencil, NEVER GRADUATED.  This gave us an idea for our Jeff McQuede mystery, Murder in Black and White, where a young man goes missing just before graduation.

6. Take a Course or Talk to Locals about the Area’s History

If there is a local university or place where you can take a course, this is also a good way to find a plot for a mystery.  In the local area, there are some archaeological digs that my sister and I plan to sign up for.  While living in Wyoming, I took a few classes in forensics and Wyoming history.  The tale of the Pedro Mummy, who had been found in the 1930s by miners near Shirley basin, began to spark my interest.  The tiny mummy was examined by scientists at the time, then disappeared.  This led to our writing Whispers of the Stones, where this curious artifact appears to have resurfaced--along with collectors who might kill to own it.

Vickie Britton and Loretta Jackson are authors of the Jeff McQuede High Country Mystery Series: Murder in Black and White, Whispers of the Stones, Stealer of Horses, and The Executioner’s Hood.  To read more about the Pedro Mummy visit  Vickie Britton and Loretta Jackson's Writing Tips and Fiction. 


  1. Vickie, you listed some great advice for anyone trying to come up with an idea for a plot. It think finding the right storyline is a headache for most writers. Thanks for the research.

  2. May I add one more? Eavesdrop ... shamelessly. The conversations you overhear on the train are priceless.

  3. You are right about eavesdropping, Sandy! You can definitely get some good plot ideas by keeping your ears open.

  4. Hi Vickie--
    Interesting post with great ideas for mystery writers.