Inside the Writing Academy

Inside the Writing Academy: with Penny Mickelbury

Penny Mickelbury joins the Writing Academy to share her knowledge, wit, and tips for incorporating a touch of mystery and suspense into your work. Even if you’re not a mystery writer, Mickelbury’s advice may surprise you.

We writers tell stories, and stories are about the lives characters live, and the arc of living a life almost always contains elements of mystery and suspense–even the most normal life.

Penny Mickelbury

If you’re new to writing mystery, it may be a total mystery (see what I did there?) knowing exactly where to start. Mickelbury recommends breaking down what “mystery” actually means, to demystify the process.

A mystery is something that is:

  • Unseen
  • Unknown
  • Worrisome (or perhaps, even frightening)

“We writers tell stories, and stories are about the lives characters live, and the arc of living a life almost always contains elements of mystery and suspense–even the most normal life,” says Mickelbury. As writers, we know that’s a good idea to vex your protagonist. Not only does it help propel your story forward, it keeps your readers interested in learning what happens next. So, thinking of your current WIP, where can you bring in something unseen, unknown, or worrisome to vex the heck out of your MC?

Great! Now that you have a few ideas in mind, let’s consider the criteria necessary for writing a successful mystery:

1.) The basic narrative structure is: somebody gets dead & somebody is going to figure out who did it.

2.) The story then needs, at the very least: a victim, a not-nice-person, and suspects. Maybe not all of the suspects are unusual…?

3.) Top it all off with various and numerous sources of suspense and intrigue, all of which should be ominous.

(Oh! I almost forgot! There needs to be clues. Lots, and lots of clues. Don’t forget the clues!)

So, now that you have a handle on the basic structure and criteria of crafting a touch of mystery, how’s about adding a little suspense to the mix?

“Wait a minute! Wait a minute,” you say, flinging your pen at your monitor. “What the heck constitutes suspense and why should I bother?”

Suspense is a feeling AND a state of being. It elicits excitement, apprehension, anticipation, and (cue scary music, here) dread. Most stories could benefit from a blush of suspense woven carefully into their fabric. The key to successfully building suspense in your story is the act of withholding tidbits of information to arouse interest–in not only your characters, but also the reader.

We challenge you to dig out that WIP and consider:

  • Could your story be improved by adding a little mystery or suspense?
  • How would it be improved?
  • What are some tools you could utilize?

Are you an aspiring mystery writer, interested in attending the GCLS Writing Academy? Then we invite you to apply for the Erica Abbott Mystery Writer Scholarship!

Learn more about Erica, or, to apply:

Applicants must first be accepted to the Writing Academy. A committee of three judges will review applications and select a candidate who may someday embody the spirit of GCLS.

The deadline for applications is April 1, 2021, so don’t delay!

Penny Mickelbury is the author of three successful mystery series and an award-winning playwright. She is a two-time Lambda Literary Award finalist, was a writer in residence at Hedgebrook Women Writers Retreat, and is a recipient of the Audre Lorde Estate Grant. In 2001 she was awarded the Gold Pen Award for Best Mystery/Thriller from the Black Writers Alliance, and the Prix du Roman d’Adventures from Les Éditions du Masque. In 2017, she was commissioned by the Jo Howarth Noonan Foundation for the Performing Arts to write a ten-minute play in celebration of “women of a certain age”.

Prior to focusing on literary pursuits, Penny was a pioneering newspaper, radio and television reporter, based primarily in Washington, D.C., wrote journalistic non-fiction, and was a frequent contributor to such publications as Black Issues Book, and the Washington Blade.

Penny is the recipient of the Audre Lorde Estate Grant and a Residency at the Hedgebrook Women Writers Retreat. She was also a 2019 Inductee with the Washington Post Metro Seven into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame.

Mickelbury and her partner of 18 years live between Atlanta and Los Angeles.




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