How To Write a Mystery With Rebecca Cantrell And J.F.Penn

There are key elements that mystery readers expect so if you want to write a bestselling or award-winning mystery, check out this conversation with Rebecca Cantrell.

how to write a mysteryIn the intro, I talk about the fantastic new audiobook partnership between Draft2Digital and Findaway Voices, which will be open to authors all over the world, give control over pricing to authors, and many more benefits. This is huge news! Click here to read more about it – launching 18 July, 2017.

I also comment on Amazon buying Whole Foods, IPR License launching an online Buy Rights button, Streetlib and Babelcube, and a New Scientist article which says that machines are predicted to be better than us at translating languages by 2024. I talk about how that might affect the translation market for authors and readers over the next 10 years. I also give a personal writing update and talk about longevity over an author and online career.


If you’re ready for binge reading this week, check out this amazing Mystery bundle from New York Times best-selling and multi-award winning authors. It contains historical mysteries—from 1931 Berlin to 1981 New Orleans; 21st-century stories—from internet stalking to teenage bullying; international crime fiction—from London grave robbers to a Toronto medical mystery. And, with the inclusion of more than 30 short stories, it not only covers every single mystery and crime sub-genre, but you can sample stories from Grand Masters and first-timers alike. It includes my novel Desecration – the book where I really found my voice 🙂 Available for a limited time 14 June – 6 July, 2017:

Rebecca Cantrell is a New York Times and USA Today best-selling and multi-award winning thriller and mystery author. Her series include The “Hannah Vogel” historical thrillers set in 1930s Berlin, the Joe Tesla contemporary thrillers, “The Order of the Sanguines”, supernatural thrillers with James Rollins, and “The Malibu Mysteries” with Sean Black.

You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.

Show Notes

  • The differences between a mystery and a thriller
  • atraceofsmokeCreating characters that make the mystery possible
  • What makes a good protagonist for a mystery
  • How to create bad guys who aren’t cliche
  • Examples of foreshadowing and how it works in mysteries
  • Books and other resources for those interested in writing a mystery

You can find Rebecca at and on Twitter @rebeccacantrell

Transcript of Interview with Rebecca Cantrell

Joanna: Hi everyone, I’m Joanna Penn from and today I’m here with Rebecca Cantrell. Hi Becky.

Rebecca: Hi Joanna.

Joanna: It’s great to have you back on the show. Just a little introduction.

Rebecca is a New York Times and USA Today best-selling and multi-award winning thriller and mystery author. Her series include The “Hannah Vogel” historical thrillers set in 1930s Berlin, the Joe Tesla contemporary thrillers, “The Order of the Sanguines” supernatural thrillers with James Rollins which I love and “The Malibu Mysteries” with Sean Black. And today we’re talking about how to write a mystery.


Joanna: Now we both write thrillers and also mysteries and I described your Hannah Vogel series there as thrillers but they’re also mysteries.

What do you think is the difference between a mystery and a thriller or can they be combined?

Rebecca: I think there is a lot of play in the differences. I think the basic difference that most people would say when they talk about it is a mystery is about figuring out who solved a crime, so who was the killer, who committed a crime and solving and restoring justice to the world, whereas a thriller is more about suspense.

So the Hitchcock saying about suspense where he says if you have a bomb and it blows up that’s surprise. But if you have a bomb and you put it under a table and the audience sees the bomb, then you have people come in and they’re walking around and they’re talking and then audience is getting more and more uneasy because they know these people could die at any moment, and he said and that’s suspense.

I think thrillers go more towards suspense where you know something terrible is going to happen, you have some idea of what it is and the story hinges on will that evil plot be stopped and how will it be stopped. So it’s more about discovery versus suspense I think.

Joanna: Do you think there’s often more of a pacing or a high stakes element in thriller because like cozy mystery is a big subgenre and it can be a very small town, small thing. With thrillers, there’s often a much bigger thing at stake.

With “The Sanguines” or with some of my supernatural thrillers it really is ultimate evil going to destroy the world type of thing.

Do you think that that stakes, and also pacing, would come into it as well?

Rebecca: I think that’s true. I think the epic kind of stage of most thrillers. But then you can think of things like “Misery” which is not a mystery but it is a thriller. That’s really just a stake of that one guy’s life and will he be killed by his number one fan.

I think that you can make thrillers that are very personal but most of them are more epic in scope. If you look at “The Sanguines” that spans 2,000 years and five continents.

Joanna: Our supernatural thrillers fit in that big thing, and also there’s no mystery if you know the antagonists, right? So many thrillers you actually know who the bad guy is and you know who is committing the big crimes and it’s not a case of who it is, it’s more about stopping them.

Rebecca: Yeah, will the guy stop them and will the main character find out who they even are. But I also think there’s thrillers where that doesn’t happen, where I think in thrillers there’s a little more leeway to let the bad guy win.

If you look at “The Silence Of The Lambs” which is a thriller. In the end, Hannibal Lecter wins, he gets away. I mean, she also wins because she saves the girl who’s been kidnapped and she gets that serial killer, Buffalo Bill, but the other one, the bigger more dangerous one flees. And I think thrillers have more of a likeness to do that. I think if you do that with mystery, the readers will get angry.

Joanna: Yes. You can’t have the bad guy get away really at the end of a mystery unless I guess it’s a series and we’ll come back to series.

Let’s talk about the obligatory scenes because if you want to write a mystery, there are things that readers expect. Say, for example, the crime, usually a murder, is it always a murder? There’s a good question.

Is it always a murder in a mystery?

Rebecca: I don’t think it has to be. So if you look, like the second “Hannah Vogel” mystery, she’s kidnapped at the beginning and her child was taken away and for the first half of the book, she’s really just trying to get him back, and then there’s a murder and she solves the murder and finds her son but the first half there isn’t a body.

So it doesn’t have to have a body right away, but I think traditionally you’re supposed to have a body by the end of the prologue or Chapter One. The body drops and you know what the stakes are and you know where it’s going to go. I think that’s the traditional mystery plot and I think most mysteries do follow that.

And then at the end you’re going to have the wrap up where you find out who the killer is and then some sense that justice has been served and that the killer will go to jail or the killer will be punished in some other way so that the reader gets catharsis of knowing that the world is a just place and things have gone well.

Joanna: Yeah, which is exactly what happens in the real world.

Rebecca: It’s what you want to happen in the real world. I think that’s something that people get out of mysteries that they read them because they want to see order restored, they want to see the bad guys lose and the good guys win, even in places where there are no murders.

I think in Iceland for example, I think there are almost no murders but if you look at Berlin Noir, people are dropping like flies. So there’s obviously, realistically there’s some kind of catharsis that they’re getting out of it.

Joanna: Yeah, no, that’s right. Okay so we’ve got the body at the beginning and of course the round up at the end, but then some of the other obligatory scenes, so the clues and the red herrings. There has to be a number of suspects.

I think that was something when I wrote my mystery series, I realized that with my thrillers there’s often just one massive antagonist who has some all powerful organization that they have to destroy. But with mystery, you have to have multiple possible antagonists, don’t you?

Multiple suspects and clues and red herrings. Would that be right?

Rebecca: I would say so, yeah, and I would say usually, I’m like a, “Well, 97% of the time”. I would say usually you want to have multiple antagonists and multiple ideas of who the villain is and it can’t be the obvious one.

If you have someone who seems like the obvious killer throughout, most mystery books, that person is not in fact, going to be the killer. So you hope as a writer, that you can keep the readers guessing until the end and that they won’t figure out who the killer is until you want to reveal it or shortly before you want to reveal it. That’s the goal.

Joanna: Yeah. But also, doesn’t the real killer have to appear in the first, let’s say, quarter to a third of like, I think, like it should appear at the beginning.

You can’t just suddenly bring in the killer at the end, so you have to at least have them appear but you have to misdirect the reader so they don’t suspect that person.

Rebecca: There’s a rule that says you’re supposed to have met the killer by the end of Act One, so that would be a quarter of the way through the book. You either have to have met them or they have to been referred to. So then as a writer you have to figure out how to misdirect people away from that person or make that person seem like they have an airtight alibi or they don’t seem to be that interested or for whatever reason you have to kind of push back.

Joanna: And for that reason, I think that mysteries need a larger cast because you have to have enough characters that you misdirect to at least, let’s say, three. You can’t just have one other misdirection, you kind of need three.

When you’re planning yours, how do you come up with a cast that will make that possible?

Rebecca: I usually start with the murder victim. You have someone who’s been killed and then you have to figure out who would kill them. Often for some of my mysteries, I will write down what actually happened. I think there’s the story of what actually happened, what you tell, what the reader thinks and what the reader thinks happened.

I often actually write, in very truncated form, I write down, “Okay, this is what happened, da,da, da, da, da”, and then I know that I’m never breaking the rule of what actually happened. And then I look at the murder victim and you have to figure out who else would have killed him and why and that goes back to their character and who would want to murder them, and so you need someone who has enemies or who is in the way of a certain number of people.

For me it’s about plotting, although I know writers who do not plot and write mysteries and they have no idea who the killer is and they write beginning to end and then do a second draft where they discover it.

Kelli Stanley, for instance, she writes the “City Of Dragons” in the “Miranda Corbie” series. She writes her whole first draft and then does minor edits when she’s done and she really doesn’t know. And a brilliant book. It’s quite frustrating for those of us who write a million drafts but some people can pull that off.

Joanna: Yeah, well I think that is one of the questions because I did find it with my London Crime Thrillers, they’re mysteries, there is a detective and it’s very difficult to put these things in genre sometimes.

I did find that I had to do quite a lot more plotting than I would do on a thriller in terms of, “Oh right, I need the misdirection here. I need to put a clue here to sort of point them to those people.” Obviously there are some people, as you mentioned, who don’t plot.

Is your plotting a lot heavier for mystery than some of your other books?

Rebecca: I would say no. I’m a plotter. Although the books with Rollins we didn’t actually plot nearly as much as my regular books. So he’s “Ah, we’ll totally plot this”, and then we were really just plotting a few scenes in advance.

We knew what the tent poles were, we knew what we were shooting from but the details were worked out as, in the writing. He is like a plot machine. We’d be writing, I’d be like, “I think we need more here and then so I read 50 pages because this has to happen and there’s this much stuff” and he’d be like, “Okay”, and then he would just sit there and you could see load the whole plot into his head which takes him about ten seconds, and then he would just like come up with all this stuff that fit in for that. I do not have that plotting gene. It takes me a lot longer to figure out what might happen and to go over stuff.

Joanna: But actually having read some of your books, your single author books are probably more character-focused than plot, plot, plot, plot, plot. James Rollins being one of my favorite authors and your books I think, certainly Hannah’s are very character-centric.

What makes a good main character especially if you’re planning a mystery series?

Rebecca: Well for Hannah, let me just say honestly I didn’t expect the books to be a series. I wrote the first book, and then I sold it to Tor/Forge, and they said, “We’ll only buy it if it’s a series. What’s the second book?”, and then I had to come up with the whole second book plot by Monday.

I’m like “Of course there’s a series,” and I’m like “Okay honey, you’re in charge of the baby. I’m out”, I mean, I spent the whole weekend trying to figure out what she can do next and what the rest of the books could be like.

With that in mind, know that I didn’t actually design it going in but I think that you need, for a good main character in a series to work, I think you need a character that people are fascinated by and want to spend time with.

Usually that’s someone who’s likable, someone who’s complex, someone who’s flawed and someone who’s intriguing. So for example, somebody like Hannibal Lecter or Dexter, Lestat, those are very flawed characters that you wouldn’t like in real life and you wouldn’t want to spend time with in real life but they’re fascinating in fiction.

They pull you forward just by the force of their personality and you want to know about them. I think that they have to be someone that you want to know more about, someone you want to go on a journey with.

I know I’ve read books and if there’s nobody I can hang on to and usually like then I can’t get engaged with the book. And I know there are people who can totally, who love books that have unlikeable protagonists or unlikeable, a whole set of unlikeable characters but I have real trouble with that. Like when I read “Gone Girl” for instance, which is a wonderful book.

Joanna: Oh yeah.

Rebecca: It’s very well put together, I couldn’t stand anybody in the book so I was kind of annoyed. I read through it and it was well done but I just didn’t like anyone. And that’s the point of it. They did what they were trying to do but ordinarily for books like that I just get, you know, after 50 pages or something I just get bored.

Joanna: I think what we’re saying there is to make them even if not likable, somebody you want to spend time with across multiple books.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Joanna: And understandable in some way and complex in some way.

My main character Jamie Brooke, Jamie being a woman in this, has a terminally ill daughter and she’s a policewoman in London but she dances tango to escape from her life at night so she becomes this different person. That was really fun to research – Tango dancing – and I read this book at the time and I was like, “Wow, that’s really cool. I’m gonna have my character dance tango at night”.

Rebecca: You can do the tango?

Joanna: I’ve tried but I really have two left feet. I like the idea of being an amazing tango dancer but not like the 20 years of work that goes into it. But I think that complexity I think would be another thing.

Bringing a level of complexity to your character and trying to step away from the cliché. I think you do have to have some kind of wound, as in, they are a wounded hero in some way but not just like they’re the hard-drinking, divorced male cop with a paunch.

Rebecca: Yeah, who likes jazz and yet who is basically, you know, Raymond Chandler’s character.

Joanna: Oh, well there we go and that became a bit of a trait.

What’s different about Hannah in your books?

Rebecca: Well Hannah’s, she’s not a guy. She’s a crime reporter so she’s not actually an investigator but she has connections into that world, so she knows criminals, she’s reported on criminals, she’s been to the jail, she has a lot of contacts and informants in the underworld that would serve her well during the books.

But it’s also the timeframe. For Hannah I think Berlin is as much a character as Hannah, and I think the 1930s is as much a character as Hannah. So the time and the place are very specific and I try to make them very rich because those are what bring it alive.

For me place is very important. If you look at any of my books there’s something about that place that intrigues me. Writing something that was very generic and set in a suburb with no name wouldn’t really interest me as much as a specific place.

So for Hannah, it’s 1931 Berlin. She’s poor, she’s an underdog, she’s a writer but she has some tools. She’s smart, she has friends in the underworld, she’s got the ability to move around, she’s beautiful which she doesn’t like but it’s useful for her so there’s a lot of different aspects to her.

Joanna: I think that’s a good point. They don’t have to be a cop or an investigator as such but they do need these tools, they need some way to be able to find out information if they’re not in the police, so they need the contact.

By book 3 my character, Jamie, is out of the police and is now a private investigator but she has those contacts back in the police.

You do need to set those up, don’t you, because they can’t, well I guess there’s the amateur sleuth mystery which often happens in cozies, doesn’t it?

Rebecca: But those I think have a very different level of suspension and disbelief. Cozies, you can have a cat who solves a mystery or you can have a cat narrator who has a rich interior, and those are things that you couldn’t get away with in a more hard-boiled novel or a thriller. That’s, it’s a different promise.

I can’t remember who said it but a novel is a promise that you have for the reader and I think you have to make good on what that promise is. So in a cozy, like the Sofia Salgado books that I write with Sean Black are just comedy, cozy, just utterly ridiculous, silly, funny stuff happening, like the Janet Evanovich books.

You set up that that’s promise whereas the Hannah books are set in Berlin the 1930s, they’re meticulously researched, I spent a lot of time making sure that every single detail was right there in the Holocaust Memorial Museum collection, there are serious books, and that’s the promise. The promise when you see it is that’s who Hannah is, that’s what she’s doing and that’s who, and then you know who Sofia is, and different readers want different experiences or the same reader wants a different experience at different times.

Joanna: Absolutely. And then setting, because that’s really important too. You and I both do this and we bonded over the Prague golem and various settings that we’ve both used in different books we’ve used similar settings.

My books are all around London and everything is about London so, it has to be true to that and has to be exact. So that’s another question.

Where does the truth end and the fiction begin? Is it literally just the character and the situation? Is every single thing correct?

Where does that fiction start?

Rebecca: I would say for the Hannah Vogel books, I try to make every single detail that could be real, be real. When she talks about a brand of cigarettes that really existed and it was called that. I got a set of newspapers from 1931 that had all these ads in and so I was able to have that to draw on, to be very specific.

I would say every single thing that can be real is real, the subway stations are all correct, the street names are correct, the buildings where I’ve mentioned a specific building, that building existed and it did look like that, but obviously Hannah didn’t exist.

However, some of the events that happened around her, she was there for “Kristallnacht”, that really happened, she was there for “The Night Of Long Knives” too, that really happened.

In 1930s Germany obviously, there’s a lot of material that covered what was there and there’s a lot of diaries and newspapers and primary sources. And so I leaned on this pretty heavily and then anywhere where I did diverge from reality I mentioned that in my author’s notes.

Joanna: Yeah, and I do author’s notes as well and I like that. And what I love is when people email me and say, “Hey, I’ve just been Googling the places in your books”.

My book “One Day In Budapest” people actually go around the different places in Budapest and I’m like, yeah, “What I wrote didn’t actually happen but that is the place”, you know, kind of thing which is really cool.

Let’s talk about bad guys or antagonists because, I mean, clearly you’ve got the Nazis which, let’s face it are, I mean, you know, yeah, easy to pick.

The main question there is how do we make the bad guys not just cardboard cut-out Nazi bad guys for example?

Rebecca: I think the bad guys are a character in your story like the good guys or any other character and because they’re a character to me they’re human. They have all of the flaws that real humans have and they have all of the advantages and disadvantages that real humans have.

In the “Hannah Vogel” books, Ernst Rohm is one of the Nazi bad guys and he was a tremendously bad guy but, and he was a very good friend of Hitler, he’s one of Hitler’s best friends and Hitler had him executed in 1934 and had nightmares about it for the rest of his life. This was a man who helped bring Hitler to power, but he was also gay and out and he wasn’t particularly anti-Semitic so the other Nazis are constantly harassing him because he wasn’t particularly anti-Semitic and he’s like, “I don’t really care, whatever you do with that is fine. I want to make Germany great again” was his slogan.

And so he was about building the army up, taking back the countries that they’d lost and taking more countries that he felt should have belonged to Germany all this time to begin with. But, you know, he had another life, he had all these other things that he did.

He had friends, he had hobbies, he had flaws, he was adored by his men, he was very organized, won a bunch of medals in World War I. He wrote a very bombastic memoir that would be required reading and then the Nazis destroyed it after the purge. But he was a person and I think you need to remember that every villain is a person and they say every villain is a hero in his own story. So you have to figure out what their story is that’s making them act the way they do.

Joanna: Yeah.

Rebecca: You have some pretty bad, bad guys in your stuff. How do you make them so complex?

Joanna: I’ve been thinking about that. For me it’s often a lot about their belief system as well. Tt’s very hard to say too much without giving too much away with the books but I’ve got some quite political angles on my books too around the political elite in London with money who think they can do whatever they like. Versus the misfits and the outcasts and the people who get scorned but are actually good people and want to help the community, which in London is a huge a pressure, between the super rich and the normal people getting pushed out of places where they’ve lived for generations.

If you take the point of view of that political elite, without seeing it in a negative way: “We want to make the city even better, we want to clean up the streets” and you can see that these things become important to those characters.

I think it’s that empathy which is so important for being a writer is trying to put yourself in that point of view. Like “I want the best for my children” is a very common human feeling and a super rich person feels that and does different things through other people.

So that, I think that’s really important and also humanizing them in a different way and giving them some kind of good scene. It’s called the ‘save the cat’ moment in screenwriting.

I like “House of Cards”. Do you watch “House of Cards”?

Rebecca: I watched the first season but it’s one of those where I can’t get along with it. Everybody is so unsympathetic, it’s tough for me.

Joanna: Oh well that’s funny because what I enjoyed about the very first episode of “House of Cards” is he actually kills the dog and it was a nod, it was a nod to save the cat.

I was just like pointing at the screen going, “Oh that’s so clever”. They did that to demonstrate his character.

So actually, let’s talk about that because I think foreshadowing is tremendously important for mystery but also depth in a novel and layering of meaning and that kind of thing.

How would you define foreshadowing and maybe give some examples?

Rebecca: “House of Cards” is a good example of that. When you’re setting up something that the character will do later so you can see that they have the potential in them to act in this way and it’s to a smaller degree.

So now it’s a dog and then it’s the President but it’s the idea that this is the person who’s capable of evil. It might be something as simple as killing a fly, it doesn’t even have to be a dog or it can be something they see or a metaphor of what they’re looking at. When I write books sometimes I will make a list of, gonna sound dorky, but I’ll make a list of images and words and context that I want to put in there.

When I did “The Sanguine” books with Jim we were really conscious, we wanted these to be Gothic thrillers. I made a list of all the cover palettes that the characters could use that were the ancient characters. They had the ochres and the golds and the silvers and the blacks and the colors that you would have had that were mineral-based paint colors that I know nobody ever notices but me.

But then the newer characters could have different colors and different things that they noticed. And even if the reader isn’t aware of that, I think it does seep in. And so, for the Hannah books, in the first book I had scenes with her brother and he was dead and he was talking to her beyond the grave and it just confused people completely and my agent said, “I’ll represent you if you take that out”. I was like, “Okay”.

I heard a lot of complaints from my beta readers as well so I realized I wasn’t getting it right, so I took him out. But in the original version, every time that he was going to come in she touched his handkerchief and he’d given her, there’s this red silk handkerchief, and I left that in. Even though it didn’t rank to anything anymore, it was still a reminder of him.

I’ve gotten emails from people who said, “I like how that makes her seem close to him”. So even though I had taken out all the pieces that should have connected to it, they still responded to that action, they still knew. They got the depth of that.

Joanna: Now that’s really great.

Rebecca: Readers are very smart.

Joanna: Well, and that’s the thing, you know. We’ll come back to readers being very smart but that foreshadowing I think is so important. It can be really obvious like the gun on the shelf has to go off by Act Three or whatever that quick, it’s a cocked gun.

In “Desecration” the murder theme, the actual body is found in an anatomy museum so the body is surrounded by body parts in jars and that actually foreshadows the whole book because the theme of the book is about anatomy and the meaning of the physical body and after death and that kind of thing and it’s quite a deeper meaningful undercurrent but I don’t say it in the book. I don’t say, “The meaning of this book is”, you know. You can do that with foreshadowing.

So the body parts in jars at the beginning, it’s like where, what will happen by the end with these body parts. And there was one adaptation of “And Then They Were None” by Agatha Christie on BBC recently and it’s been ages since I’ve read the book so I don’t know if it’s in the book. But at the beginning, in the very first scene they’re on a train and the pull blind on the train carriage is a little noose and it was brilliant.

If people haven’t read “And Then They Were None”, I won’t say what it is but I was like, “Oh, that’s brilliant” and this was a fleeting camera glance over the window of the train and there was a clear noose pull. Like you would pull down the thing on the, to hide the light from the window? And I was like, “That’s brilliant”. That’s foreshadowing incredibly well and probably most people never saw it but it put something into the reader’s mind that we recognize these symbols and it adds a layer to the experience even if we’re not aware of it.

Rebecca: In the movie “Get Out”, I don’t know if you saw that but the horror movie “Get Out”, at the beginning, it’s a wonderful movie. You should see it especially as writer because they way they set things up and pay things off you’re just in awe.

By the time you get to the end of the movie and you see where everything has fallen in, you’re just like, “Oh my God, I have to rent that and watch it and take notes” because it’s that well put together. But at the beginning there’s a scene where they’re driving in the car and if they have scenes, he’s going to meet her parents and they love each other and it’s happy, happy, happy.

But as they’re driving there’s this scene of the trees going by outside and I don’t how they, I don’t know if it was the filter or the speed of the camera or whatever but it was completely like 1970s horror trees. And so as you’re watching, you get very very uneasy and yet there’s no specific thing you can point to that tells you why you’re uncomfortable going along this sunny road but you’re very much…

I think movies get to cheat a little bit because they control your eye and you can’t go back whereas if you’re writing a book and you say ‘it looked like a noose’, then you kind of hung a candle on it, right? You really pointed there in the text in a way that they just see it flash by in a film you can get away with it more.

Joanna: That’s a really good point. I can’t remember the text but that type of thing. I think your thing with the color palette, I do that too. We are both super geeks as you said, so we love all this stuff, super geeky.

But that’s also part of the fun I think of the mystery and the fun of writing. And what we should stress, if people are newer writers, is that you can go back and add this stuff in a second draft and in fact you probably will.

I think foreshadowing is one those things that you often do think about later. You get to a point and then you’re like, “Oh, this would work even better if I went back to that chapter and I added in a little comment about something because it has to be there for that to happen”.

Do you find yourself adding that stuff in in the second draft?

Rebecca: I do, yeah. My son is a novelist and he’s 16 and he was struggling with his first book when he was writing it and I was like, “Just write to the end and you can come back, because you are the writer god and you control all space, all time and everything that moves.”

You don’t have to get it right the first time and so you don’t need to feel the burden of that. You can write your first draft, it can have all of the flaws and all these things that are missing and you can come back and fix them because nobody knows that it took you 10 drafts to get that perfect structure. And yeah, so you control time and space. You are the puppet master.

Joanna: Okay, you’re such a cool mom. I do want to ask you about this because I get emails a lot from young people and also from parents of young people who are clearly, I know this is not about the mystery but just one question about the kids or young people. He’s a young person.

Because one thing we hear is, “Don’t do that. You’re wasting your time. You’ll never be able to make a living that way. Concentrate on your Maths”.

How are you encouraging him or how would you tell other people listening to encourage their children to write?

Rebecca: Well, I do say it’s good to study and get good grades and figure out what you want to do. And it doesn’t have to be about writing but, and I think the thing is what’s the point of concentrating on your Maths if you get a job that you hate and then suddenly 20 years later you quit that job and you’ve been miserable for 20 years and then you go become a writer?

Joanna: That would be me.

Rebecca: I mean, so what have you gained by telling your child to train for a job that they don’t like? I think the thing about writing that I’m constantly telling him over and over and over again is to really enjoy it because I think there is so much myth out there of the damaged writer and the alcoholic writer and the drug addicted writer and the suffering writer and you don’t have to buy into that mythology.

I am not a drinker or a drug user or any of those things. I’m happy and I really love writing, like I love sitting down on a page and making magical things happen that come out of my head. And I think you need to tell children that, that this should be fun and you need to read a lot of course but you should enjoy it and there’s no guarantees.

I have a couple of friends who have Ph.Ds in Science and they’ve been published and they’ve worked and they’re struggling to find jobs. And so he’s like, “Should I be a scientist like you?” and they’re like, “No, be a writer like your mom. There’s no job security anywhere. Have fun”, and I think there’s something to that.

Joanna: That’s awesome. And also with your own career, you’re a hybrid author, you have traditional deals and you self-publish as well.

Is that something that you’re passing on? The business-side and how you can make these multiple streams of income?

Rebecca: Yeah, absolutely. I talk to him a lot about rights and control and being very careful, because I started out when you signed away all your rights for like plus 75 years and then they were gone forever. And so you only want to do that if the conditions of the deal are very very good and you feel like that will benefit you.

I have friends who signed on deals for books that are e-book only and they haven’t sold a lot of copies and they have no rights because you’ve written the book, you’ve done the work, you’ve made a small sum of money and then your chance is lost for that book.

After having watched me go through traditional publishing, I think he’s much more interested in self-publishing than going through that route just because writing is a lot of uncertainties anyway. So many things are out of your control anyway that you want to think twice before you give up stuff that you have.

Plus you love the characters. So when I wrote the “Hannah Vogel” books, they were all traditionally published and I just recently got the rights back and it was transformative. I was so excited to have those books back, to be able to write in that world again, to be able to go back and see Hannah. It’s like I left Lars bleeding in the back of a truck five years ago.

That poor man has been bleeding in the back of a truck for five years and I’ve been getting very angry emails and that are getting more and more angry as time goes on from readers saying, “When are you going to tell us whether he lives or dies?”, and now I finally can and I’m just so excited.

Joanna: Oh, that’s awesome.

Are you now writing again in that series?

Rebecca: Yeah. I wrote a short story set in there that was from the point of view of her brothers that was a prequel to Book One and then I’m going to be writing the next book in the series which will hopefully come out next year, and so I get to back to that world that I’ve just missed it so much.

Joanna: Oh, that’s awesome. Okay. So we’re almost out of time. We’re in this box set; a mystery box set and in that box set is “Desecration” by J.F. Penn

Rebecca: And “Trace Of Smoke” by Rebecca Cantrell and eight books in total and two anthologies.

Joanna: Yeah, it’s a super super mystery bundle. So you can get that bundle and if you’re watching the video I’ll include the link below or you can go to or just go to and it will be there and of course if it’s gone by the time you listen to this interview, you can get our books all the usual places that books are sold or on

Rebecca: And

Joanna: There we go, where you can find all of our books.

Coming back to the mystery thing, is there anything else that people who are writing mysteries should remember? I mean, are there books that they should read… That’s probably the next one, yeah.

Are there books that they should read where, that will help them write a mystery, any good resources that you’ve found yourself?

Rebecca: I would say the best writing book I’ve read is called “Screenwriting Tips for Authors” by Alexandra Sokoloff which is really fantastic because a lot of books tell you about Act One and Act Three and then they, and Act Two is most of the book and they don’t tell you anything whereas she really goes into the details of it.

Another thing she does is she’s like, “Make a list of 10 movies that you love. Make a list of 10 main characters that you love” and it comes from a place of what do you love, what excites you and you kind of move forward from there. So I think she gives you a lot of structure and a lot of passion and it’s very well put together. It’s a very good analysis.

I like “Save The Cat” by Blake Snyder. It’s a nice, quick overview of the beats that are in movies. It’s formulaic but it’s, I think it’s manageable for new writers to say, “Okay, here’s the 15 beats that you need, here they are on one page” and then you can just be like, “I can do that, I can write a one page outline”.

And then you can kinda go from there because I think it’s so easy to get overwhelmed in writing and so if you have tools that move you forward, that’s a good thing. But I also would say that your process is your process and if the tools are slowing down or stopping you or blocking you, then those aren’t your tools and you should try to find other tools that work for you.

Joanna: Yeah, exactly. As always, there are no rules. There are some guidelines around mystery but certainly, there are no rules. Okay. So tell us again, where can people find you and your books online?

Rebecca: They’re at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble but and there’s a list of all of my books there and links to everything and excerpts and reviews and things like that.

Joanna: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time Becky. That was great.

Rebecca: Thanks too. Have a good one.

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