5 Subgenres in Mystery Fiction Explained

Hello amateur sleuths,

The mystery genre is like ice cream.

Exciting. Delicious. And they both come in a variety of flavors.

Today, I’m breaking down some subgenres of mystery. Since some of these subcategories overlap with one another, I will try to focus on the 5 most notable subgenres in detective fiction.

Classic

A straight vanilla mystery right here. Everyone loves and respects a good classic done right, right? This has your traditional storyline where the investigator – who can either be a professional or a novice – solves a whodunit. A large chunk of the plot is centered around an inspector gathering clues and interacting with suspects. Depending on the sleuth and the target audience, the level of gore may vary. However, traditional mysteries tend to involve murder. In the end, the culprit is reveal and all loose strings are neatly tied in a bow. Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Nancy Drew are the prime examples of this mystery subgenre.

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Cozy

Looking for violence and sex and foul language? This is not the mystery subgenre for you. A cozy mystery is the kind of story you want to unwind with while wearing fuzzy socks. The tone is much lighter, and can even be considered wholesome and humorous. Book titles are pun-filled and corny. The crime is described in a less gruesome way. Typically, the sleuth is an amateur detective, nosy neighbor, or a knitter with some free time on their hands. Solving a mystery is like a fun hobby or satisfies their idle curiosity. These kinds of mysteries often include a fluffy companion, like a loyal canine or finicky feline. For a cozy mystery, solving the crime is all in good fun.

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Noir

Opposite of a cozy mystery. In noir fiction, like it’s film counterpart, the atmosphere is dark and gritty. The world is a cynical and hopeless place. Shadowy street corners. Femme Fatales a lighting cigarette. Hard-boiled detectives are flawed anti-heroes with ambiguous morals. Those are the common traits of noir. When it comes to what’s right and what’s wrong, the lines are blurry. Noir endings can often be open ended and open to interpretation. Is justice served? Is the detective a hero? All valid questions in noir.

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Police Procedural/Forensic

For readers who enjoy those CSI shows, this subgenre is for you. For this subgenre, the main focus is police investigation. And it’s as accurate to real life as possible. Think unsolved crime documentary. Usually, the main character’s occupation is in law enforcement, in some way. Whether that be a cop or a forensic scientist or a coroner. In this subgenre, a lot of time and detail is devoted to the forensic science side of a case. Autopsy reports, crime scenes and dead bodies are described in almost too vivid detail. Not exactly for the faint of heart. But hey, reading a story like this, you may actually learn something about police procedure in a realistic case.

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Supernatural

Need some spooky Halloween vibes? This mystery subgenre is centered around the paranormal, investigating things that go bump in the night. In a supernatural mystery, the story designed to startle and thrill readers, dipping its toe in fantasy and horror genres. Elements of the unknown, ghosts and mystical are mixed into the narrative. Haunted houses and misty graveyards would make an excellent setting, I’m sure. The supernatural mystery is a puzzle – for both the reader and the detective. Explaining the unexplainable is the main goal of the investigator. When the story concludes, there’s usually a logical explanation for the paranormal disturbances.

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What is your favorite mystery subgenre? And if you are writing/have written a mystery story, what subgenre would you categorize it under? Or what is your favorite mystery subgenre to read? Talk to me in the comments. I love to hear from you guys.

Hope you all are enjoying May of Mystery so far. If you have any ideas for future mystery posts, let me know!

Safe safe and keep writing!

Write with heart,

Lady Jabberwocky

Are S.S. Van Dine’s Rules for Writing Detective Stories Still Accurate?

Hello amateur sleuths!

Welcome to the start of May of Mystery, an entire month dedicated to mystery writing. Two years ago, I broke down Ronald Knox’ Rules of Mystery Writing. Surprisingly, he’s not the only author who has created rules for mysteries. In 1928, S.S. Van Dine published “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories”.

Are these guidelines still relevant to today’s detective fiction? Or are they outdated? Let’s investigate, shall we?


1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.

Absolutely. A mystery story is not only a tale for readers to enjoy, it’s also a puzzle for readers to solve. It’s a game. All the clues must be on the table. Both the sleuth and the audience must have equal opportunity to unravel the mystery in the end.

2. No willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.

Red herrings and plot twists are one thing. Misinforming the readers intentionally is another. Readers are counting on you, the writer, to tell it to them straight. If the antagonist tricks the detective, they are tricking the audience as well, and that’s fine. Withholding information, lying to, or just messing with readers for laughs? That’s bad. It’s a disservice to the audience.

3. There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.

I disagree with this one. Stories can be multi-layered and fall under more than one genre. A love interest never killed nobody… Wait, let me rephrase that. Having a romance element mixed in with a mystery plot is not impossible and need not be discouraged. Heck, it could even add to the suspense of the plot, if done correctly. You don’t have to be chained to one genre. Balance is key. A love interest, or a spark of romance, in a murder mystery is fine, in my opinion.

4. The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It’s false pretenses.

True. The detective cannot be the culprit. That’s like saying the protagonist and the antagonist are the one in the same. That actually makes no sense. Like, where’s the conflict? He’s right, it is false pretenses.

5. The culprit must be determined by logical deductions — not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.

For a clue to accidently fall into the detective’s hands? Where’s the fun in that? Coincidence very rarely happens in an investigation. Sure, that may happen in cartoons, but that’s taking the easy way out. Think of real life investigators. I’m sure they’d love a murder weapon to just fall from the sky. Make sure the evidence is found by means of detection and deduction, not gift wrapped with a bow for the sleuth.

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6. The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.

You need a detective in detective fiction? Shocker. Well, you don’t necessarily need a professional detective, an amateur sleuth or private investigator works too. I do agree though, whatever the main character’s job is, they do need to detect. No matter their profession, the protagonist must dissect clues and actively investigate the crime.

7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader’s trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded.

For a minute, can we just appreciate “the deader the corpse, the better” line? Pure gold.

In my opinion, this point shows its age. The central crime of a detective novel doesn’t have to be a murder. It usually is, but it doesn’t need to be. There are plenty of mysteries out there focused on a kidnapping or a robbery or another major crime. Those can be just as compelling as a murder mystery.

8. The problem of the crime must he solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic seances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.

I understand where he’s coming from with this one. In the real world, yes, a detective must find clues by rational means. However, if a mystery does dip its toe into other genres – say, fantasy or supernatural – them magical means could be plausible. But, for the most part, sleuths should be grounded in logic. Finding evidence in such a mystical way does cheat the audience a bit, unless a fantasy element is heavily present in the plot.

9. There must be but one detective — that is, but one protagonist of deduction — one deus ex machina. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem, is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn’t know who his co-deductor is. It’s like making the reader run a race with a relay team.

Clearly, this man did not live long enough to see the animated wonder that is Scooby-Doo and Mystery Inc. You can have more than one detective on the case. Many great mysteries have dynamic duos or reliable Watson-types in them. Multiple characters can work together and share the glory of solving a case. A team of sleuths can share the spotlight, each member bringing something different from the investigation.

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10. The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story — that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest.

Agreed. Don’t introduce the culprit halfway through the story. That’s cheating. The reader must have an opportunity to solve the case alongside the detective. The antagonist should appear in the beginning of the story and be actively involved in the plot, one way or another. Otherwise, you risk duping the audience, in an unfavorable way.

11. A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion.

True enough. ‘The butler did it’ is a bit cliché. When you have a line-up of suspects, think about who, on the surface, looks least likely to commit the crime. That character might be the best choice for a compelling antagonist.

12. There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire onus must rest on one pair of shoulders: the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.

Keep in mind, this list was written in 1928, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express was published January, 1934. That being said, it is possible to have more than one culprit. Typically though, yes, there is a main criminal performing the crime in a given story. Someone has to be the bad guy, right?

13. Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance; but it is going too far to grant him a secret society to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds.

Personally, I’m not a fan of stories involving secret societies and mafias. At the start of any mystery, the suspects need to be on the same level of suspicion, the same playing field. And yes, if one of the suspects is a freaking crime boss or hit man for the mob, that does not bode well for the plot. It may even fall into the ‘too cliché’ category.

14. The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier. Once an author soars into the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner, he is outside the bounds of detective fiction, cavorting in the uncharted reaches of adventure. 

Again, I believe a mystery can dabble in other genres, even fantasy. In any world – real or otherwise – the murder must make logical sense. I do think the means of murder and detection must be realistic. When things feel too farfetched, readers will lose interest.

15. The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent — provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face-that all the clues really pointed to the culprit — and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying.

When it comes to evidence, you must be upfront with the audience. All the pieces of the puzzle have to be on the table. They don’t have to make a crystal clear picture, but all the relevant clues must be gathered before the ending. Remember, timing is everything. Be aware of when and how the reader and the detective learn the facts of a case.

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16. A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no “atmospheric” preoccupations. Such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.

Well, too much description can be boring. No one likes a word vomit. Details set the scene and paint a picture for the reader’s imagination. On the other hand, subplots can actually benefit the story as a whole. Also, flushed out character are important. Character must have depth and feel genuine if an audience is going to connect with them.

17. A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by housebreakers and bandits are the province of the police departments — not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives. A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities. 

Basically, the culprit should be someone the audience least expects. That makes for an ever so satisfying plot twist. This relates to the point regarding mafias. If one suspect in the lineup is a rogue with a long crime record, that character being the killer may come across as predictable.

18. A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to hoodwink the trusting and kind-hearted reader.

What an anti-climatic ending that would be. All that investigating and clue hunting for nothing. An actual waste of time, for both the reader and the detective.

19. The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction — in secret-service tales, for instance. But a murder story must be kept gemütlich, so to speak. It must reflect the reader’s everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.

Before you ask, gemütlich means pleasant and cheerful. I had to google it. Although, there’s not much cheerfulness in a detective story. Every suspect needs a solid motive. Whether those are personal means or not, that’s up for debate. Thinking about it now, I suppose people are driven to crime due to personal reasons. Make sure each suspect has a clear motive or carries an ounce of suspicion, like any one of them could have performed the crime.

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Last point is the lightening round!

20. And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author’s ineptitude and lack of originality.

  • (a) Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect. With modern day investigation techniques, I’m sure this is possible.
  • (b) The bogus spiritualistic seance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away. Yeah, I don’t think that would work. No good.
  • (c) Forged fingerprints. On the fence with this one.
  • (d) The dummy-figure alibi. Sure, that’s probably fine, right?
  • (e) The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar. Love this! Saw it happen in an old noir film. Made me laugh. 10/10.
  • (f)The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person. Evil twin trope, a classic.
  • (g) The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops. Somewhat overdone in fiction, however, knockout drugs do exists. I’m on the fence with this one too.
  • (h) The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in. Has this guy never heard of a locked room mystery?
  • (i) The word association test for guilt. Not sure what this means, but I’ll take his word for it.
  • (j) The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unraveled by the sleuth. Hate these. Nobody has time for that.

What do you think of Van Dine’s rules for writing detective stories? Do you agree or disagree with any of them? Talk about it in the comments.

Stay safe, keep writing and happy sleuthing!

Love,

Lady Jabberwocky

Get a Clue: The 3 Types of Evidence In Mysteries

Hello writer bugs!

What’s a whodunit without some hard hitting evidence? Clues in mysteries can lead the detective and the reader down either the right path or the wrong path. I’m breaking down the three types of clues a sleuth will find during their investigation.

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Physical Evidence

Probably the most likely of evidence, these are the tangible clues. The kind of evidence the detective can physically hold, feel and smell. And remember, this item can be planted to frame someone else.

Examples:

  • Forensic evidence – Hair, fingerprints, blood etc. If you are writing a historical mystery, research how detectives used science to solve cases during that time period. You’ll be surprised.
  • Personal items – This could be anything, from jewelry to hand written notes to photographs. Whatever the object, it connects the culprit to the scene of the crime or connects the killer to the victim.
  • Murder weapon – Possibly the most important piece of evidence in a case. A bloody knife or a smoking gun can tip the balance of any investigation. Really consider where the weapon is found. Was it found near the dead body or was it disposed of?

Thematic Evidence

Here’s where the creative in creative writing comes in. As writers, we often use subtle nuances as hints to the reader. Think about how the audience experiences the story, the surrounding atmosphere of a scene.

Examples:

  • Weather can set the vibe of a scene. Tense situations tend to happen during dark and stormy nights.
  • Villains, especially Femme Fatales, wear light colored clothing then gradually transitions to a darker appearance.
  • That “invisible” character that is just too quiet and too innocent. Like the shifty looking butler or maid ducking in the background. You know who I’m talking about.

Verbal Evidence

Sometimes, mysteries are simply a game of questions and answers. Not only is who said what important, but what is not being said too, meaning body language and social cues.

Examples:

  • Verbal – How do suspects answer the inspector’s questions? How do they talk about the victim or the crime itself? Consider the tone of their voice. Do they sound abrasive? Defensive? Anxious?
  • Secrets – Everyone has their secrets. Who is gossiping about who? What lies are being told? What happens when secrets get exposed?
  • Body language – This is the “show, don’t tell” rule comes into play. Instead of writing “He was acting nervous”, describe how the body moves when someone is nervous.

With all three types of clues mixed into the plot, you will definitely had one solid mystery on you hands. What’s your favorite detective story? Lemme know in the comments!

Keep writing and stay safe!

Lady Jabberwocky

5 Deadly Essentials to a Great Mystery

Hello writer bees!

Some folks think murder mysteries are complicated to write. And they’re right. Mysteries involved many moving pieces. But once you understand the core elements of a mystery, writing in that genre won’t be as intimidating as it would appear.

So, continuing with the May of Mystery theme, let’s go over the essentials to any great mystery.

The Right Hook

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Note: This is a Halloween decoration idea from Pinterest. And it’s hilarious.

Right off the bat, the crime has to grab the reader’s attention. If you don’t have the audience’s interest from the start, they won’t be interested in how the mystery is resolved. Take it from someone who has changed the murder of my WIP murder mystery before. Whether it’s a murder, a kidnapping or a theft, the mystery itself should bring shock and intrigue to the audience. Really set the scene for the reader, give them every bit of detail, no matter how small or how gruesome.

The Investigator

When mystery is afoot, someone’s there to crack the case. A sleuth character is the heart and soul of this genre. The audience needs someone to follow and root for in this mystery.

Keep in mind, the protagonist does not have to be a bonafide detective. They can be a private detective, a member of law enforcement, or a regular joe who fell into the scene. And more than one person can be involved, like a detective duo (ex. Sherlock Holmes and Watson) or a team of sleuths (Scooby Doo and Mystery Inc.) Regardless, the protagonist(s) is invested in the investigation and is determined to uncover the truth.

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One of my favorite detective duos 😉

Also, ask yourself, why is the detective compelled to solve the case? The protagonist’s motives are just as interesting as the antagonist’s motives.

Suspicious Suspects

For any kind of mystery, a line-up of suspicious characters is assembled. And hidden amongst them is the true culprit. Each suspect must be memorable and standout from the rest. For example, take the suspects from the Cluedo board game. All distinct in character and yet equal in motive and opportunity to commit the crime. If not differentiated, characters will bleed together and get easily mixed up by the reader.

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How many suspects should a mystery story have? Personally, I think 3 to 6 suspects is a good number. Too many suspects will overwhelm, too little is too easy. Also, consider how the suspects relate to one another. Are they enemies? Are they lovers? How do those relationships effect the victim?

Clues and Red Herrings

Both the detective and the reader need breadcrumbs to follow. All of the evidence of the case must be out in the open. There’s no holding out on clues in a proper mystery, or the audience will feel cheated. However, not every hint leads to the truth. Some clues, called Red Herrings, divert an investigation, taking the detective down a dead end (no pun intended).

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Keep track of all the clues presented. Jot down a list of clues as you scatter them throughout the story. When does this piece of evidence appear in the story? How does it connect to the overall plot?

A Satisfying Finale

Every murder mystery needs a grand finale. The big reveal, when all the clues come together and the culprit is discovered. Sure, there can be some plot twists, but a mystery writer must deliver a satisfying ending to the audience. This means the other suspects are given alibis, proving without a doubt, the identity of the antagonist. And every bit of evidence is explained in detail. No loose plot ends, all story lines must be resolved in the end.

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What are some of your favorite mysteries? Let me know in the comments.

Stay safe and keep writing!

– Lady Jabberwocky

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The 3 Types of Evidence and Mistakes to Avoid When Dropping Clues

Hello writer bugs!

Get your magnifying glasses ready, cause we are hitting the pavement and looking at clues for your next murder mystery. What’s a whodunit without some hard hitting evidence? First, let’s talk about the three types of clues that are involved in a typical mystery.

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Physical Evidence

Probably the most likely of evidence, these are the tangible clues. Something left behind at the scene of a crime? Or a blood stained murder weapon? Or even a piece of DNA, like hair or fingerprints? These are the clues the detective can touch, hold and smell. The kind of evidence they can physically interact with.

Thematic Evidence

As writers, we often throw readers a bone in the form of hints. While a bit cliché, tense situation tend to happen during stormy nights. Villains often wear dark colors. As the audience progresses through the story, they sense those little nuances you establish. Like the story itself is holding up signs in the background.

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Verbal Evidence

Not only is who said what important, but what is not being said. Body language and social cues come into play. What is the tone of a suspect’s voice? What is said in an argument or a secret whisper? How do they react during a murder investigation. Sometimes, mysteries become a game of questions and answers.

Mistakes to Avoid

So planting clues can be tricky. You don’t want them to be obvious with a big neon sign, nor do you want then to be completely hidden. Finding the right balance is critical. Here are some pitfalls to steer away from.

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The Overused to DeathThe hackneyed clues that are so overdone, they’re never taken seriously. Accidently revealing secrets, victims writing their last message in a pool of blood.
The Overcomplicated Clues written in some bizarre code never fly too well. Evidence that requires something to be deciphered take up a lot of time. Also, their highly unrealistic. A murder mystery isn’t exactly an escape room. What criminal takes the time to leave his plans in Morse code?
The Obscure Trivial Pursuit Consider what is common knowledge for the average reader. Obscure trivia can be a hindrance. Be sure to give the proper information behind the evidence.
The Obvious LiesA detective cannot lie to it’s audience. In the midst on an investigation, an object can not be one thing, then mistaken for something else. Detective’s must be forthcoming.

Hope this helps you guys in your mystery writing pursuits. Be sure to check out this week’s prompt as well as the post on Ronald Knox’s Rules of Detective Fiction. Have a lovely weekend, amateur sleuths!

Write with Heart,

Lady Jabberwocky

How to Write About Fictional Foods and Feasts

Food, in any story, is almost unavoidable.

Whether your characters are cooking a traditional meal from their culture, or grabbing a bite to eat, food can become a memorable part of a scene.

Personally, I love when I get the chance to write about food, because of how descriptive you can be when talking about a meal. And its those small details that bring a story, and it’s characters, to life. Take a line from my WIP as an example: “I was rewarded with freshly baked bread topped with minced garlic and a generous drizzle of olive oil.” Got your mouth watering already, right? It’s the little sentences like that will hook reader’s attention in a snap.

No, you don’t have to sound like a menu when talking about what’s on the plate. However, plugging in descriptive details will enrich your story and build a realistic, clear image for your characters, and your readers.

Preparation

  • Boiled
  • Broiled
  • Fried
  • Baked
  • Roasted
  • Steamed

Taste and Flavor

  • Sweet, Sugary, Salty
  • Juicy, Fresh, Tart
  • Bitter, Sharp, Sour, Acrid
  • Refreshing, Rich,
  • Smokey, Fiery, Zesty, Vinegary

Texture

  • Crispy, Crunchy, Greasy, Oily
  • Charred, Sticky, Soft, Doughy
  • Mushy, Slimy, Luscious, Dry, Airy
  • Melted, Stringy, Tough, Ooey-Gooey
  • Ripe, Rotten, Chilled, Piping Hot

Rapid Fire Tips

  • If your writing about a cuisine from a culture that’s not your own, do the research. You’ll want to be accurate with the information from another heritage.
  • Writing Sci-Fi or Fantasy? Be creative with inventing delicacies that tie into your setting. Consider incorporating holidays that center around a certain meal. What does Thanksgiving look like on Pluto? You tell me.
  • When the story takes place in another time period, think about what food was common back then and how it was prepared.

Throw away vague words like “delicious” and give your readers something to chew on. What are some food related moments from your favorite stories? Does your WIP have a line regarding a good meal? Talk to me in the comments! Have a great weekend you guys. Right now, I’m off to an escape room.

Write with Heart,

Lady Jabberwocky

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