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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 Or are they outdated?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

The Tale of a Boy and a Mermaid (Parts 1-5)

(Written 4/16/21 – Hey Writer Bugs! It’s been a stressful week for me. So I decided to repost this old short story I wrote back in fiction writing class, in 2016. Don’t judge, every writer starts somewhere. Appreciate your early work, they’re a representation of how far you’ve come as a storyteller. Keep writing my friends! – Love, Lady Jabberwocky. )

The Tale of a Boy and a Mermaid

[Part One]

[Part Two]

[Part Three]

[Part Four]

[Part Five – Finale]

“I have an important task for you, lad,”

The knight commander was intimidating, over six feet tall with a thick beard and a scar on his forehead. Behind him was the kingdom of Eros’ flag, a deep purple with the emblem of a griffon, wings spread proudly. “I’m sure you have heard of the recent number of casualties out at sea, correct?” Many ships coming into port were either facing horrible storms or being sunken by unknown forces. Some in the village believed it to be a mermaid’s doing. “Take this message to the water’s edge tomorrow morning. Their messenger should meet you half way”The message was a scroll in a glass bottle, sealed tightly with a cork. “Is this…A declaration of war, sir?”

“Just negotiations,” The commander replied shortly, placing a large hand on by shoulder. “This will be a test, to prove if you are worthy of becoming a true knight someday,” He shooed me away with a wave of his hand. “Now, go attend to your other duties”.

I bowed and took my leave, examining the glass bottle in my hands. My brown leather boots shuffled along the dirt path that led to the stables. There were three large stallions, the noble steeds of the warriors of Eros. I began to brush one of the horse’s smooth coat. The sound of metal feet stomping towards me broke me from my daze. Sir Roger entered the stable, removing his helm. He ran a hand through his blonde hair, most likely returning from sparring.

“Have you finished with my sword?” Sir Roger approached me, removing his gauntlet. I nodded quickly. “With haste, mouse” He said impatiently. I dropped the brush and went to retrieve the knight’s sword. Yesterday, the blade was splattered with blood after a day’s quest. Now it shined like a sunbeam. I returned with the sword tucked into it’s leather sheath a moment later. “What do you have here?” He asked, examining the scroll in the glass bottle next to my satchel.

“A message I must deliver,” I informed “Tomorrow morning, to Crescent bay”.

“Well then you’re as good as dead, little mouse,” He laughed. “Have you ever seen a Mermaid before?”


Write with Heart,

Lady Jabberwocky

How Lucky We Are – 100 Word Love Story

On our first date, we found a fountain in the middle of New York City.

How lucky we were.

Tossed our coins in, made wishes. I wished for happiness.

Something even more wonderful happened.

We two individuals became us. Together.

Partners. Outliers. Player One and Player Two.

That was almost ten years ago.

We have shared laughter and tears and smiles.

Forged adventures in the mundane.

Made love in thunderstorms.

A comfortable kind of affection, like soft clouds to land on.

All from two characters in a story crossing paths at the right place, right time.

How lucky we are.


With Valentine’s day coming up, I wanted to write about love. Call me a hopeless romantic, or a sap, either one. Inspired by my wonderful boyfriend, Michael and our relationship. He has know idea I’m doing this (Surprise honey!). We will be spending the weekend ordering takeout and having a movie night at home. Sounds perfect to me.

How are you spending Valentine’s Day? Lemme know in the comments. I’m genuinely curious, what with a pandemic and all.

Stay safe and keep writing!

Love, Lady Jabberwocky

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5 Legendary Lady Authors (Before J.K. Rowling)

Hello everyone!

So, a few weeks ago, I was scrolling through Twitter and saw that Mary Shelley was trending. My initial reaction was “Yes, what a queen, she deserves to be trending in 2020.” Then, I found out why. Someone posted this.

And the #WritingCommunity on Twitter lost it. Women writers were unheard of before J.K. Rowling? Writers and bookworms alike began sharing some of their favorite female authors. And although it stemmed from an ill-informed tweet, it was amazing to see a community celebrate some outstanding ladies.

No, I’m not suggesting we burn this tweeter at the stake. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. However, I’m taking this as an opportunity to shine a light on legendary lady writers. So, here are some of my favorites female authors.

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Agatha Christie

The undeniable queen of crime herself. Some plot devices in the mystery genre, such as the plot twist and “parlor room scene”, came from her. With a writing career spanning decades, she is the creator of beloved fictional detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Considered the most widely published authors of all time, her work is outsold only by Shakespeare and the Bible. Undoubtedly, Dame Agatha Christie is one of my favorite female authors.

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Toni Morrison

Known under the pen name Toni Morrison, this prominent female author has written many novels and essays focusing on the black experience. Featuring her poetic style and powerful voice, her most notable novels includes The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon. In the time of the Black Lives Matter Movement, her writing and words on race relations are more important than ever. Sadly, Toni Morrison passed away last year, but her legacy lives on in her work.

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Mary Shelley

An English novelist from the 19th century, Mary Shelley is the inventor of science fiction and author of Frankenstein. As a Romantic female author using gothic elements, she created the most recognizable fictional monster and forged the start of a new genre. When I think of writers thinking outside the box, I look to Mary Shelly. The depth and complexity in her narrative still astounds me.

Fun fact, she is daughter of another famous female author, Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote feminist work like A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

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Gertrude Stein

A pioneer in the LGBTQ+ community, Gertrude Stein is a queer female author of the Lost Generation. Best known for The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, her playful prose style and lighthearted humor set her apart from the rest. Plus, she was friends with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso. Talk about squad goals.

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Harper Lee

You know the phrase ‘write what you know’? Harper Lee did just that. She drew inspiration from her own life, growing up in the deep south, and put that in her writing. Although she only wrote two books, Harper Lee has made a significant contribution to literature. In my opinion, To Kill a Mockingbird is a true American classic. And even decades later, her work still strikes a chord in all of her readers.


Of course there are a ton of other talented female authors throughout history. Virginia Woolf, Judy Blume, Ursula Le Guin, and Maya Angelou, to name a few more. The list goes on and on.

As a female writer myself, these extraordinary women inspire me to publish a book someday. I could only hope to follow in these ladies footsteps.

Who are some of your favorite female authors? Lemme know in the comments. And be sure to click all the links, it helps support this blog.

Stay safe and keep writing, writer bees!

— Lady Jabberwocky

5 LGBTQ Books to Read for Pride Month

Hey writer bees!

Diversity in storytelling is so important. Every kind of person should be represented and represented well. No matter the story, the characters need to feel realistic. That includes their sexuality and gender identity.

In honor of Pride Month, I’m sharing some colorful books that celebrate the LGBTQ community.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Distant and exacting, Bruce Bechdel was an English teacher and director of the town funeral home, which Alison and her family referred to as the “Fun Home.” It was not until college that Alison, who had recently come out as a lesbian, discovered that her father was also gay. A few weeks after this revelation, he was dead, leaving a legacy of mystery for his daughter to resolve.

I’ve read this book, and let me tell you, it’s an outstanding story. Alison Bechdel is an exceptional and brave writer. Full of humor and heartbreak, I couldn’t recommend this graphic memoir any higher. You don’t have to be queer to feel touched by her life story. Seriously, Fun Home is a must-have in your book collection.

Amazon.com: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic eBook: Bechdel, Alison ...

The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

On the first day at his new school, Leo Denton has one goal: to be invisible. Attracting the attention of the most beautiful girl in his class is definitely not part of that plan–especially because Leo is a trans guy and isn’t out at his new school.

Written in first person narrative, Lisa Williamson tells the story of two transgender students who are navigating their gender identity. Based on reviews, it’s a great exploration of what it means to be transgender today. This one is definitely on my To-Be-Read list!

The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson - review | Children's ...

Prince and Knight – Daniel Haack (Author), Stevie Lewis (Illustrator)

In this modern fairy tale, a noble prince and a brave knight come together to defeat a terrible monster and in the process find true love in a most unexpected place.

Not every prince is looking for a fair maiden. If you want to introduce the youngsters in your life to inclusivity and the LGBTQ community, look no further than this charming children’s book. This fairytale is colorful and magical and incredibly sweet. Frankly, I might buy this book for my nephew, so he can learn about acceptance and love in all forms.

Prince & Knight (Mini Bee Board Books): Haack, Daniel, Lewis ...

Stonewall: The Definitive Story of the LGBTQ Rights Uprising that Changed America

On June 28, 1969, the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village, was raided by police. But instead of responding with the typical compliance the NYPD expected, patrons and a growing crowd decided to fight back. The five days of rioting that ensued changed forever the face of gay and lesbian life.

For all the history buffs out there, this is the book for you. A masterful, powerful retelling of the Stonewall Riots and the first gay rights march, written by historian Martin Duberman. With everything going on in the world right now, this piece of work is so relevant and on the pulse. Learning about our history is important, now more than ever.

Stonewall: The Definitive Story of the LGBT Rights Uprising that Changed America by [Martin B.  Duberman]

This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson

There’s a long-running joke that, after “coming out,” a lesbian, gay guy, bisexual, or trans person should receive a membership card and instruction manual. THIS IS THAT INSTRUCTION MANUAL. You’re welcome.

Lighthearted and informative, this is the unofficial guide to being gay and/or curious. Inside, there’s candid answers to any and all LGBTQ related questions. No matter your sexual preference, this book makes for a great gift and an even greater addition to your bookshelf.

This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson, Paperback | Barnes & Noble®

As writers, as readers, as humans, let’s expand our horizons and promote inclusivity in everything we do.

What’s your favorite LGBTQ book? Lemme know in the comments.

Write with heart,

Lady Jabberwocky

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Skeleton in the Closet (Mystery Short Story)

“You sure you’re sure about this one, boss? She just a sweet old lady.”

His wrinkled face pinched into a scowl as he glared at the muggy March sky. “Dreadful weather today.” He grumbled, fastening his coat. Cold and rainy, my mother would call this ‘soup weather’. Clutching the handle of his cane, he teetered down the pathway of the Madam’s estate.

Keeping with his turtle slow pace, I held an umbrella over both of our heads. “Are you even listening?”

“Of course.” Mister Barnaby assured me. I had worked with him long enough to know he was certainly not listening.

It was an awfully big house, far too ritzy for my taste. May as well live at the Plaza. Upon entering the sprawling mansion, a church mouse dressed as a maid met us at the door. Glancing behind her, she presented us with a simple key, the last piece of the puzzle. As we were led into the living room, I stuffed the skeleton key into my vest pocket.

“Detective Barnaby, come in. Come in!” A gracious greeting offered by the lady of the house. Mrs. Matilda Pierce, a well kept woman, with pristine makeup and not a hair out of place. Trust me, this broad didn’t look a day over 50. Perched by the fireplace, she sat in her antique rocking chair, wearing a dressing gown embroidered with orchids.

“Fiona, dear,” Mrs. Pierce beckoned for her timid maid. “Bring some more tea for the detective and his assistant.” The maid scurried off. After sipping her cup of tea, her lips curled “Did you find him?”

Three months Franklin Pierce had been missing. His shiny automobile still parked in the driveway. Most of his personal possessions were still in the home. And none of the staff members saw him leave either. An odd case, wouldn’t you say?

Tipping his tweed cap like a proper English gentleman, Mister Barnaby eased into the chair opposite her. “Unfortunately, your husband is still missing. We are still investigating. Your granddaughter is quite concerned, last we spoke to her.”

Her hand waved dismissingly. “Oh she worries too much. Franklin probably went on another fishing trip.”

“One of your maids said that you were arguing with you husband before his disappearance.”

“Couples have disagreements. Couples take breaks,” She patted my cheek like a long lost grandmother. “You’re young, sweetie. You will learn soon enough.”

“I see.” Mister Barnaby gave me a measured nod, a signal that meant ‘fetch, dog, fetch’. Oh, the joys of being a detective’s right hand man. I excused myself to go to the restroom, leaving my employer and the madam alone by the fire.


Last night, the detective lectured me on old homes with their various hiding places. How he suspected Mr. Pierce was still on the property, one way or another. How the maid promised to give us the skeleton key when we arrived tomorrow.

“Check behind every door, every closet.” Mister Barnaby instructed. “Mr. Pierce is still in that house.”


I searched anything that had a hinge. Cupboards with hidden compartments. Closets within closets. What kind of maniac built this house? Then, I checked a closet in one of the guestrooms. Behind fur coats and cardboard boxes of leftover Christmas decorations was a narrow wooden door. A secret passage, if you will. The door led to stairs, and the stairs led to a basement.

I found Franklin Pierce. Strangled to death and left to rot in a cement room under his home. A kiss of red lipstick stamped on his cheek. Early stages of decomposing. Poor fella had seen better days. When I returned to the detective’s side, Mrs. Pierce was reapplying her red lipstick in the mirror. And she began to laugh. “Oscar, darling, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“More like a skeleton in a closet, boss.” I muttered to Mister Barnaby, lighting a ciggy in my mouth. The mad madam continued to laugh.


To end May of Mystery, here’s a story based on a prompt of the week, featuring characters from my WIP, Detective Barnaby and his assistant Oscar. Enjoy!

– Lady Jabberwocky

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Do Ronald Knox’s 1929 Rules on Detective Fiction Still Hold Up in 2020?

(With May Of Mystery right around the corner, I’ve decided to repost this article for last year. Enjoy!)

Hello my amateur sleuths!

Did you know that one famous author actually wrote rules for writing detective stories in the 1920’s?

Ronald Knox was a prominent figure in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. As a mystery loving priest, he published the Ten Commandments on Detective Fiction. Are the rules still relevant or outdated? Let’s investigate, shall we?

1.The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.

True enough. If the author introduces the real killer towards the end, readers will feel cheated. How can they suspect a character that came out of nowhere? The criminal needs to be introduced within the first couple chapters of the story. Also, the audience, usually, isn’t allowed to enter the thoughts of the murderer. Their inner workings should remain unknown to the audience, until the very end.

2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

Now, I disagree with this one, just a smidge. If done right, multiple genres can be featured in a single story. Maybe a sprinkle of supernatural could work in a murder mystery. It’s all about balance. As long as the integrity of the whodunit remains solid, other genres can join in. A little fantasy and magic never killed nobody.

3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

I mean, he has a point. A second secret passage won’t garner as much surprise as the first secret passage. One hidden room is enough. Don’t push your luck.

4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

Fair enough, Mr. Knox. Basically, this rule applies to all made up devices. Hard to acquire poisons from foreign lands or complex inventions are far too unlikely plotwise. Using an unusual method cheats the readers from unraveling the mystery themselves. Remember, detective fiction is meant to challenge the reader mentally, like a puzzle.

5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.

No, we’re not talking about those of Chinese descent. The term ‘Chinamen’ refers to evil mastermind character, maniacal laugh included. Antagonists need real motives. Their reason for committing a crime must be plausible. No sinister villains are welcome in a detective story.

6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

Frankly, this rule reminds me of those classic Scooby Doo cartoon, where clues fall into their laps. As tempting as it sounds, coincidences, chance happenings and bizarre hunches are just too easy. Every clue must be discovered on purpose, with purpose. Don’t just hand over clues on a silver platter. Make your detective, and the reader, work for every scrap of information.

7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.

Where’s the fun in that? Listen to Knox, it’d be a disaster to have the detective be the culprit. Plus, you’re killing any chance for a sequel. No pun intended.

8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.

For fairness, the detective and the reader must have equal opportunity to solve the case. However, the sleuth can keep some less obvious clues to himself. Just collecting the insignificant clues in his/her pocket until the big reveal. The reader knows every hint, but just isn’t sure how important each piece of information is.

9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

I object to this one. Although he wasn’t smarter than Holmes, I wouldn’t consider Watson an idiot. Seriously, Watson could pull his own weight. The sidekick can have brains too. Heck, they may even become as asset for a detective during an investigation. Instead of being slightly below the reader’s intelligence, why can’t a sidekick’s intelligence be slightly below the detective’s brainpower?

10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

See, I feel like nowadays, audiences are thrilled by surprise doubles. Not all doubles or twin need a heads up in advance. (Side note: Have you guys been watching Cloak and Dagger? Talk about shocking doubles.)


Yes, all of these “commandments” have been broken in detective fiction before. However, some of these rules are still relevant by today’s standards. Murder mysteries are complicated games, whether you choose to take note of the rules or break them is up to you. You’re the writer.

What do you guys think of Knox’s rules from 1929? Do you think they still hold up to today’s whodunits? Let me know in the comments.

Write with Heart,

Lady Jabberwocky

Stop the Presses (Short Story)

You know, if the school wanted to foster a love of writing and journalism among the students, they’d have given us a nicer room for the school newspaper.

The musty smell of that room still lingers on my coat. A dark, dreary janitor closet of a room with murky windows. File cabinets, cramped desks and windows that were stuck shut. Oh and a coffee machine that only produced mud flavored water. What a inspiring, creative place it was.

Only three of us students ran the school newspaper. That week, two were out sick with mono that they contracted from each other. And our supervising teacher had a meeting with their divorce lawyer.

I, Bianca Pellegrini, had to singlehanded write, edit, proofread, publish the entire ‘Sullivan Spectrum’ newspaper before the impending deadline. And I refused to miss a deadline. Thank goodness nothing interesting ever happened around here.

There was a knock on the door. No one ever knocked on that door.

By Thursday, the mountain of stress and my foul mood reached it’s peak. You really shouldn’t meet the love of your life in such a state.

With frizzled curls tied into a messy bun and raccoon bags under my eyes, I stalked over to open said door. And there he was. Picture handsome and humbleness wrapped in a theater kid package. Tobias Bernard.

“Can I help you?”

An earnest smile greeted me. How dare he. “Hey, I’m Toby B-“

“Oh I know who you are.” A proper journalist needed to know who’s who. “Your sister made the front page last week.” How could I forget that cover story? A picture of a “artistically defaced” statue and his sister Kimber with paint on her hands. Literally caught red handed.

An amused smirk played on his lips as he scratched the back of his head.”Yeah, that’s my sister. Don’t hold it against me.”

“Actually, that old statue needs a pop of color.” We shared an awkward laugh. “Did you need something?”

Without an invitation, he waltzed himself in the room. “Bianca, right?” I nodded as his hand rifled inside his backpack. “You wrote the review for the school musical.” From his backpack, he pulled out a rolled up, crumpled newspaper. “I need you to change it.”

Crossing my arms, my brows knitted together. Excuse me?

A bit hesitant and bashful, Toby continued. “See, my friend was the lead. And there were some… Critical things written and she’s been crying about it for days.” He offered me the newspaper, to see for myself, but I didn’t bite.

“It’s called being honest.”

“You called her mediocre.”

“I called her singing mediocre.” I corrected. Trust me, mediocre was an understatement. “Besides, I can’t reprint my review. I’d lose credibility.” Definitely couldn’t lose my credibility. I slumped back in my seat behind my desk. “Sorry about your friend, but there’s nothing I can do.”

After a brief stalemate, he conceded. With a deep sigh, his shoulders shrugged. “Well, It was worth a shot.” His fingers idly lingered on my mug of coffee, peering inside with a grimace.

Snatching the mug from his grasp and turning back to the computer, I began working on the next article. A half baked piece about the prom’s unoriginal theme, under the sea. Drown me already. I thought he would leave, but he didn’t. His eyes glanced around the empty room. “Wait, are you working on the paper by yourself?”

“Yep.” I grumbled before sipping my coffee, which no longer tasted like sludge but like a fancy, overpriced espresso. Little did I know, that was the first sign of his “magical talent”.

Toby leaned against the desk, tossing me a skeptical yet intrigued look. “But you’re only a freshman.”

Okay, make that one big gulp of coffee. “Bottom of the totem pole. I know. Gotta work my way up.”

As it turned out, we kept talking until free period was over. All thoughts of stress and deadlines lifted off my shoulders. The conversation was oddly comfortable. Toby had brought me a welcomed break, I’d say. Talk about stop the presses. I told him about my plans for my own column next year. He asked what I’d write about.

“Paranormal investigation.” Unusual subject matter, I understand. Ever since I was a kid, I chased the things that go bump in the night. Stories of witches and ghosts and aliens caught my interest.

His once relaxed demeanor grew tense. He shifted away from me, rubbing his arm. Trying to play it smooth, a magic he had yet to learn. “That’s pretty cool.”

The bell rang and we parted ways.

“We should hang out sometime.”

“Yeah, maybe we should.”

As he walked away, he sent me a wink. Corny fool. But that corny fool eventually became my boyfriend. Who was the fool now?

“Lemme know if you find any witches, Bianca Pellegrini.”

What’s in a Name?: Tips on Naming Characters

Hello hello writer bugs!

I don’t know about you guys, but for me, naming a character is like naming a child.

Whether it’s for a main character or a background character, the names you choose should be significant. Names can tie characters to the setting, to their roots, or just hold a greater symbolic meaning. How do you find the perfect name for a character? I’ve got some tips that are sure to help.

Baby Naming Websites

Baby naming websites for mommies-to-be are actually really helpful. Check out the extensive lists and dredge up some ideas for names. If you are looking for a name that begins with a certain letter or a specific cultural origin, you’ll be able to search names that fit your criteria.

A Name with Meaning

Sometimes, names have a deeper root meaning. And those meanings can fit into a character’s personality. You’d be surprised what some names translate into. Not every reader is going to make those connections, however, you, as the author, will know. A meaningful name may influence a character’s identity.

For my MC, his first name is Graham, which means ‘grey home’. That image really connects with his gloomy and mysterious personality.

Historical Context 

If your story takes place in another time period, keep in mind the historical context. Names that are common today may not have been 100 years ago. Find out what names were common at the time. If you Google something like ‘names from 1920s’, a list of popular names from the 1920s will probably pop up.

Also, check the Social Security Administration website for ranked list of common names of the decade. It’s pretty useful, and it’ll give you a feel for the time period and what inspired names during that era.

Sound it Out

When in doubt, sound it out. Say the name out loud. If it doesn’t sound right, or its difficult to pronounce, or just sounds like a mouthful, then something’s off. Keep trying. Once you’ve found a name that suits your character, it should just click. Like, “huh, that one sounds right.”

Consider the Entire Cast

Try not to have characters’ names sound similar, or readers may be confused. Think about your fictional crew as a whole and note if names sound too alike. By differentiating characters, readers will have an easier time following the story and connecting with individual characters.

One time, in fiction writing class, a classmate had two characters named Flip and Clip. Unironically. Don’t have a Flip and Clip in your story. I’m still confused about it.


How do you go about naming your characters? Lemme know in the comments!

Write with heart,

Lady Jabberwocky

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