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Good fic­tion starts with the fol­low­ing three ingre­di­ents: a char­ac­ter, in a set­ting, with a prob­lem. A detec­tive nov­el, or a series of them, will start the same way. You will need a detec­tive of some kind. This detec­tive will oper­ate in a cer­tain set­ting. And he or she will have a prob­lem — name­ly the mys­tery they need to solve by the end of the book.

Some­times, you won’t have all three ingre­di­ents right at the begin­ning. This is noth­ing to wor­ry about. Just one of them should prove suf­fi­cient to ger­mi­nate the fer­tile soil of your imag­i­na­tion and pro­duce a won­der­ful idea for a novel.

Allow me to offer myself as an exam­ple. Before I began writ­ing the Adam Lapid mys­tery series — in which I’ve pub­lished six nov­els so far — all I knew was that I want­ed to write a book set in Israel. All I had was the set­ting, and a par­tial one at that.

And with that deci­sion made, my mind start­ed work­ing, and it wasn’t long before it fur­nished me with an idea for a main character.

My char­ac­ter, I decid­ed, would be a pri­vate detec­tive in post-World War II Israel. I want­ed him to have detect­ing expe­ri­ence, so I gave him a his­to­ry as a police detec­tive in Hun­gary before the war. I felt that he should be a man accus­tomed to loss and tragedy, so I made him a Holo­caust sur­vivor who lost his entire fam­i­ly in Auschwitz. He also need­ed to be a man of action, so he became a for­mer Nazi hunter and a dec­o­rat­ed vet­er­an of Israel’s War of Inde­pen­dence. I named him Adam Lapid.

With my main char­ac­ter firm­ly in mind, my mind kept work­ing. And soon it gave me the idea that would one day become Ten Years Gone, the first book in the series.

The idea was this: A Jew­ish Ger­man moth­er hands her baby son to a friend who is leav­ing Ger­many for Manda­to­ry Pales­tine short­ly before the out­break of World War II. The moth­er plans on fol­low­ing soon, but ends up spend­ing the war in Europe. All con­tact with her son is lost. The moth­er final­ly makes it to Israel in 1949 and she dis­cov­ers her son has dis­ap­peared with­out a trace. She hires Adam Lapid to find him.

I now had a char­ac­ter in a set­ting with a prob­lem to resolve: Adam Lapid in 1949 Israel, look­ing for a boy who’s been miss­ing for ten years.

I now had a char­ac­ter in a set­ting with a prob­lem to resolve: Adam Lapid in 1949 Israel, look­ing for a boy who’s been miss­ing for ten years.

As you can see, the set­ting and ini­tial idea grew out of my char­ac­ter. You might find it fruit­ful to employ a sim­i­lar process in writ­ing your own novel.

I knew long before I first put fin­gers to the key­board that I want­ed to write a series. But this is a deci­sion you don’t have to make in advance. A mys­tery series is usu­al­ly not com­posed of a sin­gle sto­ry bro­ken up over mul­ti­ple books, but a col­lec­tion of com­plete sto­ries that fea­ture the same char­ac­ter. Your char­ac­ter will like­ly change with time and expe­ri­ences, but each should have a def­i­nite end­ing. Mys­tery read­ers tend to pre­fer nov­els with a clear res­o­lu­tion. There­fore, to begin a detec­tive series, all you need is an idea for one novel.

Once you fin­ish your first nov­el, all you need to do is come up with ideas for new mys­ter­ies. The set­ting may remain the same or it may not, depend­ing on those ideas. For instance, the first five nov­els in the Adam Lapid series are set in Israel between 1949 and 1951. But the sixth, The Auschwitz Detec­tive, is a pre­quel that takes place in Auschwitz in 1944, when Adam Lapid was a pris­on­er there.

Ideas for new mys­ter­ies will often emerge from your set­ting or char­ac­ter or both. For instance, the idea for the fourth Adam Lapid nov­el, A Debt of Death, came from the set­ting as well as the char­ac­ter. In A Debt of Death, Adam Lapid inves­ti­gates the mur­der of a man whom he encoun­tered in Auschwitz (a char­ac­ter-derived idea); and the plot involves the thriv­ing black mar­ket that exist­ed in Israel in 1951 (a set­ting-derived idea).

One impor­tant tip regard­ing ideas: You don’t need to have the whole nov­el in your head on day one. All you need is an idea that excites you, that makes you want to write.

Once you have an idea for a mys­tery nov­el, you need to decide how you will write it. You can either out­line the book or write it with no pri­or plan­ning, hop­ing to find the sto­ry as you go along. Out­lin­ing has clear advan­tages. It gives you con­fi­dence that you have a great sto­ry before you spend months work­ing on it. It allows you to write faster because you know where you’re going. It reduces the need to excise point­less scenes that end up going nowhere, after you’ve expend­ed a great deal of time and effort in writ­ing them. I rec­om­mend out­lin­ing to all fic­tion writers.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly for me, I have nev­er been able to out­line a book. And I’ve tried mul­ti­ple times with var­i­ous meth­ods. There­fore, I write with­out plan­ning, word by word, and flow with the sto­ry where it takes me. At some point, I real­ize who the cul­prit is and dis­cov­er the clues I’ve unknow­ing­ly embed­ded in the man­u­script that will lead Adam Lapid to dis­cov­er it too. The uncon­scious mind is a won­der­ful tool. It sto­ry­telling instinc­tive­ly. Trust it and it will lead you where you wish to go.

Whether you out­line or not, whether you write mod­ern mys­ter­ies or his­tor­i­cal mys­ter­ies like I do, remem­ber to enjoy your­self. Write the sto­ries that will please you, with char­ac­ters you’ll enjoy spend­ing time with. If you do that, you’ll write bet­ter nov­els. And soon­er than you expect, you’ll have a series on your hands.

Jonathan Dun­sky is the author of the Adam Lapid his­tor­i­cal mys­ter­ies series and the stand­alone thriller The Pay­back Girl. Before turn­ing to writ­ing, Jonathan served for four years in the Israeli Defense Forces and worked in the high-tech and Inter­net indus­tries. He resides in Israel with his wife and two sons.