Ingredients of a dual-timeline mystery

My latest novel, The Admiral’s Wife, is a mystery written in two time periods – 2014 and the early twentieth century. I’d constructed a mystery before when writing Time and Regret, and had developed a method to keep track of the clues and red herrings that are essential to the genre. Add to that the need to keep track of two main characters and their separate timelines and you might be inclined to tear your hair out from time to time.

Here’s a few tips to keep in mind:

Plot is everything. You have to have a great story; one that engages readers from the outset offering twists and turns and unexpected developments. For example, a character your readers expect to be the culprit dies before the novel ends. Or perhaps your heroine loses the very clue that promised to solve the mystery or her lover is revealed to be working against her.

Source: How to Write a Book Now

Pacing must be high. Mystery lovers expect the story to build momentum and then for the action – those twists and turns – to remain in high gear. And there must be action! Too much interior musing will slow the story down. The hero has to be on the move with some sort of adventure happening while the mystery unfolds.

Tension has to build and build. Your heroine(s) must experience danger and challenge. Conflicts and dead ends are essential. A clue or two – ones that readers think are meaningful – should turn out to be insignificant. 

Characters can’t be boring. They need angst in their lives, personal dilemmas and demons and, like characters in any good novel, they need to change during the story. Their motivation for taking on the mystery must be clear.

The crime or triggering event has to occur early in the story. The sleuth and culprit also need to be introduced early and the crime has to be believable. No slow build up while readers get to know your characters. No extensive scene setting or backstory either.

Source: Helping Writers Become Authors – Writing Dual Time Stories

The mystery must challenge most readers. Your story will fall flat if it’s too easy to figure out. Readers should wonder who did it for a long time. Readers should suspect someone only to find that person had nothing to do with the crime. And yet, the ultimate explanation for why the culprit has done the crime has to be simple.

Wait as long as possible before revealing the culprit. The reveal is your readers’ ultimate satisfaction. They don’t want a lot of story resolution after that occurs.

The culprit needs to be punished. Your readers expect justice and will be disappointed if that doesn’t occur.

Not surprisingly, I reconstructed the plot several times and wrote many drafts before being satisfied that The Admiral’s Wife hung together as a mystery and a dual-timeline story. You’ll have to be the judge as to how well it satisfies these criteria 🙂

For more on mysteries, check out 8 Tips on Writing Dual-Timeline Mysteries. For more on dual-timeline stories, check out an article with advice from well-known author Susanna Kearsley titled Weaving the Twin-Stranded Storyline.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

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One Response

  1. What a wonderful summary of what makes a great mystery. And adding a dual timeline to a historical mystery – with all the plotting and research needed – sounds like a tremendous challenge. Hats off to you! I’d love to know more about your method for keeping track of clues and red herrings.

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