by R.G. Belsky

I’ve spent many years writing as a journalist. I worked for the New York Post, the New York Daily News, Star magazine and NBC News. And so I wound up covering some of the biggest crime stories of our times like Son of Sam, O.J., JonBenét, Casey Anthony, Jodi Arias and all the rest.

These days I write crime mysteries as the author of the Clare Carlson series — about a fictional woman journalist who is the news director of a New York City TV station.

A lot of people ask me about the differences between doing journalism and mystery fiction. Do I prefer writing real news or murder mysteries? Has being a journalist made me a better writer of fiction? Did I learn things about storytelling as a journalist that work for me too as a novelist?

Well, the two jobs — journalist and mystery author — certainly are different, but I’ve found there are some similarities too.

Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned along the way….

Grab the reader’s interest right from the start

For a newspaper reporter, it’s about getting the 5 “W’s” in the lead of a news story. Who, what, where, when and why. Tell the readers all the basic facts quickly to keep them reading the rest of the story. That’s one of the first things you learn to do as a journalist.

I’ve discovered it’s the same for writing mystery novels.

That first page of your book — hell, the first sentence — is so important. Want some examples of great opening sentences in mystery novels? From Michael Connelly’s The Poet:

“Death is my beat.”

From Michael Koryta’s How It Happened:

“I’d never seen him before the day we killed him.”

From Lori Rader-Day’s The Day I Died:

“On the day I died, I took the new oars down to the lake.”

Impossible to stop reading after openings like that, isn’t it?

Yes, you still have to write a great book too. But that “grabber” opening is the start.

Just like with the lead of a news story, you’ve got the reader’s interest and now you can keep them reading the rest of your mystery story.

Make sure your facts are right

The most important thing a journalist has to do is make sure the facts are accurate in a story. The old adage is: “What are the three most important things in a news story? Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy.” As a journalist, I spent much of my time checking and re-checking the facts of everything we produced for newspapers, magazines, TV or websites.

A mystery author gets to make cool stuff up without worrying about facts, right? Well, sort of.

Yes, it is fun to create fictitious crimes and crimes scenes, heroic protagonists, murderous villains, sexy love interests and all the rest — then come up with whatever ending we decide we want for our story.

But you still have to double-check that all the basic facts in your book are right. Make sure the names of real people are spelled correctly. Make sure dates of real events are 100 percent accurate. Make sure you don’t have someone going to a real store or restaurant that doesn’t exist anymore. And for God’s sakes, don’t screw up the geography of an actual city: If you put the Empire State Building on the wrong block or have your character driving the wrong way on a one-way street like Fifth Avenue, you’ll lose readers.

Because in a mystery novel, just like in a news story, you still need “accuracy, accuracy, accuracy.”

Good dialogue is really, really important

In a newspaper story, you’re always looking for the “money quote.” On a TV newscast, it’s the “killer sound bite.” That’s what makes a news story really come alive.

It’s called dialogue in a mystery novel — but it’s just as important.

From Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe to Robert B. Parker’s Spenser to Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone to Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum to Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, it’s the crackling dialogue we remember the most. Great dialogue works much so better in a mystery novel than just the author describing the situation to the reader.

Like this from Chandler’s The Long Goodbye:

“Tell me a little about yourself, Mr. Marlowe.

I’m a licensed private investigator and have been for quite a while. I’m a lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged, and not rich.both parents dead, no brothers or sisters, and when I get knocked off in a dark alley sometimenobody will feel that the bottom has dropped out of his or her life.”

For a former journalist like me, great dialogue like that is the equivalent of the “money quote” or “killer sound bite” that I was always looking for on a news story.

Keep the Story Moving

I was a tabloid journalist for most of my career, and one of the key rules of working at a tabloid is: tell the story as quickly as you can. You can give the reader everything they need in 10–12 paragraphs. Get in and out in a hurry!

Well, a mystery novel is at least a couple of hundred pages — but the same premise still holds true.

Keep the story moving all the time. Don’t slow it down with a lot of unnecessary exposition, thumb-sucking or other extraneous material

There’s a helluva lot of competition out there for people’s attention these days, from On-Demand, YouTube and all the rest of the instant gratification entertainment options.

Keep the pages turning so the reader doesn’t have a chance to get bored with your mystery novel.

Don’t Be Afraid to Break the Rules

When I worked in journalism, there were times I ignored the 5 W’s rule for the lead and all the other things I’d been taught, and just told a news story the way I thought it should be told.

A mystery novelist needs to do the same thing sometimes.

The best example of this in recent mystery novels is Gone Girl — in which author Gillian Flynn (a former journalist, by the way) violates pretty much every rule of mystery writing out there. Unlikeable characters, unreliable narration, no satisfying ending and definitely no playing fair with the reader. All the things we’ve been taught to avoid in writing a mystery, Flynn did them. And, of course, it turned out to be a blockbuster success.

What’s the lesson for a writer here? In journalism and in mystery writing, a writer should carefully follow all the rules he or she have been taught until, well … until it’s time to break those rules.

Read how other journalists do it

There’s plenty of journalists who have successfully made the transition from writing news to writing mystery fiction. One of the most prominent is Michael Connelly. Yes, that Michael Connelly — who began his career as a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Others include Hank Phillippi Ryan, an award-winning Boston TV reporter; Laura Lippman, who was a reporter at the Baltimore Sun; Brad Parks, an investigative reporter with the Star-Ledger of New Jersey; and Julia Dahl, a street reporter at my old paper the New York Post, then later a writer at CBS. And Gillian Flynn started writing novels after she got laid off from her journalism job at Entertainment Weekly. “I could not have written a novel if I hadn’t been a journalist first,” she has said.

So do you have to be a journalist to learn how to be a good novelist?

Of course not.

But it sure helps….

What’s your take on transferring skills from journalism to novel writing? Let’s chat on Facebook.


RG Belsky at Career AuthorsBelow the Fold BelskyR.G. Belsky is a journalist and crime fiction author. Belsky has worked as a top editor at the New York Post, the New York Daily News, Star magazine and NBC News. He has also published 12 mystery novels. His newest book, Below the Fold — second in a series featuring Clare Carlson, a woman TV journalist in New York City – will be published on May 7. Belsky won the Claymore Award at Killer Nashville in 2016 and his first Clare Carlson book, Yesterday’s News, was named Outstanding Crime/News Based Novel by Just Reviews in 2018 and is also a Finalist for Best Mystery of 2018 in the Foreward/INDIE Awards.