Beware: Mystery Writer’s Brain at Work

By J.A. Hennrikus
Overlooking Boston

Several years ago I met my friend Regina for our weekly mystery-writing-check-in lunch. We had barely put in our order when she pulled a ball of elastics the size of a softball out of her bag.

“Do you think you could kill someone with this?” she asked as she tossed it across the table.

I caught it, and tossed it up a couple of times. “Probably,” I said. “It is heavy and really dense. Probably if you aimed it at the right place and threw it hard.”

“Right? I wonder how hard? But can you imagine the interesting pattern it would create? It would keep people guessing, that’s for sure.”

But now we realized that the waiter had stopped a few feet from our table, and that our neighbors on both sides were eavesdropping. Everyone looked a little horrified.

“Sorry,” Regina said. “We’re mystery writers. We’re always thinking about how to kill people.” Fortunately everyone laughed.

The reason mystery writers need to spend time with other mystery writers is that this wiring is a common trait, and it makes civilians nervous. Of course, they find it interesting the first time it comes up in conversation. And entertaining the second or third time. But the umpteenth time you wonder aloud what something tastes like, or how a stair tread could be jimmied, it starts getting creepy. And even a little off-putting for a new relationship.

blueberriesAnd so it with that frame in place that I offer a new recipe. I made it for my family, but did not muse aloud of the mystery possibilities during our July 4 festivities. I leave that up to you, dear reader. And Edith Maxwell, since it has great farming/CSA possibilities. I am speaking of making a shrub.

A shrub is a syrup that you add to seltzer for a refreshing soda alternative. It is made of fruit, sugar, and cider. The shrub I made yesterday was 1 c. apple cider vinegar, 3/4 c. sugar and 1 pint of blueberries brought to a boil for 10 minutes or so, then left to cool for 45 minutes. Squish up the fruit during the cooling period, then strain it into a jar, and refrigerate. Add 2-3 T. to a glass of seltzer. YUM. [I am going to try and different method and let the fruit and cider sit for a few days before making the syrup. And I am also going to make one with strawberries. But I digress.]

As I was tasting this drink, all I could think of were the plot possibilities it offered. The taste is strong, and a little odd. You can make all sort of shrubs, so the ingredients could be interesting. In fact, I would have used a shrub in my short story “Tag, You’re Dead” if I had known about them. Don’t be surprised if I do use them in a story at some point. But I promise not to bring them up at dinner. Unless you ask.

How about you, mystery writing friends. Do you plot during family dinners? Think about ways to change old family recipes? Please tell me it isn’t just me.

12 Thoughts

  1. I am thrilled to learn about a shrub, Julie. Is it really vinegar? That seems so odd, but obviously it all comes together in a delicious way.

    Right now I’m plotting Book Three in the Local Foods Mystery series, and I want to poison someone’s food! So I’m thinking a lot about winter foods from a farm (root crops, mostly) and how to slip something toxic into one person’s dish but not the person on either side’s. Hmm.

    Have also had that experience sitting with mystery writers in a public restaurant and then realizing it’s getting a little quiet at the other tables. ;^)

    1. Edith, I can help you think through the poisoning. And can you imagine what would happen if the Wicked Cozys went out for a public dinner?

  2. My walking friend–a civilian, avid reader, and great listener–complains all the time that I’ve screwed up her normal way of thinking with my “crazy story ideas.” She is a nurse, and from time to time she’ll tell me she heard about some disease or infection that would be good in a story. She’s caught the bug, and she’s not a writer!

    1. I love that! I had a friend who was the same way–he loved to tell me what happened to him at work that day, and listen to me turn it into a plot.

  3. Shameless cross-promotion: I wrote about shrub on Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen last week. Now I have several bottles of strawberry flavor staring at me, and it may take a year to use it up. But, yes, I find myself wondering things like, if someone didn’t know what something should taste like, would they notice the flavor of the poison? I also yell at not-too-bright Jeopardy contestants who don’t know that foxglove can be poisonous. And rhubarb (leaves, not stems)..

  4. My husband sometimes worries about the things I’ve learned at conferences and from friends. But I think he finally reached that “If you can’t beat them join them” point and now offers his own suggestions! I have to admit when I saw you asking for a shrub recipe on Facebook last week I thought it was some weird auto-
    corrected version of syrup! I’m intrigued!

  5. I am like this, too.

    I saw an article in the local Maine paper about the retirement of our identical twin bridgekeepers. They operated the swing bridge on Southport Island that opens to let boats pass. All I could think was–short story!

  6. I understand the castor bean, source of the deadly poison ricin, is polished and strung onto necklaces in Africa and other parts of the world. What if such a necklace were give as a gift to a woman known for her nervous habit of gnawing on pencils, thumbnails, long strands of beads…. What if a bean were accidentally ground up with the morning coffee?

    And raise your hand if you think “poison masked in Gatorade” when you hear “antifreeze”?

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