Inside The Wacky Mind of a Mystery Writer

By Liz, loving every minute of summer so far and wishing I was at the beach!

I was going through some old to-do lists on my desk the other day when I came across a note on which I’d written the following:

  • Pay oil bill
  • Make appt. for car service
  • Pick up dry cleaning
  • Write about woman pushing the dead toddler in the swing

You may recall the recent news item about the dead toddler in the swing in Maryland. I apparently heard the soundbite and experienced that “ooooh” moment where I thought Hey, that would be an incredibly creepy cool opening to a book, wrote it down and went about my business. If anyone else had come across the note, they’d surely wonder what on earth was wrong with me.

The mind of a mystery writer
Fun photo courtesy of Kim Fleck/Brand Fearless!

And such is the life of a crime writer. I don’t think any of my fellow writers would take offense if I said we’re all kind of weird like this. We see or hear stories in the news that horrify normal people and, while we do register that same emotion, it’s often followed up by excitement at the thought of a new plot or scenario or character or…you get the idea.

Like last week when the story circulated about the house in New Jersey with “The Watcher” sending creepy, threatening letters to the owners. My first reaction was Wow, I’d hate to live there. My second thought was, Let’s get this book written, baby!

But it doesn’t always stop there. My fellow Wickeds can testify to all the ways my imagination runs amok. When we were on retreat a couple weeks ago, it was right after the inmates escaped from the prison in upstate New York. Julie and I were out in the bunkhouse for the weekend, and I kept her entertained with my worries about the escaped murderers showing up looking for a place to hide and finding us in our tiny corner of Old Orchard Beach.

Yeah, sometimes it’s hard being in my head.

I’m used to it, though. This has been going on ever since I was a kid and created a whole coven of witches who lived in the woods behind my house. The guy up the street with the motorcycle? Well, he was in a murderous biker gang that went out on the weekends and did dastardly deeds. I was always fascinated when my parents invited him over for dinner. (No, he wasn’t actually part of a murderous biker gang, if you were wondering.) That girl in church every Sunday with her rough-looking ‘family?’ They had to have kidnapped her and forced her to go to church to make things appear normal. (I was on to her because no one else was allowed to wear jeans to church. There had to have been something crazy going on there!)

And so it goes on, to this day. Now, at least, I have plenty of books into which I can channel my runaway thoughts. One of our mentors, Hallie Ephron, talks about devising a premise for a mystery novel using the “Suppose…what if” format in her book, Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel. I think she trained me too well, since now I do this simply walking down the street.

But it’s a sure bet I’ll never run out of material.

Readers, ‘fess up: How many of you create mysteries wherever you go?

25 Thoughts

  1. Waving hand! I drive down a rural road and see a shape by the side of the road. Body! I think. Of course when I actually pass it it’s a large black garbage bag. Or when I read the terrible story of the toddler whose mother was killed and the baby was found still trying to nurse from her mommy – I thought: Story. Great post Liz. You are my imaginations’ kindred spirit!

    1. Wait–I saw one of those! At an exit off Route 3 heading for the Cape. A bulky bundle wrapped in white plastic that looked like a seated man. No, I didn’t stop. But of course I assumed it was a body, not trash.

  2. I smiled at your comment about jeans in church–a fashion statement blows the secret!
    The escapee story fascinates me because of the involvement of the female prison worker who assisted them and was supposed to drive the getaway car. What goes on in the mind of someone who falls in love with a killer who dismembered a victim?
    One of my short stories, published in 2013, came from a story a friend told about seeing a woman huddled on the side of a lonely road. I turned the woman into a mannequin and went from there.

  3. As it happens, my mother was born in Westfield. Her grandmother lived down the street from the actual Addams Family (Charles Sr. and Jr.). My sister in KY told me about the Westfield stalker, before I ever heard about it. There’s something about that place…

    There are so many “what ifs”! I can’t walk by a large stain on the pavement without wondering if it’s blood.

  4. I’ve been wondering who would write The Watcher story first. Over the weekend a high school classmate was riding her bike on trials in Colorado and saw a body (naked except for hiking boots) being swept down a river. My first thought: Can I use that? And when my daughter’s friend heard a gunshot and found a man murdered, I asked what did she see, how did she feel.

  5. Westfield, NJ? I lived there as a girl. The Addams house was Red Cross offices. I used to imagine Charles peaking out the attic window. I’ve been in New Orleans for the past month, soaking up the Uptown atmosphere: towering live oaks, potholes, overflowing garbage cans in the streets, and the first frothy blooms of the crepe myrtles.

  6. Hi, I’m Mary and I’m a crime writer…

    There’s been a torrential amount of rain here. A couple weeks ago, the Laurel Highlands Vistors’ Bureau posted a picture of Fallingwater, and how the stream was almost level with the lower platform from which you can view it. My first thought: what a great way to find a body! The murderer thinks he’s safely stashed the victim in the woods, but the overflowing stream washes it away where it gets stuck on the viewing platform of the Frank Lloyd Wright house, where it is (of course) found by an innocent tourist.

    Over the weekend I went to Ohiopyle State Park with friends. We were in the woods, at waterfalls, on the river – again, all very swollen because of the rain and still gorgeous. All three of us are crime writers: “This would be a great place for a murder!”

  7. Love this, Liz. I am always “what-iffing.” Hundreds more ideas than books I can ever write. Almost everything I’ve written builds off a tiny scrap of conversation overheard or a story someone told me.

  8. My imagination goes there too, when I let it. I think it’s a curse for mystery readers, too.

  9. Mysteries marinate in my head all the time. I haven’t even finished the final edit on my current novel (and first novel – LOL) and I’m already thrashing out the details of “The Night Beach”, a “who done it” about a pregnant and dead aboriginal girl whose spirit is witnessed by a wolf during that mysterious time of phosphorescence. I’m thinking about giving a mystic quality to this story and the wolf and a psychic young girl make a mind connection that starts the investigation of a ten year old cold case.

    Whew! How’s that for knowing what you mean?

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