The Self-generating Mystery
After receiving a number of unsolicited posts offering “essential keys to acing story structure” and gaining a competitive edge if I will only buy this or that tutorial, it seemed a good time to consider why I create crime stories in the first place and the process I use along the way.
The first thing that comes to mind is something a noted college instructor from the Midwest used to tell his students. He believed the best way to generate a worthwhile tale was to try not to write. When and if the time came when you couldn’t stand it any longer, when you were haunted by a compelling what-if? or unfinished business, that was the sign you had something going.
It seems that all the while your subconscious was busy testing and sorting things out until you reached a certain irrepressible juncture. Something baking and stockpiled perhaps, so that all kinds of links were taking hold. You could say it’s like a playful openness to connections that wouldn’t have occurred to you if you were stuck with a sure-fire, predictable guide.
For example, I didn’t set out to write a Southern crime-and-blues odyssey. As it happens, a couple invited my wife and I down to the backwoods of Mississippi because Bob, the husband, had just inherited an old log cabin. While taking an exploratory walk, he and I got lost in the brambles and thickets until we came to a rippling stream laden with shattered fallen limbs. Not at all sure where we were, Bob said, “I think this here is Wolf Creek.” Soon after I learned there had been a Civil War skirmish close by, along with a troubling Civil Rights episode some hundred years later. Back home in Connecticut, seemingly out of the blue, my wife decided she wanted to contribute to a homeless shelter. While visiting the facilities, I couldn’t help noticing an abandoned box car rusting on the railroad tracks across the way. It seems drifters were holding out there until it got too cold and they were forced to relent and come inside.
By this point, my imagination was off and running with a jumble of what-ifs? What if I placed the box car in Paducah, Kentucky where a shivering runaway by the name of Alice was hiding, blocking from memory what she had witnessed over the border up in a hunter’s blind above Wolf Creek? Josh, an imaginary homeless man, was also, in a sense, a runaway when, by chance, he comes across Alice. Like me, Josh had never really stuck his neck out, never really faced danger. He just wanted to be a rambler and play the blues. It later dawned on me that he didn’t realize you had to earn the right to be a bluesman and here was the basic catalyst for a mystery. On and on the links began to evolve, connecting to the past and the present day—the Civil War and hidden secrets from the Civil Rights movement, the blues scene on Beal Street in Memphis, and a current political campaign for governor of Mississippi.
What I now had on hand was a burgeoning cache of provocative questions leading me on, inside a world I knew little about but kept wanting to discover more.
Admittedly, it took a while for all these interweaving threads to resolve. But, in the end, because I bypassed the easy well-worn path of plotting recipes, I discovered a journey worth taking. And I can’t help recalling an F. Scott Fitzgerald touchstone that goes something like this: “The born novelist has the soul of a peasant, tilling the soil, nurturing the process through the seasons until the crop is set for harvest.”
I should point out that it’s not that I’m oblivious to the marketplace and what may await you out there. But still and all, it’s highly likely that the “essential keys” are built-in once you’re truly ready.
Shelly Frome is a member of Mystery Writers of America, the film columnist at Southern Writers Magazine, a professor of dramatic arts emeritus at the University of Connecticut, a former professional actor, and a writer of crime novels and books on theater and film. His fiction includes Sun Dance for Andy Horn, Lilac Moon, Twilight of the Drifter and Tinseltown Riff. Among his works of non-fiction are The Actors Studio and texts on the art and craft of screenwriting and writing for the stage. Murder Run, his latest crime novel, was recently released. He lives in Black Mountain, North Carolina.