As I feared, life came barging in demanding my full right-now attention. Eventually, I  crawled back to my laptop to write my next “Rewrite It.” Welcome back. As promised, I will return to my “Seven-Step Process to Writing a Mystery/Thriller (the Seven Clues).” And to respond to questions and engage in a discussion with you. So, please join me in the creation of this, our blog.

Three of the comments you shared with me were, 1) Make the blog a bit shorter – Good advice, I will try to do that; 2) Couldn’t these seven points apply to any writing – Some could, “Keeping Your Promises” should. I will try to draw a distinction as we move forward; And, 3) Are there possible workshop tags to each of the Seven – Yes. I will include them as we move forward.

Going back to “Promises to Keep,” when presenting this I would lead a group in reading the first page of any novel (not just a mystery), sometimes even their own writing, and we would spend some time identifying promises made. This is not as easy as it sounds, and it usually causes some valuable debate. For example, if I begin my novel with, “Call me Robin Hood,” you can guess what the story is about. You would also assume that Robin Hood is not my real name. If it turns out on page 50, that it is my name, you might feel cheated. Same thing if I start with, “Call me Rambo,” or “Call me The Lone Ranger.” You can guess the storyline. But what if the novel starts with, “Call me Ishmael”? Well, now you have me, I’m intrigued, I want to know more. So, we workshop foreshadowing as well as lines that seem to jump off the page.

And this, my friends, is a good lead-in to starting at the top of my Seven Clues which appear in more detail in my first blog HERE and are summarized at the bottom of this entry.

So, let’s just jump into number one; finding the idea and scribbling it down (POV and  – it’s not the “what” it’s the “how.”) I am often asked, “Where do you find an idea?”

I’ll get to that, but first, let’s chat about POV and tense. “Must I write in third-person past-tense?” (This applies beyond Mystery/Thriller). You are the author of your writing, so go in there in whatever form you want or invent a new one. Okay, I know, there are some rules and if you want to land an agent or publisher there are some things you must do and some things you should not do. Third-person past-tense or first-person past-tense is the accepted practice. Having said that, there is a growing number of manuscripts written in the present-tense. Also, novels that use several POVs, all in third-person, or mixed third person and first-person. One stone rule is don’t mix POV in the same scene.

A fun workshop you ought to do, even on your own, is write a scene from one POV and then rewrite it from another POV, and even another. Do this as well with third person and then write it again in first-person. As a side benefit, you will get to know your characters on a deeper level through this exercise.

Now, let’s look at finding the idea. Two often repeated pieces of advice on this topic are, 1) write about what you know; and 2) your idea can come from anywhere.

1. I would argue that you should right what you want to know. Really want to know. It could have an origin in something you know. I was in the Army, but I have no idea how decisions at the Pentagon affect what I was told to do in the field. So, it has a little to do with what I know, but a lot more to do with what I want to know. I was a NYPD cop, but I have no idea about blood splatter analysis. A novel is a time-consuming adventure with a lot more research than writing. Pick something that will hold your interest, something you just can’t wait to learn more about – from book, movies, TV, talking to people that do the work, anything.

2. It is true, your idea can come from anywhere. I do a workshop (with a random newspaper, magazine, etc.) where we pick a story on page one and then say, “What if,” this story on page nine is related to the page one story? It’s a good mind exercise. Also, I like to overhear conversations in a coffee house, a diner. I like talking (mostly listening) to the stories older folks tell. And they want to tell you stories. Every writers group I attend, I learn something and get an idea for something. The trick with fiction is to keep asking yourself, “What if…?” I sit on the dock of our lake cabin watching eagles and loons, or in the winter puffs of snow floating on an afternoon breeze and I can’t help thinking what if it was 200 years ago, what would I be seeing? Or, what might I find on the bottom of Pine Lake? What story would that trigger? How different would it be for a detective today to try and find a serial killer during a pandemic in New York, or in Italy, or in Iran?

It’s not “The What” for a good mystery/thriller, it’s “The How.” As Dan Brown, Ian Fleming, Michael Crichton, and so many more show us, the protagonist will win against all odds. We know that on page one of James Bond’s impossible predicament, or an attack of velociraptors, or the pursuit of an evil and powerful religious Zealot, the good guy or gal is going to win…we just don’t know how. And we want to know how, and cheer. So please remember, and we will talk about this some more in “corners,” it is not about the “what” we’ll see unfold during the story, it’s the “how.”

Finally, scribble it down (any fiction genre). This is really the fun part. Forget outlines, and POV, pretend you are sitting across from me in a bar enjoying a glass of whatever, and you are telling me your story. Forget grammar and spelling, forget all the smart tools, there will be parts you don’t know, just write “and then something happens” and keep going. Scribble it down on paper or your laptop. Don’t do any research. Just write down your story. When you are done you will know what you need, where it takes place, who’s in it, and you’ll know you have a story. Give it a shot.

Thanks for being here and stay healthy, Nick


My Seven Clues which appear in more detail in my first blog HERE and are summarized below:

  1. Finding the idea and scribbling it down. (POV, past or present, where and when – it’s not the “what” it’s the “how.” I am often asked, “Where do you find an idea?” “Must I write in third-person past-tense?”)
  2. How to Start (outline, pants, I-points or m&m). Hint, an unsolved mystery is a thorn in the heart (Thank you, Joyce Carol Oats)
  3. The Characters. Limit the number of main characters an distinguish each from the other.
  4. The Corners. Yes. You must write yourself into a corner you do not (yet) know how to get out of.
  5. The Plot, Clues, and Red Herrings.
  6. The Story and Keeping your promise to the reader.
  7. How and when to End. But it must be inevitable and a surprise. (Thank you, Aristotle).