If Walls Could Talk: Two Sides, Same Coins

M.H. Norris

Writing a mystery is a lot like playing with both sides of the same coin. You have to play both sides of the field in a sense in order to have the protagonist come out on top. That is, if that’s what you decide to do. After all, even Sherlock Holmes didn’t solve all of his cases.

Either way, you’ve got to play the field. Who is your unsub? Why did they do what they did? How did they do it? Was it spur of the moment or did they plan it out? What did they leave behind, intentionally or accidentally?

You might be thinking that these are questions your protagonist needs to answer and you would be correct. But in order for the crime to be there, you have to be in ahead of your unsub.

After all, they are the ones who did the crime that you now have to solve. And trust me when I say not knowing everything they’re up to is a pain—when it comes to leading your protagonist to them.


Motive. Books and articles have been written on this subject (hey, look how many of those articles are mine!). And each and every time I start a mystery I spend hours—days—agonizing over why my unsub did it.

Criminal Minds has said motive doesn’t have to make sense to us, it only has to make sense to the killer.

Badge City: Notches is a good example of this, in my opinion. When figuring out my unsub’s motive, I spent a lot of time agonizing over why they were driven to eight little girls. At the end of the day, I realized that it might not make sense to everyone, my readers and protagonist included, but it made sense to them.

But the why can lend itself to some clues that your unsub might purposely or accidentally leave for your protagonist to find.

Leaving clues intentionally might tell you a bit about your unsub. Maybe they want to play a game with the protagonist and their organization. Or they honestly think they are smarter than them. Or that they are being witty. Either way, it’s a way to profile.

There were a lot of ORs or MAYBEs in that last paragraph. Because there are an almost infinite number of possibilities for you to discover and perhaps use.

Knowing who is also helpful. I’ll confess something to you. On the mystery I’m writing right now, I actually didn’t figure it out until I was halfway through and I’m actually still ironing out some of the details.

I do not recommend that route.

There is the well-known rule that you have to introduce your readers to the unsub at some early point. Some people do it in odd ways. They introduce them outright as a suspect or a bystander.

Both routes have their merits and it is up to you to decide which one you want to choose. But seriously, have your readers meet them. Because whether or not they want to admit it, they want to play the guessing game—and doing without introducing your killer reduces him or her to a deus ex machine.

One coin, two sides, and a whole lot of questions. But in the end, life is full of mysteries that can be fun to figure out as they come.

If Walls Could Talk: You’re So Vain You Think This Blog Is About You

M.H. Norris

Let’s face it: our characters are vain.

They want their stories told and perhaps have kept you up at night with rounds of “then this happened” or “what if this happened” and you just wished they’d shut up and let you sleep.

I’m working on one of The Science of Detection novellas and, being so close to James, I knew when he approached me about doing one that I couldn’t (or maybe wouldn’t is the right word) write a Holmes centric story. I didn’t trust myself to write The Master Detective to his standards.

So instead I had to create my own sleuth and I’ve found that she tweaks my writing style to suit her story, something I’ve never experienced before with a character.

When James sends a draft back to me, one of his notes usually tells me he think I should put more details into my story, give you more description. And I’ll admit that that is my weakest writing link. But Dr. Adelaide Baynes doesn’t let me have that weakness. Adelaide’s hero is Sherlock Holmes. She strives to be like him. Her dream is to solve cases. She has spent ten years developing the skills needed and building a reputation to rival his. She’s detail oriented. Everything needs to be written on notepads—and while she’s willing to admit she has a problem she’s not going to do anything about that. It’s safe to say she’s unlike any character I’ve written.

I’ll admit, my various leading ladies tend to take odd traits from me because it gives me a gateway of sorts into their heads. Rosella and Adelaide both have this ability to read people, something they got from me.  There are other traits, this and that and some things get exaggerated, and it’s fun to see a little piece of me in them.

I’ve talked a lot about characters and as I’ve said many times, if you do not put time and effort into your characters, your story will fall short. Also, not talking the time to figure out not only what they look like and bits of their personality but their aspirations, their motivations, their hopes, dreams, fears, goals makes them fall flat.

And I’ll admit sometimes it takes a while to get into their heads. Sometimes you have to write a bit of the story to help you find them, find their voice.

Don’t give up.

Your story will improve greatly if your characters are well-developed. Characters who are flat, boring, and/or don’t grow tend to have people pointing this out and finding all the holes, or taking to fanfiction to give the characters the attention they think they deserved.

Maybe that’s a bit extreme, but you get my point. There are reasons there are entire websites who talk about characters, books, articles, shoot even several posts here.

We all need a hero, someone to root for. We need people to love, people to trust and believe in.  Reading can be a form of escape and people find friends inside the pages of books. We want to come back time and time again to visit our friends and learn something new about them.

The best characters are the ones where the author let’s the character run the show a bit.

One of my favorite experiences as a writer is when I get so in touch with my characters that they start to help me tell their stories. Sometimes, I get so involved with a scene that my characters start to take it directions I wouldn’t expect but help to make it a stronger story.

Not only is the character allowed to come alive, they can help you get past a hurdle in a story and sometimes, especially with mysteries, they might help lead you to your next lead.

The World of the Wall

  • Hannah Lackoff’s collection, After the World Ended, has just come out. Watch out for my interview with her, coming soon! You can get her book here on 18thWall Productions, and also on Amazon.

The world is a museum of fragile, curious things.

In this collection of eighteen of her very best stories, Hannah Lackoff takes you on a guided tour of the marvelous: a ranch which held out, for years, believing the apocalypse had consumed the world (and the man who discovered them); twin sisters inseparable by eye or death; the life of a queen and the many lives of a mirror, mirror on the wall; wrong numbers on the restaurant wall and a small cabin in the woods, near your home, where the dead never dare to stay dead.

Hannah Lackoff, like so many great authors before her, settles in with the bones with old stories, clichéd tales, and urban legends and builds them into her exhibits. They are alive again, and demand your attention.

Step into her museum, won’t you?

After the World Ended_Kindle

The Horror Crossover Encyclopedia: This Island Earth

Join us each week as we share a new excerpt from Robert E. Wronski Jr.’s book, The Horror Crossover Encyclopedia, now available in print and digital editions!

This Island Earth


Release Date: June 1, 1955 (Contemporary Setting)

Series: This Island Earth

Horror Crosses: Mihmiverse; The Works of Robert Rankin

Non-Horror Crosses: Doctor Who; UHF; Borderlands; Mystery Science Theater 3000; ReBoot; Looney Tunes; A Great Moon Hoax; Arena

The Story: Aliens from Metaluna are abducting scientists to aid in their battle against another world.

Notes: As with most public alien invasions or giant monster attacks, the government and private concerns are able to cover up the events. It helps that in the Horror Universe, people seem almost intentionally oblivious in the face of anything beyond their normal expectations of their world. This is more of a sci-fi film, but the Metaluna Mutant from this film was considered to be part of the Universal monsters combat series in Scary Monsters Magazine. In fact, it was that series that brought this film in. Though this is a Universal film, I still consider the Gill-Man to be the last of the famous Universal Monsters to be introduced. The Metaluna Mutant isn’t so famous, though this is still a fun film if you’re into 1950s sci-fi films. This film (and the written story it was based on) also introduces the interocitor (sometimes spelled interositer). It is an alien communication device that will appear again in Doctor Who, UHF, Borderlands 2, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, ReBoot, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, A Great Moon Hoax, Arena, Attack of the Moon Zombies, The Suburban Book of the Dead (Armageddon III: The Remake), and others. Later on, I will explain more about Doctor Who in the Horror Universe. UHF is a comedy that can still fit realistically in the Horror Universe. Borderlands is a game series that takes place on another planet. Mystery Science Theater takes place in the not too distant future of one possible alternate future. ReBoot takes place within a video game reality that is attached to the Horror Universe. See the entry on Looney Tunes: Back in Action for how I explain the Looney Tunes characters in the Horror Universe. Looney Tunes: Back in Action also has the Metaluna Mutant. A Great Moon Hoax is a short humorous sci-fi story by Ben Bova. Arena takes place in space in one possible future timeline. Attack of the Moon Zombies is part of a series of 1950s B style movies that are part of Christopher R. Mihm’s Mihmiverse, and now the Horror Universe as well. Robert Rankin is an author who uses the device in many of his works, including The Suburban Book of the Dead. Since the device is a recurring item in his works, it brings in all of his works. This film has been referenced and spoofed many times in other films and television.

If you’re dying for more, you can find The Horror Crossover Encyclopedia on Amazon, and more of Robert E. Wronski Jr.’s work on The Television Crossover Universe. You can listen to Robert’s crossover podcast right here.