If Walls Could Talk: A Reporter’s Most Pernicious Questions (And How they Help your Novel)

M.H. Norris

I was thinking the other day. Thinking about writing mysteries, and what it takes to put together one. I think I mentioned that I currently have two bulletin boards full of index cards with various notes for the first full-length Rosella novel.

James and I were at a local college campus, recently, brainstorming for that book when I grabbed a dry erase marker and wrote upon the beloved walls.

(Seriously, I’m fully planning to someday paint a room with that paint when I get my own place, because I find it to be so helpful.)

And on one of the walls I wrote out the questions that are well known to journalists around the globe: who, what, where, when, why, and how.

And at first both James and I stared at the what, and he laughed and said my inner journalist came out. Adding that to the list, when it might not belong as much, was just me trying to use my degree.

But then, I came up with a what and after a round of “told you so” we kept on going.

Back when I was a sophomore in college and considering changing my major, I asked Karen Kingsbury (during one of her Facebook chats) about what she would say to an aspiring author. She gave me some advice and pointed me to an article on her site.

She mentioned that writers should major in journalism. Even if you aren’t publishing books, you’re always writing.

So, I changed my major to journalism.

This past week I realized that the change also helps me as a mystery writer. It all comes back to the big questions on the magic wall: who, what, where, when, why, and how.

Who

In a mystery, this is actually a two-fold question. On my bulletin board I have this split into two categories. Under the Who card on my board I mainly focus on the victims.

Who was killed?

How many?

Victimology?

Then there’s also the unsub.

Who did this?

What’s their profile?

What

It’s a case for Rosella, of course. Which means mythology and urban lore are at work in the what.

But it’s also something else~but that would be giving you spoilers. 🙂

It’s a murder, it’s a crime…You get the idea.

Where

Once again, spoilers. 🙂

But, seriously, you have a general idea of where but you have to flesh out more of the specifics. Unlike with Badge City, I’m actually using a real location so I don’t have to map it all out in my head. But you still have to take that into account. Maps, travel times, the local perspective.

When

With Badge City: Notches, I had several pages in a memo pad dedicated to when. I had one page mapping out the timeline, and then I actually drew out lines and marked out 24 hours days and what happened when.

It helps to keep your timing straight. Otherwise, you might get confused and something might happen that shouldn’t actually happen yet.

Also, the when helps your protagonist solve the crime.

When was time of death?

When was the person last seen?

Why

Another way to say my favorite word: Motive.

Why did they do it?

Why those people?

Why then and there?

The thing about mysteries is that you start out with a lot of pieces and the most common question is why.

There’s also, why is this a case for Rosella?

This is the question that is the most important to answer. Why is this case right for your protagonist

How

How did they do it?

Keep in mind, when you’re making an alibi or lack thereof, you need to be able to figure out how they did it. In some cases, it’s how they did it and managed to live their lives at the same time.

What’s the murder weapon?

What’s the cause of death?

These all feed into the how. Sometimes this answer can come from the why.

Last Thoughts

Questions that I had to keep in mind all the time as a journalism major now also play a major role in writing mysteries.

But like writing a news story, I have to find all the answers to the big questions in order to write a good mystery.

And that is truly the trick.