How to Write a Mystery: the Imaginary Writers’ Room weighs in

How to Write a Mystery: the Imaginary Writers’ Room weighs in

Robert Louis Stevenson

(Editor’s note: What follows is a re-posting of the same thing posted on June 1, in order to repair format glitches which happened then.)

“We haven’t heard much from Margaret for a while,” said Agatha Christie.

“Have ye investigated, Dame Agatha?” said Robert Burns.

“I’ve seen her sitting around with a red book,” said Daphne du Maurier. “I think it’s ‘How to Write a Mystery.’ “

“It is. As if she needs that,” sniffed Agatha, “with us waiting here for her.”

“Now, Dame Agatha,” said Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “the book’s quite up-to-date. Not old folk like us!”

“Classics, you mean,” said Daphne.

“Our successors seem to be catching Margaret’s interest,” said Robert Louis Stevenson, ensconced as usual on the Writers’ Room’s comfortable couch. “Maybe someday we’ll get to know their stories, besides each other’s and Margaret’s.”

“Let’s get her to show us what’s in the book,” said Agatha.

“Or who is,” said Louis.

“That’ll take a wee while, Louis,” I told Stevenson from outside the door. “I read today that there are contributions from 70 different authors in the book.”

“Ah, here she is!” said Robert Burns, earning himself a murmur of “Behave!” from Agatha Christie.

Sir Arthur opened the dark wooden door, since its pebbled glass window with the lettering “Imaginary Writers’ Room” is not much good for looking out.

I walked into the room carrying my copy of the red book, with the white letters “HOW TO WRITE A MYSTERY” on it.

“I had to read all those legal documents,” said Louis. “Let me have a keek, Arthur.”

“Take your time, Louis,” I said. “Look all you like. It has quite an index.”

“As big as –”

“Nae, Louis, not like the one I invented for… one of my characters,” said Arthur. “Go on, tell everyone.”

“Well, the index is 12 pages long,” I said. “There is also an essay called ‘About the Contributors,’ and that’s 18 pages long.”

“It seems well edited,” said Arthur.

Oh, he wasn’t going to like this much, but I had to tell him.

“It is,” I said. “It was edited by two fine writers, Lee Child and Laurie R. King.”

All around the table and over to the sofa, the writers were looking for explanations, so I charged ahead. “Lee Child writes thrillers about a man named Jack Reacher.”

“Thrillers,” said Daphne du Maurier, “as in we know who did it, but we don’t know what will happen next?”

“So I understand,” I said.

“And Mrs. King?” said Daphne.

I took a deep breath. “She writes stories about a young lady who’s half-American, half-British, and a theological scholar,” I began.

“And she edited this book about mystery writing? In the theological sense, then?” said Sir Arthur.

“Well, no,” I said slowly. “In the investigating sense. Mrs. King’s theological scholar carries out investigations along with her husband… Sherlock Holmes.”

I unconsciously moved back toward the door, but I had nothing to fear. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had plopped into his seat at the head of the committee table. Agatha Christie was pouring him a drink from the pitcher of water on the table.

“Her husband, Margaret?” said Arthur.

“Yes,” I said, looking him straight in his twinkling eyes. “I’ve just finished re-reading her whole series of their adventures, and they’re wonderful.”

“You believe them?”

“I believe them. Sometimes I have to decide whether I’d like a Holmes-and-Watson story or and Holmes-and-Russell story. That’s his wife’s name, Mary Russell, ” I added.

“Well. Does she contribute to the writing ideas in the book as well?” said Arthur.

“Yes,” I said. “Her essay’s called ‘The Art of the Rewrite,’ and I read it again today. She starts out by describing the rewrite as “where the fun lies” for some writers.

Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier were exchanging shocked looks when I glanced at their side of the table. Louis Stevenson, on the other hand, was settling in deeper on the sofa, sensing I had a good story to tell.

“When Mrs. King has described two methods of rewriting, mapping it out before you even begin and ‘plunging into the dark with a flashlight,’ she stops to ask us, her readers and writing students, ‘Q. Which is the Right Way? A. The one that keeps you writing.’”

Robert Burns chuckled. “I could hear your capital letters there, Margaret. Reciting poetry helps you.”

“Aye, it does,” I told him, smiling.

Louis Stevenson had started laughing when I read the Q and A. “That sounded a bit like a legal case, there,” he said.

“Well, this keeps me writing,” I said, “so QED.”

I looked around the dark paneling and furniture and the comfortably low light of the Writers’ Room, one of the favorite corners of my mind. How much like home it felt, with even more books than my apartment — which I might as well call the Real-Life Writer’s Room, singular.

“There’s one more thing I’d like to say about the book,:” I said, “as long as there’s time.”

“Here,” said Arthur gently, “there’s always enough time.”

‘There’s another modern writer I was reading today,” I told the committee, “Louise Penny.”

I glanced at Daphne and Agatha again. This time, they were grinning.

“She wrote about ‘Building Your Community,” I said.

“You mean rooms like this?” said Louis.

“Not exactly,” I said. “I mean — Louise Penny means — communities of present-day writers and readers. I have one like that for my blog, ChicagoNow, where this is going to be posted.”

Stevenson looked at Conan Doyle for confirmation. “Made public,” said Arthur.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s all done by computers now, and I’ve posted my adventures with you for a long time now… even when we had temporary guests.”

“Do you think that nice Mr. Milne will come back, Margaret?” said Agatha.

“Perhaps I can get him to,” I said.

“But meanwhile, Louise Penny was writing about how writers can build communities now through meeting their readers.”

“Meeting?” said Arthur. “Then the pandemic is finished?”

I shook my head. “I doubt it,” I said. “I don’t need a mask in here with you, but I wear one to go to the shops and to church, and definitely on buses.”

Stevenson had sat up attentively, but he fell backwards now. “Well, stay safe, lass.”

“I do,” I said, “I assure you all. But I meet fellow readers and writers over my computer now.”

“You do?” said Agatha, her head tilting slightly from the weight of the idea.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s like a telegraph machine on my desk. I can type messages to all sorts of people. Trouble is, they can type messages to me without my knowing them,” I began.

“Conceal yersel’ as weel’s ye can frae critical dissection,” Robert Burns said.

“But keek through every ither man wi’ sharpened, sly inspection,” I replied, finishing one of my favorite parts of his “Epistle to a Young Friend.”

“So what Louise Penny was writing about in the book,” I said to them all, “is making a community of friends — ‘Building a Literary Home,’ she called it in her essay.”

“Is there any other kind worth having?” said Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

“It’s a mystery to me,” I replied.

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Margaret H. Laing

I moved to Chicago from the south suburbs in 1986. I have diverse interests, but I love writing about what I’m interested in. Whether it’s a personal interest or part of my career, the correct words to get the idea across are important to me. I love words and languages — French and Scottish words enrich my American English. My career has included years as a journalist and years working in museums, and the two phases were united by telling stories. I’m serious about words and stories. So here I am, ready to tell stories about words and their languages.

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