How Mysteries Inspire Our Writing

Thursday, November 02, 2017

I’ve always been a fan of mysteries. I read them as a child and then ventured out into reading authors like Mary Higgins Clark in my teens. Nowadays, I prefer more of the true-life mysteries. When revamping my writing blog a few months back, I decided to dedicate one day a week to writing about missing persons or homicide cases and offering my own theories about what might have happened. This got me to thinking about why we are drawn to mysteries, and how they can inspire our own writing. Here are a few examples I’ve come up with.

Fictional mysteries challenge us to dig deeper with our writing. I remember when I read the Gillian Flynn novel Gone Girl. It took me about halfway through the book before I realized that the story was an example of “the unreliable narrator” at its finest. While I didn’t care for the end of the book (and I don’t think I am alone in that opinion) I finished that novel telling myself that I too needed to work on creating a few despicable characters who could keep readers turning the pages well past midnight. I’m not sure if I’ve succeeded, but Gone Girl did motivate me to produce some work that was way edgier than anything I’d ever written before.

Real-life mysteries have a way of engaging other readers/listeners. I never listened to it, but I heard all about the podcast Serial when it was first introduced a few years ago. People couldn’t stop talking about it and offering their own theories on the case. Now, I’m discovering many of the missing persons cases I’m writing about have their own podcasts. More journalists are investigating these disappearances and even turning their research into non-fiction books. There never seems to be a shortage of readers/listeners willing to offer their own theories or ask questions about the cases that have been nagging them. It’s been a fascinating cultural phenomenon to watch unfold.

Mysteries inspire us to create new stories. I read about a case last year that revolved around a lone polaroid that a woman found in a parking lot. In the photo you could see a young girl with her hands tied behind her back and a bandanna in her mouth. Beside her was a young boy in the same position. There were many people that speculated that the girl matched the description of a missing person who had disappeared while riding her bike through town, Tara Calico. But no one could figure out who the boy might have been.

The girl’s mother swore up and down that the girl in the photo had a scar in the same place as her daughter, and that the V.C. Andrews novel placed beside the girl couldn’t be a coincidence—that was her daughter’s favorite author and novel. I kept thinking about this story and sat down one day at my computer, using the polaroid story as inspiration for a new short story. We may not ever know who the two people in the photo really were, or if they photo was staged or real, but reading about the case helped me produce a story that provided a fictional closure and will hopefully be something other people are interested in reading.

Do you like to read mysteries? Are there any real-life mysteries that have inspired your own writing—maybe even in your family?

Renee Roberson is an award-winning freelance writer and editor who also blogs at


Margo Dill said...

What an interesting idea, Renee! But sometimes those unsolved mysteries kind of freak me out! I like using real stories as a basis for fiction too.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Renee, I LOVE your Wednesday true crime column on your blog! That reminds me, I need to check in and see what you wrote the past week. :)

OMG, that polaroid story is so creepy. I mean, who places a VC Andrews novel beside a bound victim? That's some weird stuff.

You're so right. Reading or hearing about these mysteries definitely inspires some stories! Just reading your post makes me want to write.

Sioux Roslawski said...

Renee--I loved the Nancy Drew books when I was a kid. Now, mysteries don't usually appeal to me.

However, I am intrigued by the polaroid picture. Wouldn't it be cool to have one photo as a focus of stories... and the stories are collected in an anthology? It would be interesting to see what directions different writers' stories take...

And I agree. The ending of "Gone Girl" was horrid. No real man would have done what that man did, in the end (in my opinion).

Mary Horner said...

I find myself watching some of those true crime stories on television and thinking about plots and especially plot twists, which may show up in some of my work later!

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