12 April 2013


by R.T. Lawton

Most times, a character or potential scene will pop into my head while I am half-asleep and dreaming or when my conscious mind runs free and daydreams take over. With either set of circumstances, I try to write down those ideas or impressions as soon as possible, retrieve them later and insert them into specific story categories in my computer files. Then, when it is time to write another story, I have something to start with rather than facing that empty white page with a blank mind to work on it.

And, to assist my muse and I, while she is sitting there on my shoulder impatiently waiting for me to get on with it, I have various cheat sheets to help move the story forward. These cheat sheets may be considered as low tech and not on a scholarly level, but they work for me. Here is my list of categories used in writing mystery short stories, as I tend to break them down. You probably already have similar info stored in your brain, but go ahead and take a peek, see if anything sparks a new idea for you, or if you have your own brainstorming ideas to add to this particular list.

Dupin questions sailor in
"The Murders in the
Rue Morgue"  (US PD)
01) The Locked Room ~ a crime occurs in a locked room and the detective/reader must figure out how the crime was committed and who did it, such as:
     a) "Murder in the Rue Morgue" - an orangutan climbs in the locked door apartment, kills and escapes up the chimney.
     b) "In Bond" - the warehouse roof is purposely hinged and the thief uses a nearby construction crane to lift out the bonded wine.
     c) "The Bond Market" - a bond courier is killed in a locked and safety chained hotel room. Thief/killer uses a bent metal strip fashioned to re-hook the safety chain after he leaves the room. (It's a modern burglar tool.)
     d) strings have been used remotely to fire a gun, etc.
     e) what NEW ideas can be brainstormed?

02) Deductions ~ the detective derives a conclusion by reasoning and/or clues.
     a) amateurs - Miss Marple, Cletus Johnston & Theodore, etc.
     b) PI stories - to include Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe & Archie, Sam Spade, Marlowe, Mike Hammer, etc.
     c) Police procedural - 87th Precinct stories, Law and Order, CSI
     d) the pertinent clue comes out in a witness or suspect interview.
     e) what other ideas for how the crime or criminal was deduced? Or, what clue can be inserted and how?

03) A Mistake ~ the criminal makes a mistake.
     a) Mister X's alibi doesn't hold up because he was in the wrong place to see something, or he wasn't left
       handed, or couldn't have known important info, etc.
     b) He left behind an incriminating piece of evidence.
     c) What fresh and innovative types of mistakes can be capitalized on?

04) Confusion & Red Herrings ~ a misleading clue has been inserted into the story.
     a) The clues make someone appear to be the criminal, but the detective/reader doesn't have a full
       understanding of the clue yet.
     b) The real clue is hidden in with several other clues.
     c) The important clue is glossed over by one of the characters for some reason.
     d) What other Blue Smoke and Mirrors can be used?

05) Suspense or Thriller ~ a feeling of intenseness, may be combined with action
     a) The ticking time bomb - will hero get there in time and do what must be done?
     b) Reader knows the killer - will hero stop killer in time?
     c) What new gimmicks can be conjured up, other than:
          1) runaway train, car with no brakes, bus with speed bomb device, aircraft with no live pilot
          2) bomb with timer, which wire to cut?
          3) will an object central to story be found and acquired?

work in progress: my 5th e-book
06) Caper ~ the theft or attempted theft of a valuable object or commodity, often by humorous criminals
      (one of my favorites)
     a) Donald Westlake's stories - Dortmunder series
     b) Lawrence Block's stories - Bernie Rhodenbarr series
     c) Holiday Burglars series

07) Historical ~ use a lot of research to set these (another favorite of mine)
     a) The crime, solution, setting and characters come from the research into that time period.

08) Noir ~ dark atmosphere, hero loses out (haven't written one of these

Many of those listed above can be intermingled with one of the other categories.

Anyway, this is one sample of many lists or cheat sheets I keep around while writing short mysteries. By having a reference to glance at when needed, I can have a jump start on brainstorming, or in the case of other lists; names for characters of different ethnicity; crimes to commit other than common murder; types of swag to be acquired from various crimes; a chronology of historical events; a catalog of series character's traits, history and happenings for individual historical series; and so on. In short, I have choices which can be quickly made without interrupting the story writing in order to research for the needed information. The information is already available at hand and is added to periodically as I find new data.

So what lists do you use to make your writing easier for you?


  1. I'm impressed at your level of organization.
    I'm afraid I have neither lists nor outlines and my only cheat sheets are for operations on the computer.

    Clearly the Muse works in mysterious ( and different) ways

  2. Oh, Janice, you don't know how relieved I am to hear that! Because I don't have lists, etc., either. Other than names - I have lists of names and places that sound interesting. That's about it. I think I'm going to have to step up my game...

  3. Very interesting post. It reminded me of Jan Grape's recent funny post about ideas that go bump in the night. I've only gotten one story idea from a dream or waking dream (one workable idea, I mean), but I have had problems with a current writing project resolve themselves in the wee small hours. And I do agree that there's nothing more relaxing than a backlog of story ideas.

  4. Great column, with great ideas. I agree with Terry--it feels good to have a stash of story ideas. (And, in my case, a stash of old stories. I was looking through old files the other day and found a bunch of finished stories that I'd printed out years ago but never did anything with. Now I gotta update them and send them out.)

    I love making lists of any type, R.T., and the kind you mentioned can come in handy. But you're certainly more organized--thank goodness--than I am.

  5. Boy, I don't find a backlog of story ideas comforting. The little buggers are constantly whining: me next, me next, me next. Wait your damn turn.


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