Mysteries That Influenced My Writing

Since I began my blog, I’ve written about the mysteries that influenced my writing. Although I’m still on the hunt for good mysteries, I find the ones I discovered in my teens and twenties have had the most impact and not just because I was more impressionable when I first discovered them. When I reread my favorites, I still learn techniques I can use in my storytelling.

My First Mysteries

In the seventies, my mystery education started with Scooby Doo and continued with Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Trixie Belden, and the Three Investigators. In seventh grade, I read my first adult book, which was a mystery written in 1975 by Dorothy Gilman, entitled A Nun in the Closet. Balancing mystery and humor, the novel relates the investigation of Sister John and Sister Hyacinth into a mysterious bequest to their abbey.

It had to be shortly after that that I plowed my way through every Agatha Christie story I could get my hands on. Now I reread her books first, for fun, and second, to learn plotting techniques. That was always Mrs. Christie’s strength. Although her detectives Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple have achieved immortality, in many books, her other characters aren’t as well-developed. Death on the Nile and A Holiday for Murder are my favorite novels because the rest of the characters are more complicated and more human, and therefore, more interesting.

At seventeen, I discovered Sherlock Holmes and there was no stopping me. I read all 60 of Sir Arthur’s stories and have read a huge amount of pastiches written by contemporary authors. The lesson I learned: my detective must be a character people want to spend time with. For more about my love for the Sherlock Holmes canon, click here.

When I was in college, I took a class called “Detective Film and Fiction.” (When you’re an English major, you can take classes like that and earn credit). I was assigned to read Too Many Cooks by Rex Stout and couldn’t get enough of the world Mr. Stout created for Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Although Nero Wolfe is the detective, it was Archie’s unique voice that hooked me. The lesson I learned: the Watson character can be as interesting and more relatable than the detective character. For more on Archie Goodwin, click here.

Mysteries in Middle Age

I was twenty-one when I tried a collection of Father Brown short stories and didn’t like them at all. They weren’t fair-play mysteries. In some cases, they didn’t seem like mysteries at all. Fast forward twenty years. I tried them again, and they lit up my mind like few stories ever have. I realized that Mr. Chesterton wasn’t trying to write realistic fiction, although his stories highlight realities of life.

His favorite device is paradox, like in the short story, “The Strange Crime of John Boulnois.” When Sir Claude Champion is found stabbed to death, the police assume the killer is John Boulnois because Sir Claude was pursuing his wife. But Mrs. Boulnois insists her husband is innocent. He was never jealous of Sir Claude, a childhood friend, although Sir Claude was wealthy, aristocratic, accomplished, and celebrated. Father Brown understands and quotes from the book of Esther. “And Haman began to tell them … of all the things wherein the king had honored him; and he said: ‘All these things profit me nothing while I see Mordecai the Jew sitting in the gate.”

I learned that if I can make a character, clue, or plot point appear one way but then reveal that it indicates the exact opposite, it surprises the reader and gives that part of my story greater weight.

Around this same point in my life, I dove into the mysteries featuring the detective Uncle Abner. These short stories, set in West Virginia before the Civil War, have some of the best descriptions of settings I’ve read. I feel like I’ve entered the world that existed in the Appalachian mountains more than 150 years ago. For more on the Uncle Abner mysteries, click here. I learned not to overlook my setting. Settings can perform certain literary tasks, like setting the mood, much more easily than character or plot.

Now it’s your turn. What stories have influenced your writing? Or what stories have stayed with your through the years?

“The Crime Wave at Blandings” by P.G. Wodehouse

April is both National Humor Month and National Poetry Month. I’ll be honoring both with prompts, tips, and guest bloggers. For my favorite story of the month, I’m featuring one of the funniest short stories I’ve ever read, “The Crime Wave at Blandings” by P.G. Wodehouse.

I wrote about P.G. Wodehouse a few years ago and featured his hysterical autobiography Over Seventy. A British writer, P.G Wodehouse created a unique comic world. He takes the British upper class of about one hundred years ago and gives it a madcap twist, along the lines of a screwball comedy or a Marx brothers’ movie.

“Crime Wave” is one of Mr. Wodehouse’s best and is often included in anthologies of his works. The opening gives you a flavor of his one-of-a-kind style”

“The day on which Lawlessness reared its ugly head at Blandings Castle was one of singular beauty. The sun shone down from a sky of cornflower blue, and what one would really like would be to describe in leisurely detail the ancient battlements, the smooth green lawns, the rolling parkland, the majestic trees, the well-bred bees, and the gentlemanly birds on which it shone.

But those who read thrillers are an impatient race. They chafe at scenic rhapsodies and want to get on with the rough stuff. When, they ask, did the dirty work start? Who were mixed up in it? Was there blood, and, if so, how much?”

This story is part of the Blandings saga, which concerns Clarence, Earl of Emsworth and owner of Blandings Castle. Not the brightest man, he longs to be left alone to putter about the ancestral estate, enjoying his roses and overseeing the care of the enormous sow he enters in the county fair. His sister, Lady Constance, constantly bullies him into acting more like a respectable member of the aristocracy.

In “Crime Wave”, Lady Constance has hired Rupert Baxter to tutor Clarence’s grandson George while the boy spends his summer vacation at the castle. Clarence loathes Baxter because Lady Constance forced him on her brother before as a private secretary with the job of making the earl act like an earl. George doesn’t like the look of Baxter, saying he “looks like a bit of a blister”. Clarence completely agrees with his grandson.

George has a BB gun and shoots Baxter to demonstrate his opinion of him. Lady Constance orders the butler Beach to take the gun away from him. During the afternoon, the gun passes through the hands of various members of the family as well as the butter, resulting in considerable confusion over who shot whom, although Baxter is usually the target.

P.G. Wodehouse stories are my literary equivalent of comfort food. In the past month, I was feeling so stressed-out. One way I handled it was to settle down at night with stories about whacky earls, wily butlers, dominating aunts, and all sorts of other nut jobs, all tied together in hilarious stories with more twists than a back country road.

What books or stories do you turn to for comfort?

The Long Way Down by Edward D. Hoch

Because this month’s theme is short stories, I was faced with the delightful problem of choosing one to feature. Over the years, I’ve read so many great stories, from a variety of genres, penned by accomplished writers. I decided to go with “The Long Way Down” by Edward D. Hoch, the latest short story I’ve read that made my jaw drop with astonishment at both the plot twists and the expertise in which the author crafted them.

I read “The Long Way Down” last spring when my husband surprised me with the anthology, The 50 Greatest Mysteries of All Time, complied by Otto Penzler. Since it’s considered one of Mr. Hoch’s best short stories, I was surprised I’d never read it before in other collections. A word about Edward D. Hoch. The man was a master of short stories, writing almost a thousand of them before his death in 2008. Although he wrote in several genres, crime fiction was his specialty, and his specialty within that specialty was impossible crime stories.

Published in 1965, “The Long Way Down” begins with the main character McLove, chief of security for the Jupiter Steel and Brass Corporation, walking to work in Manhattan through the fog on a March morning. He goes to his office on the twenty-first floor, where the executives are waiting for the president of the company, Billy Calm. Billy has been out of town, working on a merger, and is supposed to return that morning for a meeting, announcing his success in getting it.

While in Billy’s empty office, McLove hears voices in the hall. He comes out just in time to see the door close to the meeting room. A crash from that room brings McLove, the secretary, and the executives into it on the run. They find a shattered window. The secretary says, “Billy jumped.”

McLove races down the elevator to the ground floor and runs outside but finds no body. Neither do the police. No one can figure out how a man could leap off a skyscraper and not hit the earth.

While McLove and the secretary take lunch in a nearby diner, a commotion draws them back to the Jupiter building. A crowd surrounds Billy Calm’s smashed body. He hit the ground three hours and forty-five minutes after he jumped. As one executive puts it, he took “the long way down.”

Not only is the mystery memorable, the solution left me reeling but agreeing that it made perfect sense. The reason it all works so well is that every component of the story has a purpose, even down to the names of the characters and the weather, which I didn’t realize until the last line. If you want to write mystery short stories, this is one you can study to learn how to write lean and mean while still delivering plenty of punch.

For more reviews of my favorite short stories, click on the stories below

“A Scandal in Winter” by Gillian Linscott

“The Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse” by G.K. Chesteron

“Owls Hoot in the Daytime and Other Omens” by Manly Wade Wellman

“Summer Job” by Amanda Witt

“The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries” by Otto Penzler

What are your favorite short stories?

The Sherlock Holmes Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Later this month, I have guest bloggers discussing how they write romance novels. Since they are covering the love aspect of this month’s theme, I thought I’d handle the friendship part of it. And what better way than to highlight the greatest friendship in English literature, the bond between the Great Detective and the Good Doctor in the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

In high school, I watched the TV series with Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes. His portrayal mesmerized me and sent me to the original stories. Between the four novels and the fifty-six short stories that Sir Arthur wrote about his most famous character, I think the short stories are far better. Except for The Hound of the Baskervilles, the novels suffer from a boring second half. The first half involves Holmes solving the mystery. But when the perpetrator of the crime is revealed, he drags down the second half by delivering his backstory.

Some of my favorite short stories are:

  • “A Scandal in Bohemia”–I have to love the only story that features the intriguing Irene Adler, the woman who outwitted Holmes
  • “The Red-Headed League”–Who created the Red-Headed League to benefit red-headed men? Why is Jabez Wilson told the League will pay him if he sits in an office for four hours a day and copies the Encyclopedia Britannica? And then why does it suddenly disband? The solution is one of Sir Arthur’s most ingenious.
  • “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”–One of the best Christmas mysteries ever written. Holmes and Watson must figure out how a stolen jewel ended up in the crop of a Christmas goose.
  • “The Adventure of Silver Blaze”–The killer of a horse trainer turns out to be the least likely but most logical suspect.
  • “The Empty House”–After he lets Watson believe he died three years ago at the hands of Professor Moriarty, Holmes makes a dramatic return. He enlists Watson’s help in an attempt to capture Moriarty’s right hand man, Colonel Sebastian Moran.
  • “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton”–Holmes and Watson decide they are justified in committing burglary to save a woman from a professional blackmailer. I love this story because we get to see how much Watson enjoys his adventures with Holmes. He’s thrilled to the core to be sneaking through the night to commit a noble crime.
  • “The Illustrious Client”-– I tend to like the stories where the superhuman reasoning machines are shown to be human after all. While trying to prevent a woman from marrying a sexual predator, Holmes is beat up. Watson is outraged, and once again, Holmes believes he needs to break the law to achieve justice.
  • “The Three Garridebs”–While trying to help a client who will receive a large bequest if three people with a rare last name are located, Holmes finally reveals the depth of his feelings for Watson. Watson’s description of seeing this side to his best friend’s nature is both touching and funny.

I think the key to the longevity of these stories is the friendship between Holmes and Watson. Holmes would come across as an inhuman deducing machine if Sir Arthur hadn’t created Watson to be the detective’s friend and biographer. Watson would be just an ordinary Victorian gentleman, no one worth reading about, if he wasn’t the best pal of the world’s greatest detective.

I learned so much about character development from them. To read about how to create interesting friendships for your characters based on Holmes and Watson, click here for an earlier blog post.

What are your favorite literary friendships?

Writing Tip — Favorite Stories

Anthology Meme 1

Because my focus this month is the anthology Christian fiction off the beaten path and writing short stories, I decided to feature another anthology. This book has a special place in my heart because it contains my first published work, “Debt to Pay”. But more than that, it showed me that I could write more than my YA crime novel.

I’d worked for years on that novel. I’d occasionally stir the interest of an agent, who’d ask for sample chapters and my business plan. Then they’d always turn it down. I hadn’t considered writing a short story until this opportunity came.

Forcing my imagination outside the world I’d invented for my novel released a creative flow I didn’t realize I had. My imagination had grown stale, working with the same characters, in the same setting. I’d lost a lot of my enthusiasm for writing fiction. The challenge of the short story showed me that I was more than a one-book writer.

Once I got “Debt to Pay” out the door, my imagination took off in all sorts of new directions. I was excited to create stories again. Below are summaries of the nine stories. For a chance to win From the Lake to the River, click here to enter a chance to win the anthology. Deadline is 5 p.m. EST, November 13.


Historical fiction. A group of ladies in Cardington, Ohio, are answering letters to Santa. One letter from the daughter of a Confederate soldier asks for something more difficult than giving toys and candy. The women must decide if they can put aside their sorrow for the sake of a child.


Historical fiction. Her mother called her a failure, and maybe she was. Her husband was gone—in the service, yes, but if he loved her—really loved her, why didn’t he write? Or call? Or send the money she needed?

What she needed was a miracle…and that wasn’t going to happen.


Time Slip. When Stephie Graham volunteered to direct The Rainmaker at the historic Holland Theatre in Bellefontaine, Ohio, she might not have thought it all through. Like how hard it can be to find six male cast members for a small community production. But then Andy Tremont moseys into the audition—and into her heart.

In case things weren’t difficult enough, the theatre might have a ghost named Juniper who’s trying to keep Stephie and Andy from getting together. There was, in fact, a Juniper who took the Holland stage in 1933 and sang about her broken heart, certain she had lost her chance at love.

But maybe God has a plan for both women that is beyond what either could ever imagine.


Contemporary. Widowed mother Dawn is filled with regrets concerning her aging father. Is it too late to make up for lost time? Or, will she find peace and perhaps a new love as her father’s final journey is revealed?


Historical fiction. Noah Andrews, a soldier with the Ohio Seventh Regiment can’t wait to get home now that his three year enlistment is coming to an end. He plans to start a new life with his young wife. Molly was only sixteen when she married her hero husband. She prayed every day for him to return home safe and take over the burden of running a farm. But they can’t keep the war from following Noah home. Can they build a life together when his soldier’s heart comes between them?


Historical fiction. Set during the tragic 1913 Great Miami River Flood in Troy, Ohio.

Lottie’s feelings for an old school crush blossom again during the worst flood her town has endured in years.

Desperate circumstances throw Lottie and Joe together. Can tragedy unite the couple to make her long-buried dream of winning his love come true?


Contemporary. Dani has growing doubts about mixing marriage and a music ministry on the road. Then again, with as little time as she and Kurt can spend together, despite working for the same ministry, she might never see that engagement ring. Four weeks at a teen music boot camp gives them time together, but the egos and politics that converge in one place might threaten everything.


Country noir. While cutting wood near their home in Wayne National Forest, a teenager and his older brother stumble across a dying millionaire, who claims his plane was rigged to crash. Do the brothers seek justice or cash in?


Contemporary. Recently widowed Lori returns to square dancing as she tries to open a new chapter in her life.



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