Getting Started

I’m in that exciting, anxious, slightly-nerve-rattling, stage of writing a book…the research. I have a pretty good idea where my story is going, and who the characters are, and now I have to fill in the details… of character, of place, of clues, etc. So I hit the Internet in a big way, researching hundreds of different things, from forensics to the different ways of folding a pair of socks, from Blue Chip Stamp Collecting to different kinds of urinals.

For this book, I am researching things like currency collecting, cigars and how financial managers embezzle money from their clients.  I am also checking out how some people have sold stolen goods on ebay… and how they got caught. And I’m looking into dozens of other things. I print up everything I find and stick it in an ever-expanding binder I call my "Murder Book" (which also includes my ever-changing outline and, once I start writing, pages of my work-in-progress).

And as I do this research, in the back of my mind I am still plotting… during my last book, while researching cars that were popular in 1962, I stumbled on a fact that significantly changed the entire story…and for the better.

The Internet is a wonderful research tool. Within minutes, I can find an expert, a website, and a discussion group for any subject I’m interested in. I’ve already found a half-dozen experts in currency collecting and cigars who have inundated me with useful information.

Another great tool is other authors… I have found the DorothyL mailing list… a collection of mystery authors and fans…a wonderful resource for information and useful contacts.

So now, with one good hand and one not-so-good-one, I am browsing and surfing and procrastinating… putting off writing while I gather facts. But I can also feel the time slipping away…the book is due March 30th, and the holidays are coming up, so I don’t have much time before I have to do the really important work.

Making stuff up.

How I Write Mysteries

Today, I’m not. My arm is killing me, my back is sore… and I’m taking care of my daughter today. But the work is certainly still on my mind (How can it not be with a MISSING script to finish and DIAGNOSIS MURDER book due in 12 weeks?).

I’m often asked “how do you write a mystery?” Here’s an article I wrote to answer that question. It originally appeared in, I think, an issue of Mystery Readers Journal and several other publications in one form or another, before ending up in our book Successful Television Writing.

Writing Diagnosis Murder

Every week on “Diagnosis Murder,” Dr. Mark Sloan is able to unravel a puzzling murder by using clever deductions and good medicine to unmask the killer.

I wish I could say that he’s able to do that because of my astonishing knowledge of medicine, but it’s not.
I’m just a writer.

I know as much about being a doctor as I do about being a private eye, a lifeguard, a submarine Captain, or a werewolf… and I’ve written and produced TV shows about all of them, too.

What I do is tell stories. And what I don’t know, I usually make up…or call an expert to tell me.
Writing mysteries is, by far, the hardest writing I’ve had to do in television. Writing a medical mystery is even harder. On most TV shows, you can just tell a good story. With mysteries, a good story isn’t enough, you also need a challenging puzzle. It’s twice as much work for the same money.

We always begin developing an episode the same way – we come up with an “arena,” the world in which our story will take place. A UFO convention. Murder in a police precinct. A rivalry between mother and daughter for the love of a man. Once we have the arena, we talk about the characters. Who are the people the story will be about? What makes them interesting? What goals do they have, and how do they conflict with the other characters.

And then we ask ourselves the big questions – who gets murdered, how is he or she killed, and why? How we solve that murder depends on whether we are writing an open or closed mystery.

Whether the murder is “open,” meaning the audience knows whodunit from the start, or whether it is “closed,” meaning we find out who the killer is the same time that the hero does, is dictated by the series concept. “Columbo” mysteries are always open, “Murder She Wrote” was always closed, and “Diagnosis Murder” mixes both. An open mystery works when both the murderer, and the audience, think the perfect crime has been committed. The pleasure is watched the detective unravel the crime, and find the flaws you didn’t see. A closed mystery works when the murder seems impossible to solve, and the clues that are found don’t seem to point to any one person, but the hero sees the connection you don’t and unmasks the killer with it.

In plotting the episode, the actual murder is the last thing we explore, once we’ve settled on the arena and devised some interesting characters. Once we figure out who to kill and how, then we start asking ourselves what the killer did wrong. We need a number of clues, some red-herrings that point to other suspects, and clues which point to our murderer. The hardest clue is the finish clue, or as well call it, the “ah-ha!,” the little shred of evidence that allows the hero to solve the crime – but still leaves the audience in the dark.

The finish clue is the hardest part of writing a “Diagnosis Murder” episode – because it has to be something obscure enough that it won’t make it obvious who the killer is to everybody, but definitive enough that the audience will be satisfied when we nail the murderer with it.

A “Diagnosis Murder” episode is a manipulation of information, a game that’s played on the audience. Once you have the rigid frame of the puzzle, you have to hide the puzzle so the audience isn’t aware they are being manipulated. It’s less about concealment than it is about distraction. If you do it right, the audience is so caught up in the conflict and drama of the story, they aren’t aware that they are being constantly misdirected.

The difficulty, the sheer, agonizing torture, of writing “Diagnosis Murder” is telling a good story while, at the same time, constructing a challenging puzzle. To me, the story is more important than the puzzle — the show should be driven by character conflict, not our need to reveal clues. The revelations should come naturally out of character, because people watch television to see interesting people in interesting situations…not to solve puzzles. A mystery, without the character and story, isn’t very entertaining.

In my experience, the best “ah-ha!” clues come from character, not from mere forensics – for instance, we discover Aunt Mildred is the murderer because she’s such a clean freak, should couldn’t resist doing the dishes after killing her nephew.

But this is a series about a doctor who solves crimes. Medicine has to be as important as character-based clues. So we try to mix them together. The medical clue comes out of character.

So how do we come up with that clever bit of medicine?

First, we decide what function or purpose the medical clue has to serve, and how it is linked to our killer, then we make a call to an expert to help us find us the right malady, drug, or condition that fits our story needs. If one of our paid, medical consultants doesn’t know the answer, we go to the source. If it’s an episode about infectious diseases, for instance, we might call the Centers for Disease Control. If it’s a forensic question, we might call the medical examiner. If it’s a drug question, we’ll call a pharmaceutical company. It all depends on the story. And more often than not, whoever we find is glad to answer our questions.

For instance, in one episode there’s a terrible bus accident and the passengers are trapped inside. Once they are freed, paramedics discover one of the passengers is dead. What Dr. Mark Sloan discovers is that the accident didn’t kill the passenger… the man was murdered. The killer had to be one of the passengers, since they were all trapped inside after the accident. So someone killed the person in the five minutes after the accident and before the paramedics arrived and hoped the death would be blamed on the crash.
We knew we needed a medical clue that Dr. Sloan could find that would reveal the man’s death was actually murder, not a result of the bus crash. So we called our medical consultant, Dr. Gus Silva, and gave him the details. He called some of his fellow doctors and got back to us an hour later with the forensic clues we needed.

One of the paramedics in the episode is cocky, self-confident, and studying for med school entrance exams. Dr. Sloan, to help her out, gives her a pop quiz, asking her four questions. She gets one of them wrong, but Dr. Sloan won’t tell her which one because he wants her to figure it out for herself.

We thought it would be clever if Dr. Sloan realizes she’s the killer because she made the same mistake committing the murder that she makes in his pop quiz… in other words, her mistake comes from the same cockiness and over-confidence she demonstrates in her zeal to become a doctor. We went ahead and plotted the story, but relied on Dr. Silva to get back to us with just the right, subtle medical mistake that would trip the paramedic up.

The viewer enjoys the game as long as you play fair…as long as they feel they had the chance to solve the mystery, too. Even if they do solve it ahead of your detective, if it was a difficult and challenging mystery, they feel smart and don’t feel cheated. They are satisfied, even if they aren’t surprised.

If Dr. Sloan catches the killer because of some arcane medical fact you’d have to be an expert to catch, then we’ve failed and you won’t watch the show again.

The medical clue has to be clever, but it can’t be so obscure that you don’t have a chance to notice it for yourself, even if you aren’t an M.D. And it has to come out of character, so even if you do miss the clue, it’s consistent with, and arises from, a character’s behavior you can identify.

To play fair, all the clues and discoveries have to be shared with the audience at the same time that the hero finds them. There’s nothing worse than with-holding clues from the audience – and the sad thing is, most mysteries on television do it all the time. The writers do it because playing fair is much, much harder than cheating. If you have the hero get the vital information off screen, during a commercial, the story is a lot easier to plot and the writing staff can eat out for lunch instead of having pizza delivered again…and being stuck in a story conference for six more hours.

But when “Diagnosis Murder” episode works, when the mystery is tight, and the audience is fairly and honestly fooled, it makes all the hours of painful plotting worthwhile.

That, and the residual check.

Writing a Book

I’ve just been offered a contract for four more DIAGNOSIS MURDER books… and the next one is due in November. I have the broad strokes of the story….but that’s it. The broad strokes. The equivalent of book jacket copy. I’ve still got to come up with the actual story. Since this one takes place in 1962, I’ve been able to procrastinate by doing research on the period… which has given me some plot ideas… but I’ve still goto figure out the murders, the clues, the characters and, oh yes, the story.

This is the hardest part of writing… the sitting around, staring into space, and thinking. This is writing, even if you aren’t physically writing. A lot of non-writers have a hard time understanding this. Yes, just sitting in a chair doing nothing is writing. A crucial part, in fact.

It can be hell… especially when you are on as short a deadline as I am. Everyone has their own method… this is mine:

Once all the thinking is done, I sit down and work out a rough outline… one or two lines on each "scene," with the vital clues or story points in bold. It’s what I call "a living outline," because it changes as I write the book, staying a few chapters ahead of me (and, some times, requiring me to go back and revise earlier chapters to jibe with the new changes I’ve made… like characters who were supposed to die in the story but don’t). I keep revising the outline right up to the end of the novel. I finish both the book and the living outline almost simultaneously.

While I’m still thinking, and while I’m outling, and while I’m writing, I compile and maintain what I call "my Murder Book," a thick binder that contains my outline, my working manuscript, and notes, emails, articles, clips, photographs, post-its…anything and everything relating to my story. By the time the book is done, the binder is bulging with stuff… including my notes on what my next book might be.

Now I’m in the thinking stage, which is why you might have noticed a sudden uptick in blog entries. I don’t have time to write… but I have plenty of time to procrastinate.

And think…

TV Writing 101: The All Important Drive Up

We’d just delivered our script on a long-running cop show. The star called us into his trailer for his notes.

“I read your script,” he said. “There wasn’t a single drive up.”

“What’s a drive up?” I asked.

He stared at me. “How can you call yourself a professional writer and not know what a drive up is? It’s the scene where I drive up, get out of my car, and walk to the door of wherever I’m going.”

“Oh,” I replied, relieved. “We didn’t put any of those in on purpose. We like to start a scene in the middle, after you’ve arrived, after all the introductions. The viewers all know who you are and how you got there.”

“How?”

“What do you mean?”

“How can they be certain how I got there?” he asked.

“I’m sure they’ll assume you drove,” I said.

“But which car did I drive? What color is it? Is it a cool car or a lame car?” he said. “The drive-ups are important. People love to see me drive up. It’s what’s made this show a hit.”

He then turned to the first scene of the show. “Great scene,” he said. “Powerful stuff.” He tore the page out of his script. “But I can do all of this with a look.”

He then went to the next scene and tore two pages from it. “I can do this with a look, too.”

It didn’t take us long to figure out why he really liked the drive-ups so much…and why the drama of most scenes was best conveyed with a look rather than a word. No dialogue to learn.