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.

Writer at Work

prather2Richard S. Prather, creator of the hilarious SHELL SCOTT detective novels (90 million copies in print at the height of the series popularity in the 60s) offers this writing advice in an interview conducted by Dean Davis his wonderfulUltimate Richard Prather Site…

There’s two types of writers: the ones who plot everything first and always know where it’s going, and then you have the people who sort of wing it. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but I think the people who plot in advance are more likely to produce books that hold up over the years. I plot out everything before I start writing the story’s first line.

He had an exhausting work schedule for himself…

I always have coffee and cigarettes sitting next to me while the typewriter is on my lap. It was a Royal portable and then I switched to an electric typewriter. For years I was on just about a 26-hour day. I wasn’t going anywhere…all I did was write. I might start working at ten o’clock in the morning and go to bed about two the next morning, then wake up at ten o’clock and start the cycle over again at noon. Every day it was about two hours later, rotating like that. I just thought of it as a 26-hour day.

I’d just write as fast and as long as I could and then fall into bed. My only goal was to try and do more than I did the previous day. The biggest day I ever had was here in Arizona when I was working on Dead-Bang. I worked 24 hours straight and did 24,000 words. I think when it goes that well and goes that fast, it’s the best stuff you can do.

He makes me feel lazy. By the way, that’s him on the right in the picture, his late wife Tina is in the middle, and the other lady was family friend Mar Cielo McCoy. The picture was taken during Prather’s year in Mexico in the early 50s, and comes from the Prather website.

Book Tours

My friend SJ Rozan posted an interesting explanation on her blog about how book tours work. The idea is you’re sent to cities where you’re popular to jolt the sales even more… or to cities where you’re not, to create a jolt where you haven’t gotten one before. Or you’re sent to a particular city because other authors on the publisher’s list will be there at the same time… or because a bookstore requested you… or because…well, just because. In other words, she can be sent anywhere and doesn’t have much of a say over where she goes. But, she writes, there are some authors who do…

The exception to this is authors like Lawrence Block, who works out deals with his publisher where he takes the tour budget, rents a car, books the tour himself, marathon drives and does about three times as many cities as they would have sent him to. You can only do that if you have a certain amount of clout and the soul of a long-haul truck driver. I also understand that Stuart Woods pilots his own small jet on tour, and won’t go to cities where he can’t land. This may be an urban legend, though.

Gregory McDonald

The previous post about FLETCH got me thinking about the author, Gregory McDonald… and I unearthed this interview I did with him back in the early 80s when I was a UCLA student. Since I haven’t seen him interviewed much, I thought I’d share it with you in its entirety.


Irwin Maurice Fletcher isn’t what you would call a dashing hero. A slob maybe, unorthodox to be sure, but certainly not your average suave and debonair type.

Fletch, as his fans know him, is a reporter and perhaps the most down to earth hero in detective fiction today. If anything, he’s at least one of the bestselling.

Gregory McDonald’s “Fletch” will be back in a new adventure this summer entitled “Fletch’s Moxie,” which takes the smooth talking scribe to Hollywood to uncover the grime behind the tinsel.

Fletch arose from McDonald’s own experiences in journalism his father was a reporter and McDonald worked for seven years at the Boston Globe before writing “Fletch” in 1974.

Since that time, “Fletch” has sold one million copies a year domestically, spawned three successful sequels and two “Flynn” spin offs, and has earned McDonald the coveted Edgar award. the mystery fiction equivalent of an Oscar.

“Fletch’s Moxie, ” like last winter’s “Fletch and the Widow Bradley,” is a prequel a story which takes place e before the adventures chronicled in “Fletch” and the novels which followed it.

If that sound unusual, it’ s no more unusual than the peculiar way “Fletch” became a novel in the first place. McDonald finished up the last chapter of “Fletch” while his family waited for him in a car all packed up for a trip to Vermont. After hurriedly wrapping things up, he called his o ld copy boy at the Globe and asked him to read the book while McDonald was out of town. If you like it, he told the boy, do something with it.”

“It had no chance of succeeding, ” McDonald recalled, ” so I was pretty casual about it . ” The copy boy liked it, and so did one of three publishers he sent it to while McDonald was away.

The book became a huge success and readers demanded more. “I had had no intention of following ‘Fletch’ up. But, I got tons of mail asking me to do another one. So, I sat under a tree for six months and talked with my dog about it.”

The result was “Confess, Fletch,” and another Edgar for McDonald. One of the peripheral characters in that novel became so popular he warranted a book of his own. It was called “Flynn,” which met with enough success to prompt a sequel called “The Buck Passes Flynn” in April.

The one rule of novel writing, McDonald has learned, is “a novel to be novel must really have something novel about it.”

Each of his novels have a tantalizing gimmick, he said, citing the “real don’t reveal the ending ending” of “Fletch and the Widow Bradley.”

Why is Fletch so popular?

“I think everyone wants to be a reporter – they “Fletch”want to have the right to ask questions,” McDonald explained. “A journalist is a person with a license to ask questions.”

Even McDonald misses the pleasures of being a news hound.

“I can remember sitting around the city room at 3 am listening to the reporters tell stories. There’s a real spirit there. I miss reporting, and I still get up and want to see what I have in the paper in the morning. I miss the excitement, reporting is such marvelously seductive fun.”

The pleasurable mix of breezy sarcasm and tightly woven mystery in the Fletch tales make the books –and McDonald hard to classify. “I don’t know whether I’m a mystery writer or a humorist; it seems I’m billed as both. In New York, I’m seen as a mystery writer. To everyone else, I’m a humorist who writes mysteries.”

Hollywood hasn’t let Fletch slip by unnoticed. The first book was optioned for the big screen by Columbia Pictures five years ago. However, “Fletch” has yet to be captured on a single frame of celluloid.

“At this moment, I don’t know what the condition of the movie is. It’s been a long, sad trail,” McDonald said. “People from the ages of 17 to 77 have been on the phone to me wanting to do it (the screen adaptation). I prefer my own image of Fletch, without some actor becoming Fletch, at least right now.”

He added he’s not really “enamored” by the movie industry, a view which may surface in “Fletch’s Moxie.”

Of his books, he skirted the issue of which one is his favorite. “That’s like asking which of your kids do you like best.”

McDonald is pleased, and a little surprised, with his popularity. “I’ve very pleased people are reading (my work). Sometimes I have trouble sleeping at night. It’s like making love to a million people at the same time .”


Has anyone read THE BRAVE, a novel about the making of a snuff film, written by Gregory McDonald? From what I understand, it’s a far cry from his Fletch books. There’s actually a film adaptation. It was Johnny Depp’s directorial debut, and Depp stars alongside Marlon Brando. After a disastrous screening at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997, it was shelved. In the United States at least, the movie has never seen the light of day.

Vince Keenan posted that on the DorothyL newsgroup — which intrigued me, because I am a big McDonald’s FLETCH novels, particularly the first two: FLETCH and CONFESS, FLETCH. As a kid, I must have read those books a dozen times each, marveling at the wit and rythmn of the dialogue, as well as the clever plotting (The two lousy Chevy Chase movies did not do the character or the books justice). The dialogue in those books was so strong, excerpts were used on the covers as selling-points. The books had an almost screenplay-like quality in their reliance on dialogue over prose… but not that much more so than an early SPENSER novel. The later FLETCH books declined in quality with each new tome… but I still recommend those first two. Come to think of it, it’s time I re-read them again…

Back in the early 80s, I interviewed McDonald and the makers of then in-production FLETCH movie. Here’s an excerpt from that article:

“Fletch” became a smash best-seller in 1974, copped the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award and led to one prequel, five sequels, and three “Flynn” spin-offs. It also sparked a wave of stylistic imitators that continues today.

Gregory McDonald’s hero, a wise-cracking and slobbish reporter, was a reaction against the unrealities of the conventional gumshoe’s macho altruism. Fletch shirks responsibility in general and heroics in particular. His interest is himself and he is only pressed reluctantly into heroics if it serves his libido, his longevitity, his ego, or his wallet.

He was also a reaction to the ponderous writing that characterized the genre. McDonald’s sparse style embraces the attention-getting techniques of television and the economic plotting of the original genre masters. Prose is downplayed and the emphasis is on crisp, fast moving dialogue and vividly choreographed sex and bloodshed. It’s almost like a screenplay, which is what “Fletch” has finally, and inevitably, become.

“Everyone between the ages of 17 to 70 has approached me about doing ‘Fletch,'” says McDonald. “It’s been so long coming the reality of finally being made hasn’t caught up with me yet.”

The reality is that Chevy Chase will portray Fletch for Director Michael (“The Candidate”) Ritchie and producers Peter (“Final Countdown”) Douglas and Alan (“Modern Problems”) Greisman from a screenplay written by Alan (“The In-Laws”) Bergman with some help from Phil Alden Robinson (“Rhinestone”) and Jerry (“Smokey and the Bandit III”) Belson. Joe Don Baker (“Walking Tall”), Tim (“Animal House”) Matheson and George (“Cheers”) Wendt are along for the ride.

“Fletch” may read like a good movie, but does that mean it can be one? If the movie history of the production staff is any indication, “Fletch” could easily become a parody of itself, a mad-cap comedy of dubious quality. But the fact that “Fletch” is even being made at all is a testament to Douglas’ dogged determination and, perhaps, an indication of how much pressure he will exert to keep the movie true to the book.

He picked up the book in 1974 at LAX and had it read by the time his plane touched down in New York. In the book, Fletch is lazing around as a beach bum to crack a seaside drug ring. Along the way, Fletch is ensnared in a plot by a rich aviation executive to embezzle several million dollars from the man’s company.

“Mr. Fletcher, I have a proposition to make to you. I will give you a thousand dollars just for listening to it,” said millionaire aviation exec Alan Stanwyk. “If you decide to reject the proposition, you take the thousand dollars and go away and never tell anyone we talked. Fair enough?”

“Is it criminal? I mean, what you want me to do?”


“Fair enough. For a thousand bucks I can listen. What do you want me to do?”

“I want you to murder me.”

Fletch said “Sure.”

It was “a great four hour read” and although he was only “a second assistant director with dreams of granduer” he began to chase after it. He tracked it down to Columbia Pictures, where comedian Alan King owned the rights but “didn’t appear to be doing anything with it.”

Douglas, son of actor Kirk Douglas, tried to get the project moving by arranging financing “but it always fell apart.” King lost interest and sold the rights to producer Jonathon Burrows.

“He was a young kid totally out of his element trying very hard to get ‘Fletch’ made,” recalls Douglas. “I was in a position where I could offer him a deal to do it.”

But the deal never materialized. The two clashed and Burrows ended up selling the rights to an English record company…where dastardly plans were afoot.

“They were talking about having Mick Jagger play Fletch,” Douglas says. “David Bowie was even mentioned.”

“It’s true, Mick expressed interest in playing ‘Fletch.'” McDonald says. “The situation existed for a long time and, thankfully, the man who ran the record company turned out to be one of the most decent men I have ever known. He considered the property first and his needs second.”

Douglas contacted the record company and “got a sense that they were interested in selling the rights. The movie business was too expensive for them.” But not for Douglas. In the 10 years since he first read “Fletch,” he had established himself as a talented producer, having brought “The Final Countdown” and Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” to the screen.

Douglas met with William Morris agent Stan Kamen, who represented all Richie, Chase and much of the talent involved, and was able to package a sweet deal for Universal Studios. The studio bought “Fletch.”

And then asked for a whole new story.

“They didn’t think the plot was very interesting. The studio was loaded up on drug movies at that moment and selling drugs in Santa Monica just didn’t have any umph.
They, for some reason I could not fathom, wanted to set the
movie in Miami,” says Jerry Belson, who was brought in by producer Alan Greisman to fashion the fresh screenplay. “We went to Miami and concoted a brand new story not based on any ‘Fletch’ book. It was almost like an ‘Evita’ story, the wife of a latin american dictator uses her feminine wiles toget Fletch to help her. I guess it was kind of like ‘Body Heat,’ too.”

When Belson and Greisman returned, the “group of Universal execs who told us to go were thrown out and so was my script,” Belson says. “I guess it was darker than they had wanted.”

Douglas and Greisman went looking for a screenwriter to adapt the book. They settled on Andrew Bergman, who had written two detective novels in addition to his screenwriting work.

“I had never done an adaptation before, and that really appealed to me,” Bergman says. “The book had a lot of energy and fun and I thought it would be a good vehicle for Chevy Chase.”

Adapting means changing, and Bergman did. “The main problem was that most of the book takes place over the telephone which is something that won’t work on the screen,” he says. “I had to throw all that out and open it up, push Fletch out into the field, as it were. I also thought he was consistently nasty to women in the book, he brutalized his wives, so I got rid of that.”

Mrs. Fletcher told me a great deal about you…she has told me you are a vicious, violent man, a liar and a cheat, and that she left your bed and board because she absolutely couldn’t stand you anymore. She did not abandon you. She escaped with her life.”

“Vicious and violent. Bullshit. One night I stepped on the cat’s tail.”

“You pitched the cat through the window of your seventh floor apartment.”

“The whole place smelled of cat.”

“Mrs. Fletcher, thinking reasonably that she might be the next one through the window, packed and left.”

“Nonsense. She didn’t smell. She was always in the shower. She washed her hair every half hour.”

Adapting means adding, and Bergman did that as well. “I gave him ticks which I thought would help define his character, like making him a Laker fan, and would create a certain short-hand history and texture,” he says. “I also combined the two seperate plot lines. Very little of McDonald’s dialogue made the transition. Everyone’s rhythmn is different; mine is different than his. He was writing something to be read, I was writing a performance piece.”

Shortly after Bergman turned in his script, he was called away to direct his screenplay for “Big Trouble,” a comedy starring Alan Arkin and Peter Falk. So when rewrites were needed, the producers were forced to find someone else.

They went to Belson first, who did some retouching, and then to Phil Alden Robinson, who had just written the Steve Martin comedy “All of Me” for Universal.

“The screenplay is different from the book,” Robinson agrees. “The studio felt strongly about making a good Chevy Chase movie. Fans expect a certain style from his movies.

Chevy came up with a lot of great dialogue people are going to love hearing him say. I think Hollywood vaults are loaded with bad, loyal adaptations. No one wants to do something counter to what made the ‘Fletch’ book so wonderful. We’re staying true to the spirit of the book. This won’t be National Lampoon’s ‘Fletch’.”

Robinson read the Bergman/Belson draft, met with the cast and production staff and wrote a draft. Then, in consultation with Chase, he wrote another. “He is not some Hollywood guy doing a star turn. He has thought very carefully about ‘Fletch’ and the story,” Robinson says. “An actor will always make changes with you or without you. The smart actors will tell the writer their suggestions and together, you figure out how to make them work. That’s how it was with Chevy and it was wonderful.”

Complications arose on the “Big Trouble” set and Bergman stepped down as director, thereby becoming available again for any ‘Fletch’ rewrites needed once the film began shooting.

“Now that the film is shooting, it’s sort of been like dial-a-joke,” says Bergman. “I hope McDonald likes the script.”

He does. “They are being quite faithful,” McDonald says.”Ofcourse there are changes. There have to be changes. They seem very respectful of the book and Chevy absolutely fits my vision of Fletch. I think if you were to hold a national election, Chevy Chase would be the one Fletch readers would chose as Fletch.”

“We’ve carefully maintained the spirit and humor of ‘Fletch,” Douglas adds. “Greg is pleased with the integrity that is there. I know I wouldn’t tolerate a slapstick, goofy Fletch.”

Chase is signed for a sequel, so if the film turns out to be a hit, the adventures of the wise-cracking, irrevernt reporter could continue as a motion picture series. McDonald, meanwhile, intends to do some tinkering with his creation.

“There will be nine Fletch books total, with ‘Fletch and the Widow Bradley’ at one end and ‘Fletch and the Man Who’ on the other,” he says. “That will chart Fletch as he grows from a rather naive anti-authoritatian to where he is suddenly protecting the establishment and joining it.”

McDonald smiles. “But with a jaundiced eye.”

On the Tour

PICT0002I was up in Northern California last weekend, speaking/signing at Rossmoor, a retirement community outside of my hometown of Walnut Creek. That’s my daughter Maddie in the picture, who has promised to support me with her writing… and get us a condo at Rossmoor for our retirement (Hawaii, she’s decided, is just too far and inconvenient for a woman with her busy schedule).

From Rossmoor, we headed down to Monterey for the East of Eden writing conference, where I was the keynote speaker on Friday night (followed by Jeffrey Deaver on Saturday). We had a marvelous time… even though I dropped a piece of chocolate cake in my lap before I spoke…. a situation I made a lot worse by trying to wipe it off with water in the men’s room. I looked like a guy with a severe bladder control problem. Thankfully, I had a jacket that covered up my, um, stain… that said, it made for a funny intro into my talk. Most people thought I was joking about the accident. I wasn’t. But it went so well, I might just drop some food in my lap before my talk at Bouchercon in October…

Why We Write

Trust author/editor/columnist Ed Gorman to sum up best why we writers write… and why most of us are also such voracious readers…

If only I loved the writing BUSINESS as much as I do the writing itself. But because I’m not a star it’s scary. It never was, oddly enough, in my first two decades. There were rejections, dust-ups, bad patches. But like most of my fellow full-time writers, I had the sense that things just always took care of themselves. Candide. I wrote, and write today, not for money, fame or immortality. But just because telling stories is so much fun, whatever the fate of those stories might be.

Every once in a while, when the worry termites start gnawing their way through my mind, I refresh myself by sitting down and reading the same kind of writing that made me want to be a writer in the first place….The business can cut you deep. But pure fine writing can heal you up as many times as you require.