How I Write

This article, which I wrote, appeared last month on the Mystery Morgue website. Here it is again, by popular demand. If  it seems familiar, that’s because some of it was culled from old posts on this blog.

I’ve just signed  a contract for four more Diagnosis Murder
books… and the next one is due in March. 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.
I’ve been able to  procrastinate by doing
research on the period… which has given me some plot ideas… but I’ve still
got to 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 outlining, 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 I have time to write
this. What a great way to procrastinate!

In every  "Diagnosis Murder" book, 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.

I always begin developing a book
the same way – I 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 I have the arena, I think
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 I ask myself the big
questions – who gets murdered, how is he or she killed, and why? How Dr. Mark
Sloan solves that murder depends on whether I’m are writing an open or closed

Whether the murder is
"open," meaning the reader knows whodunit from the start, or whether
it is "closed," meaning I 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 reader, think the perfect crime has been committed. The
pleasure is watching 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 book, the
actual murder is the last thing I explore, once I’ve settled on the arena and
devised some interesting characters. Once I figure out who to kill and how,
then I start asking myself what the killer did wrong. I 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 we call it, the
"ah-ha!," the little shred of evidence that allows the hero to solve
the crime – but still leaves the reader in the dark.

The finish clue is the hardest
part of writing a "Diagnosis Murder" book – 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 reader will be satisfied when Mark
Sloan nails the murderer with it.

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

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 book should be driven by
character conflict, not my need to reveal clues. The revelations should come
naturally out of character, because people read books 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, I discover Aunt Mildred is the murderer because she’s such a clean
freak, she couldn’t resist doing the dishes after killing her nephew.

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

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

First, I decide what function
or purpose the medical clue has to serve, and how it is linked to our killer,
then I make a call to Dr. D.P. Lyle, author of “Forensics for Dummies,” to help
me find us the right malady, drug, or condition that fits our story needs. If he
doesn’t know the answer, I go to the source. If it’s a question about
infectious diseases, for instance, I might call the Centers for Disease
Control. If it’s a forensic question, I might call the medical examiner. If
it’s a drug question, I’ll call a pharmaceutical company. It all depends on the
story. And more often than not, whoever I find is glad to answer my questions.

The reader 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 I’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 reader at the same time that the
hero finds them. There’s nothing worse than with-holding clues from the reader
– and the sad thing is, most mysteries 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,” between chapters, the story is a lot
easier to plot. But when "Diagnosis Murder" book works, when the
mystery is tight, and the reader is fairly and honestly fooled, it makes all
the hours of painful plotting worthwhile.

That, and the royalty check.

When you sit down to write a
mystery novel, there are no limitations on where your characters can go and
what they can do. Your detective hero can appear on every single page. He can
spend all the time he wants outdoors, even at night, and can talk with as many
people as he likes. Those may not seem like amazing creative liberties to you,
but to someone who makes most of his living writing for television, they are
amazing freedoms.

Before a TV writer even begins
to think about his story, he has to consider a number of factors that have
nothing to do with telling a good mystery or creating memorable characters.

For one thing, there’s the budget and the shooting schedule. Whatever story you
come up with has be shot in X many days for X amount of dollars. In the case of
“Diagnosis Murder,” a show I wrote and produced for several years, it was seven
days and $1.2 million dollars. In TV terms, it was a cheap show shot very fast.

To make that schedule, you are
limited to the number of days your characters can be “on location” as opposed
to being on the “standing sets,” the regular interiors used in each book. On
“Diagnosis Murder,” it was four days “in” and three days “out.” Within that
equation, there are still more limitations – how many new sets can be built,
how many locations you can visit and how many scenes can be shot at night.

Depending on the show’s
budget, you are also limited to X number of guest stars and X number of smaller
“speaking parts” per book. So before you even begin plotting, you know that you
can only have, for example, four major characters and three smaller roles (like
waiters, secretaries, etc.). Ever wonder why a traditional whodunit on TV is
usually a murder and three-to-four suspects? Now you know.

Then there’s the work schedule
of your regular cast to consider. On “Diagnosis Murder,” Dick Van Dyke only
worked three consecutive days a week and he wouldn’t visit any location more
than thirty miles from his home. Co-star Victoria Rowell split her time with the
soap opera “Young and the Restless,” and often wasn’t available to shoot until
after lunch.

On top of all that, your story
has to be told in four acts, with a major twist or revelation before each
commercial break, and unfold over 44 minutes of airtime.

It’s astonishing, given all
those restrictions, that there are so many complex, entertaining, and fun
mysteries on television.

Those limitations become so
ingrained to a TV writer/producer, that it become second-nature. You
instinctively know the moment you’re pitched a particular story if it can be
told within the budgetary and scheduling framework of your show. It becomes so
ingrained, in fact, that it’s almost impossible to let go, even when you have
the chance.

I am no longer bound by the
creative restrictions of the show. I don’t have to worry about sticking to our
“standing sets,” Dick Van Dyke’s work schedule, or the number of places the
characters visit.. Yet I’m finding it almost impossible to let go. After
writing and/or producing 100 episodes of the show, it’s the way I think of a
“Diagnosis Murder” story.

And if you watched the show,
it’s the way you think of a “Diagnosis Murder” story, too –whether you realize
it or not. You may not know the reasons why a story is told the way its told,
but the complex formula behind the story-telling becomes the natural rhythm and
feel of the show. When that rhythm changes, it’s jarring.

If you watch your favorite TV
series carefully now, and pay close attention to the number of guest stars,
scenes that take place on the “regular sets,” and how often scenes take place
outdoors at night, and you might be able to get a pretty good idea of the
production limitations confronting that show’s writers every week.

And if you read my “Diagnosis
Murder” novels, feel free to put the book down every fifteen minutes or so for
a commercial break.

Speaking of which, if there’s
actually going to be another “Diagnosis Murder” novel, I better get back to
work… sitting in my chair, doing nothing.

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