by Katy Munger, 2016 Piedmont Laureate

One of the most frequent questions I get at readings and workshops is “Where do you get your ideas?” Although, as a crime fiction writer, I suspect what this question really means is, “You seem like such a nice person—how is it you are capable of coming up with so much murder and mayhem?” Alas, I suspect the answer to that question is much scarier than any plot I could come up with: it’s just the way my brain works. All the time. And I am not alone.

All mystery writers are secret criminal masterminds whose imaginations are constantly on the prowl for two things: 1) how to break the rules and get away with it, and 2) how to catch and punish those who do break the rules. Perhaps you may wonder which of these impulses drives us the most. Are mystery writers, at heart, megalomaniacs who enjoy breaking the polite rules of society through our characters? Or are we simply obedient members of society, superheroes with pens, who are always on the lookout for the bad guys and keen to bring them to justice?

Well, don’t waste too much time pondering the possibilities, because I’m here to tell you: all mystery writers are, at heart, rule breakers chafing under the yoke of societal expectations, even the plump, kindly-looking writers with white hair and apple cheeks. In fact, they’re the worst. Which is why our minds race about and land on the darnedest ideas whenever we get invited anywhere. Put us in a group of people and we will immediately default to amateur psychologist status, analyzing everyone we meet, soon followed by diabolical plotting in our heads.

To prove my point—and at the risk of never being invited anywhere ever again—I thought it might be fun to give you an example of what I mean, with deepest apologies to those who were there with me at the time and thought I was normal… I recently attended my high school reunion. As I entered the room, I immediately saw a friend I not had seen in years, followed by another, and still another. Soon, I was deep in conversations, laughter, wonderful memories and yet… all the while, my mind was imagining scenarios to connect the dots between the teens I had known so many years ago and the adults now standing before me. The actual life stories of my classmates were interesting enough, but the imagined lives I ascribed to them? Even better. And then I discovered the memorial table. This was a simple table holding photos of classmates who had passed on. Depending on the photo, they were forever frozen in our memories at a single age, most of them while still in high school. As I circled the table, mourning their absence at the reunion, I tried to cope with the sheer number of photos on that table, unwilling to accept that I was getting older and death a more frequent visitor to my life. So where did my mystery writer mind go in defense? To the thought that the memorial table was not simply a reminder that life was passing, and passing quite quickly, but that it had all been planned.

“What if,” I thought, “We had a classmate, someone who had been quirky and an outcast in school, someone obsessed with mathematics and patterns, someone who would have been labeled as autistic or on the spectrum today? What if he had showed up at the reunion and, like me, circled the table, peering at photos, trying to make sense of it all? And what if he had suddenly started mumbling letters, softly chanting “A, C, D, F….” then looked up in alarm, scanning the room, having discovered a pattern in the names of those whose photos appeared on the table? What if he, and he alone, had discovered that there was a killer among us—and knew who was likely to be the next victim?”

With that thought, the game was afoot. Everyone I looked at became an imagined hero or villain in this mental tale of mine. The mild-mannered girl whose name no one could quite remember? She was Carrie incarnate, out for revenge. The aging football player who had gone through four wives? He mourned his lost glory and was systematically taking out old classmates for the sheer thrill of the game again. And that former cheerleader who had spent a lifetime being a wife and a mom? She had witnessed something that told her the football player, her former high school boyfriend, was a killer and she was now secretly tracking his movements, biding her time, ready to dispatch of him quietly when no one else was looking. Maybe even tonight….

It’s insanity really. But a most enjoyable kind. Social gatherings are way more fun when you’ve got two versions of them going at the same time. Eventually I came back to reality, and to real life, and had a great night talking, dancing, and laughing. Nonetheless, sleeping somewhere in my mystery writer imagination, now lies the bones of a new plot and a cast of characters I might one day awake and command to do my bidding. In the meantime? I’m just trying to stay off the memorial table.

So the next time you find yourself at a cocktail party with a mystery writer and you catch them peering at you with an inscrutable expression—hey, don’t worry about it. They’re either killing you off, making you into a nefarious villain, or assessing you for possible hero status. No big deal, really. We do it all the time. And you know why? Because we can.