Westwood Library makes a mystery

Authors Hank Phillippi Ryan, Elisabeth Elo, Stephanie Gayle and Julie Hennrikus pose with their white board of ideas at the Westwood Library’s ‘Mystery Making’ event. Photos by Laura Drinan

By Laura Drinan
Hometown Weekly Reporter

When Concord District Court Judge Samantha Bell Jones meets data miner Thomas Malachi, she doesn’t seem to take much of an interest in him, except for the fact that he owns a cat named Klaus.

When a stranger, John Ledbetter Bell, comes in from out of town with a positive DNA test and demands a piece of the inheritance left to Samantha, what will happen? Is the data miner involved? What happens when a steak knife becomes a murder weapon?

These are just a few of the ideas that were conceived at the Westwood Public Library’s “Mystery Making” event, featuring authors Hank Phillippi Ryan, Elisabeth Elo, Stephanie Gayle and Julie Hennrikus.

As the program participants entered the room, they were asked to give suggestions on index cards for a motive, setting, character, weapon, and occupation. The authors took turns picking suggestions from the bags labeled for each element of a mystery and collaboratively thought of a story, while simultaneously offering their insight on writing.

“Stereotypes aren’t good, but they work,” said Julie, as she drew the name “Klaus” from the suggestion bag and characterized him as a mean-spirited grump. Her fellow authors, though, suggested it be the name of an animal.

“As a writer, we’re in charge of surprising you as a reader,” she said. “If we don’t surprise you in you journey, then we’re not doing our jobs. We should surprise you so much that you go, ‘Well that made no sense,’ but we should surprise you, so we want to play on your expectations and upturn them when we can.”

The other characters were chosen and slightly developed with the selection of their occupations, perfectly picking a judge for a character’s job because it would help create suspense in the novel with a ticking clock element added to the story.

“Ticking clocks are great, because there’s nothing quite like amping the tension by saying, ‘We have a deadline’ or ‘This bomb is going to go off by nine,’” said Stephanie. “Then the fun thing that you do is in the next chapter, reveal that it’s not even true. They have a day less or hours less.

“There’s this wonderful thing that you create, which is an uneven level of knowledge between you, the reader, and the character. Whenever you know more than the character does, oh man, you’re going to keep turning pages.”

The authors then decided on a setting based on the suggestions, and chose Concord, Massachusetts, because of the courthouse there. They also picked different motives and decided to incorporate several of the suggestions into the story: inheritance, rejection, and revenge.

To really make it a mystery, the authors selected a murder weapon from the bag. They wowed (and possibly concerned) the audience with all of the ideas they had on turning a Mylar balloon, women’s scarf, and a steak knife into a lethal object.

“This is why mystery writers are honestly just so calm,” Julie laughed. “We’re so nice, because we just work it off in our brains. If we’re annoyed with you, we’re never going to show it, because we’re just killing you in our heads five different ways.”

The audience laughed at the slew of ideas the authors came up with and applauded their creativity and innovation.

Perhaps patrons of the Westwood Public Library just helped one of the authors create the next groundbreaking novel.

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