Every writer has certain questions that he or she gets asked a lot. The most common one, across all genres, has to be “Where do you get your ideas?” And if you write something slightly off-genre, the way I do – psychological mystery, or literary mystery, or whatever it is – you also get asked “How did you end up writing this genre?”
For me, the answer to those two questions is the same: I’m enthralled by mysteries – real or fictional, solved or unsolved. I always have been, even since I was a kid. I can remember being six years old and reading a slightly inaccurate version of the story of the ghost ship Mary Celeste: the ship was found abandoned, no sign of a struggle, breakfast cooking in the galley – everything in perfect order, except that the crew had vanished, never to be seen again… I was fascinated. I can still remember lying on the living-room floor, reading this story, and vowing that when I died I was going to ask God what happened.
And so I’m always looking for the potential mystery in everything. My first book, In the Woods, happened because I was working on an archaeological dig, and there was a wood near the dig. I thought it looked like a great place for kids to play – but instead of stopping there, like a normal person would, I went searching for the potential mystery. I thought, What if three kids ran in there to play, and only one came out – and he had no memory of what happened to the other two? And what if he grew up to become a detective, and a murder case drew him back to that wood? I wrote the book because I wanted to find out what happened, and that was the only way to do it.
My newest book, Broken Harbour, happened the same way. One evening a few years back, I went into our kitchen and half-saw something zip across a counter and disappear behind the cooker. My husband and I couldn’t find anything, and he thought it was just my imagination – till he went into the kitchen a couple of nights later and saw a mouse making a run for it. We got some traps, I managed not to say “Told you so,” and that should have been the end of that. But I went looking for the mystery again. I started thinking: What if that had happened to someone who wasn’t happy and secure in her relationship and in her home? What if it had happened to someone who already felt under attack from every direction? And what if the mouse never materialized – what if this guy could never prove to the people he loved that this invader actually existed? Gradually, those questions turned into the story of a brutal attack on what looks like the perfect family – until Detective Scorcher Kennedy starts investigating, and realizes that they were under threat from both the inside and the outside…
I’m not saying this holds true for all mystery writers, but I’d bet it’s true of a lot of us: I’m still that six-year-old on the living-room floor. I’m still dazzled by mystery, and looking for it everywhere.
-from The National Post, for which Tana is a guest editor this week.
- Tana French: The mystery in everything