The Stakes

by Barb, in her office in Portland, Maine, enjoying the breezes

The stakes

For a little more than a year, I’ve been doing a library/conference presentation called “Mystery Making: How They Do It!” (or some such, local listings may vary) with Sheila Connolly, Hallie Ephron, and Hank Phillippi Ryan. (Parnell Hall filled in for Hallie at Malice Domestic 2018.)

The audience writes out index cards with names, weapons, settings, occupations, and motives, and then deposits the cards in paper bags. We pull the cards out of the bags and build a mystery “on the fly.” Along the way, the audience learns something about how a writer approaches the decisions made during the task of making a mystery. They also learn something about the mystery-thriller-suspense sub-genres.

Hilarity ensues. At least it has every time we’ve done it so far.

From left: Hallie Ephron, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Barbara Ross, Sheila Connolly

One time we reached into the Motive bag, and out came the motive, “stole his/her parking space.”

I loved this motive.

Hank, however, was having none of it. She has a new thriller coming out, Trust Me, and she was representing the art of thriller writing in our group. “The stakes have to be bigger, much bigger,” she said.

“This can work,” I countered. We’d already established that the protagonist was a librarian. (We were at a conference full of librarians at the time.) All downtown libraries have insufficient parking. “What if the killer thinks he’s entitled to the senior librarian parking spot, but gets passed over somehow?” I asked.

“The protagonist’s family is going to be killed if she doesn’t figure this out and stop it,” Hank insisted.

The steaks

“What if the killer now has to park at City Hall four blocks away and walk to work in the wind and snow?” I asked. Having worked for fifteen years for companies that sold and supported software at institutions of higher education, my favorite joke is, “Why are the politics in academia so vicious? Because the stakes are so small.” I was on a roll here.

“No, no, no,” Hank said, “More stakes. The world is going to end.” (This may not exactly be what she said, just the way I remember it. These sessions get pretty wild.)

The actual stakes

The parking space went by the boards and the game moved on. But it was a great lesson for me in the stakes.

In my corner of the cozy mystery universe, I don’t need it to be the end of the world.

I just need one person who believes losing that parking space was the end of his world.

I haven’t written the parking-space-as-motive mystery yet, but I am sorely tempted to see if I can pull it off.

Meanwhile, check out Hank’s book Trust Me, coming to you this August 28.


A Contest! This one should be a lot of fun, and we hope to see entries from many of you.IMG_1393 The subject: Where Would You Put the Body?

The contest: Send us a photograph of the place you’d put a body, along with a description of why you chose that spot.

Where do you send it? To

What will you win? This nifty Poe tote bag and a bunch of books and other goodies.

What’s the deadline? Thursday, June 28th. Grab your camera and send us those pics.

About Barbara Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at
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14 Responses to The Stakes

  1. Barb Goffman says:

    The parking space can work because the stakes aren’t just the space. What’s at stake is pride. Sense of self. The theft of the parking space is the last straw in a world where no one plays by the rules anymore, and this man, finally, is putting his foot down. He is now on a quest for law and order and righteous. He is on a quest for goodness. The stakes, in the end, are nothing less than saving humanity.

  2. Vida Antolin Jenkins says:

    Barbara, you totally could pull parking space theft as the motive. There are so many work environments where assignment of a designated parking space is connected to status in the organization. Hospitals, courthouses, military organizations (parking at the Pentagon has an incredible hierarchical regulatory structure). Interfering with someone’s entitlement is a serious theft of time and convenience, and as Barb Goffman notes above, pride. Disrespect motivates an awful lot of violence.

  3. hpl04943 says:

    It certainly would fly in a big metropolitan area or if the person was a selectman who fought approval of the library budget every year.
    John Clark

  4. Liz Milliron says:

    As Barb said, the parking space is merely representative of a long-running series of events that threatens the villain’s self-worth. Maybe he/she has been enduring slights for a year of varying degrees. The theft of the parking space is the “straw that broke the camel’s back” as it were.

    I’m so sorry I missed this panel at Malice. I bet it was a hoot.

  5. Amber Pierce says:

    I completely agree with you, and I love the parking space stakes! Stakes need to be personal in order for us to care about them. How “big” the stakes are depends on how strongly the MC feels about them. Luke cares about finding the good in his father, as much if not more than toppling the empire. Saving a million lives is often less effective in motivating a reader than saving one, specific life.

    That said, I think the flaw in your colleague’s “the stakes need to be bigger” argument is in conflating the motive driving the murder vs the stakes the investigator faces.

    • Barbara Ross says:

      I agree the stakes and the murder are different. But it is typical in a thriller that the protagonist needs to figure out what is going on and stop in to protect loved ones and save the world.

  6. hankpryan says:

    I am still laughing.

  7. hankpryan says:

    and aw, thank you for mentioning TRUST ME, Barb. I am incredibly excited about it. ( And guess what? The key is the parking space.)

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