by Jule Selbo

It was a dark Tuesday night, first week of October, at the Topsham Library. The Mystery Game, set up by Topsham librarian Linda Meadows and MCW Kate Flora, was in progress. Barbara Ross, Dick Cass and I faced the participants/attendees and Ann Cass was super support. She was thrilled to be using a “smart” whiteboard (see photo) that had multiple magic pen colors available with just a tap or two.

The attendees were assembled. I wondered why they chose to spend Tuesday night here.

  • Did they want to get a glimpse into how mystery writers’ brains work?
  • How we made plot happen?
  • How we built characters and how settings were chosen?
  • Perhaps, they also wanted to know how crime filled our lives even though we looked like regular Joe and Jills who haggled over the best center cut salmon at the fish store or judged diner coffee on how close to dirty water it tasted, or worry if blue or red or green was “the best color” for our skin tones.
  • Were they out for blood?

I asked the attendees if any of them were writers. Emphatically, they shook their heads. “We are readers,” they said.

It was a ‘don’t dare mess with us’ assertion followed by looks that implied, “We’ve read a lot of books, we have opinions, and you can’t pass something lame off on us”.

I didn’t ask for a tally of how many mysteries each of them had read. Could’ve been millions or trillions or billions by the way the looks challenged us.

This was a very serious game to them. Who was going to win?

Writers’ task: Come up with a quality Agatha Christie-Michael Connelly-Arthur Conan Doyle-Dorothy Sayers-Stephen King-esque mystery tale that could/might eventually become a movie that Kenneth Branagh, Dame Judy Dench, Anthony Hopkins, Maggie Smith, Benedict Cumberbatch would want to star in.  Or – at least – a story to inspire a lesser quality, American movie like Glass Onion or Knives Out.

    **(I know, Daniel Craig does both British and American mystery movies, but I wanted to poke the bear  – perhaps a blog reader will share an opinion on those Rian Johnson-penned movies and let me know I have no taste or sense of humor. But, I’ll stick to my guns – I’m just not a fan.)

But back to Tuesday night’s game: Mystery writers had the ball and we were in the hot spot. Weren’t we just supposed to “score” and show we had some talent in this area of story construction?

No. This is a serious game.

Our game plan was to put the opponents off-stride. And yes, we came with a secret support system.

Brightly colored bags. Each was labeled. There was one for Characters, one for Motives, one for Weapons and so on.

And this was when we, those who didn’t want egg on our faces, put the onus back on the readers.  Their task: With the 3×5 blank cards they had in their hands, they had to write their suggestions/druthers/imaginings of what weapons were used in the crime, where the mystery took place, names for characters (both protagonist, antagonist, red herrings etc.) and other staples. Then they had to drop those cards in the proper bag.

Our motive in using these colorful bags: Make the attendees feel a little bit responsible for the story that would unfold from their suggestions.

  • If one of them had put in a 3×5 card suggesting the murderer’s name should be Silly Sally, well, that’s on them.
  • If one of them suggested a space capsule as a location and their card was picked – well – the story was placed there.
  • Or, we might ask the question – how many people could get murdered and/or be suspects in a space capsule?
    • — I just looked it up. Mercury space capsule (1961) held one person.
    • — The Russian Soyuz (1966) held three people.
    • — The largest number of crew members in a space capsule to date is eight
    • *******So the answer is – yeah, you could definitely place  a murder there. And the discussions on motives and opportunity and weapon could be interesting.
      • ****But I’m digressing.
    • If a location is deemed to not be “working”, it could lead to another card being hauled out of the bag so that the mystery/plot could breathe.

Writers used the colorful bags to keep jockeying for position. Another efficient weapon? A constant demand for the readers’ participation.

  • At first the demand was met with surprise. Perhaps, we writers pondered, the readers wanted to sit back and simply be entertained and presented with a fait accompli.
  • But we were having none of that.

And really, that’s when the fun began.  We (readers and writers) were making this story together.

 Once that was clear, personalities were unleashed and FLARED! One good idea was followed by another – but it wasn’t smooth sailing.  It became clear when IDEA A was presented (such as a suggestion about who would be the victim) and discussed and found its place in the story – it was decimated when IDEA B raised its head.

Just like when writers’ hearts sink when this happens, the readers/attendees got their noses of joint. Letting go of a personal investment in a certain story points was tough. When the murderer’s identity shifted, and new motivations were suggested – tensions (friendly but real) were there, and sparks flew!

A lot of laughter went along with this and I took it as a lesson in human behavior – like my desire that everyone jump on board “my train” that’s going in the direction I choose.

  • (The lesson to take home: “Stay loose. Stay open.”

One of the most fun (to me) insights into the night was this… (names of real attendees are changed to protect the innocent).

  • Reader Harriet was determined that one of the agreed-on suspects (Elon) was married. And that his wife was invited to the picnic (where an attack happened).
  • Reader Ginny thought it was silly to have an extraneous character and wanted Elon to have romantic designs on one of the other suspects (named Lucy).
  • When Reader Pam determined that Lucy and Stephanie (the cop) were in a romantic entanglement, Elon’s wife was (silently) accepted and she sat (this is my addition) on the picnic blanket next to the potato salad.
  • As the motivations for all the characters to commit the crime were filled in and the story went here and there and upside down and around and thoroughly noshed on –

You guessed it.

Who was finally named the MURDERER?

This happened in the last five minutes of the game.

You got it. Elon’s wife.

Now that she was the killer, she was worthy of a name! We had to quickly pull a name out of the colorful Character bag and the 3×5 card read “Ripley”.  We all agreed it was an excellent name for a murderer.

In quick fashion, Ripley turned out to be one of the most interesting characters who could be given believable and strong motivations that fit (surprising easily) into the story. She became a dangerous, silent minded villain.

Reader Harriet’s “gut” desire to create a wife (albeit silent) for pharmacist Elon paid off.

There was a quick discussion of how that “gut” shouldn’t be ignored. The readers asked if writers experienced this phenomenon all the time.

Answer: Yep.

Score: Readers: 51

            Writers:  49


Thanks Topsham Library. It was a blast.

About jselbo

Jule Selbo's latest book, 10 DAYS, A Dee Rommel Mystery, the first in a mystery/crime series, received a starred review on Kirkus and just landed on Kirkus Top Five List of Crime/Mystery books from independent publishers. It's also a finalist in the best of Foreword Review and Maine Literary Award. She absconded from Hollywood (and her work there as a produced screenwriter)to Portland Maine to write novels. Other books include Find Me in Florence, Dreams of Discovery -The John Cabot Story and Breaking Barriers - Based on the Life of Laura Bassi. The next book in the Dee Rommel series: 9 DAYS, A Dee Rommel Mystery was released in September 2022 and is nominated for a Clue Award and received a starred Kirkus Review. 8 DAYS, the third in the series, is scheduled for release November 2023 and Jule is now working in 7 DAYS.
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  1. jselbo says:

    We had a great time!

  2. kaitcarson says:

    Oh, sounds like a fun time!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Wow! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a write-up of one of these events. Well done!


  4. Well that sure sounded like fun! So sad that I missed it…but def. sent the best team.


  5. Anonymous says:

    We enjoyed every minute of it. The authors, Barbara Ross, Jule Selbo, and Richard Cass, were very good at improvisation, as well as very friendly and personable. I recommend that every library host one of these programs.

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