COVID-19 has turned our world upside down. Some find it impossible to write—and I totally get it! We all have our part to play in this dark time. Some are called to serve, some are called to pray, some are called to encourage, and some are called to write.
God has blessed this time for each of us to do what He calls us to, and I have no doubt that many beautiful stories will come from these days of forced rest. Stories filled with romance, history, and compassion. Some excellent suspense and mystery stories as well.
Any good story begins with a “What if” question. Here’s what Ramona Richards teaches us about writing with “What If” questions.
Weaving through the “What Ifs” by Ramona Richards
Most writers never stop asking, “What if?” It’s just the way our brains are wired. A friend who was driving me around Los Angeles one spring noticed how much attention I was paying to the overgrown hillsides and valleys off Mulholland Drive. He asked what I was thinking. I said, “I was wondering how often the crews came through here and cleaned all this away from the roadsides.”
“Why?” he asked innocently.
“I was wondering how long it would take them to find a body.”
After a moment, he said, “Is this for personal reasons or are you researching a book?”
I have the best friends.
People often ask me where I get my ideas. That’s an easy answer for most fiction authors: they always start in those “what if” questions we ask. And it doesn’t matter what genre you write in. What if a child raised by aliens is suddenly returned to Earth (Stranger in a Strange Land)? What if a young lawyer discovers his new firm is involved in a criminal conspiracy (The Firm)? What if a young farm boy in love goes off to earn his fortune only to be kidnapped by pirates (The Princess Bride)? What if two retired and bored Texas Rangers decide to join a cattle drive north to settle in new country (Lonesome Dove)?
But the what ifs truly abound if you’re writing mystery and suspense tales because you’re not only about to take the reader through an adventure—you’re asking them to solve a puzzle with you as well, asking their own what ifs along the way.
There are several methods that can aid mystery and suspense writers in plotting the puzzle—even writers who tend to craft their books more organically (aka being a “pantser”). Personally, I start with two of the main what if questions—one at the front and one that reveals how I want the book to end. Then I write for a bit on the beginning. My book Murder in the Family began with the simple question, “What if a woman who avoids possessions inherits a hoarders house?”
Once I have my opening written, then I ask the next two questions: one for the beginning and one that precedes the ending. Then I write for a while. Then…two more questions.
My goal is to ask no more than six questions in total, with a few thousand words added to the beginning after each one. By the time I ask the last two questions, I have a general outline for the book, and I draw up a synopsis, which acts as a map as I continue the writing.
Does the final book look like that outline? Not usually. The book evolves as I work. But the “map” drawn from my what if questions establishes the goal and usually keeps me from writing myself into a corner. And I usually discover that at least one of those questions prompts yet another book idea.
So never stop asking the what ifs. You never know where they may lead you.
About Ramona Richards
The author of eleven books, Ramona Richards has worked on staff or as a freelancer for more than a dozen publishers and has edited more than 500 publications. Ramona has won awards for both her fiction and non-fiction, and is now associate publisher at Iron Stream Media, the parent company of New Hope Publishers. Ramona is also a frequent speaker at church events and writer’s conferences around the country. She lives in the Birmingham, Alabama, area.