Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What if?: How I Cracked the Code

Photo by Kym McLeod
I solved my first mystery when I was three years old by spying on my older sister. She and my mom would huddle at the kitchen table every day after kindergarten, staring at strange symbols in exotic looking books. The whole operation seemed mighty intriguing, so I'd sneak into the living room and strain my ears to hear what was being said. It took some serious sleuthing, but once I cracked the code, I was hooked. There was no stopping me then. I could open any book and unlock the mysteries inside with my new decoding abilities.

Part of my collection.
And oh my gosh, were there plenty of mysteries to be found! The library was full of them: Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown, Alfred Hitchcock, Hardy Boys . . . I devoured anything and everything that even hinted at intrigue.

But soon, I started to feel a bit, well, cheated.
How come all these kids in all these books always stumbled upon mysteries? Ghosts in the attic, stowaways, jewelry thieves, secret doors in closets, alien ships . . . .Was I stupid? Was I not looking hard enough? Why couldn't I find any mysteries to solve?

At first I blamed my surroundings. I lived in the heavily wooded, remote outskirts of Fairbanks, Alaska where exciting events were as sparse as television reception. Of course there were no crimes to solve! I wasn't living in the city like Nancy Drew, visiting old inns or flea markets and meeting new people from foreign countries. I was living in boring Alaska, visiting nothing but boring trees and lakes and meeting no one but the same boring neighbors and the occasional moose or bear or red fox or rabbit . . .

Then I realized that was a cop out. Alaska was exactly the type of place Nancy or Frank or Joe would travel to and discover a mystery.
No. I just wasn't looking hard enough.

So I took a closer look around me . .. . and began asking myself: What if?

 * What if that big orange toadstool is really the main meeting place for a community of gnomes?
 * What if when I pass under the power lines in the woods, I am actually passing through a time warp?
 * What if that stray dog with one blue eye and one brown eye is really a werewolf?
 * What if the old hermit living in the log cabin up the road is really a fugitive?

With every "what if" I asked, I discovered another world, and I liked it. I'd cracked the code once again, and I never looked at anything the same after that.

I discovered it didn't matter where or what or who. There was a secret hiding in everything, and I liked finding it. What's more, I found I liked sharing it. So I started writing my "what ifs" down. Now, everything I write has some element of mystery or intrigue or conspiracy. It's a part of me; it's what I do.

And you can too.

Simply ask yourself:
What if?


What if a classmate went missing right after you fought with her at a party and she was later found dead? What if you couldn't remember anything after that fight? Not even how you got home? Would you tell the police the truth? Or would you lie about what you remember until you could find out what really happened that night?

16-year-old Roswell Hart finds herself in this very predicament in Laura Ellen's YA thriller, BLIND SPOT (Fall 2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

We are giving away an autographed book from our next Interrogation Room suspect! To enter the contest, simply comment on any of the Sleuths Spies and Alibis posts between Tuesday October 4 and Friday October 14. Contest closes October 14 at midnight, EST. The winner will be announced on Monday, October 17. One comment = one entry in our drawing; limit one per day. 


  1. Laura - I love this! I had the same feeling as a kid - I looked everywhere for mysteries to solve and walked around with a notebook to keep track of "clues." Asking "What if" is a great way to brainstorm story ideas. Stephen King recommends it in his book, "On Writing."

  2. Laura, I had to smile when I saw your bookshelf there . . . I kept my collection too, and it looks identical! Lots of those yellow spines for Nancy Drew, a couple of older-generation ones, and, like your photo, exactly three blue Hardy Boys books! Anyway, just wanted to share that since it amused me. (BTW I'm not commenting to be in the giveaway contest since I'm running the contest!)

  3. I love this, Laura. I had the same sense of missing the clues and wishing my life were just a little more exciting. The "What If...?" changes everything.


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