Lily Iona MacKenzie's Blog for Writers & Readers


How are writers like detectives?

I’ve been thinking recently how writers are like detectives. They need to be constantly observant, picking up clues from what people are wearing, how they gesture, the words they speak, the way they interact with others. They study others’ facial expressions and what they suggest, storing away the data in their memory banks or taking notes in a writer’s journal that they’ll refer to later.

Detectives need to ask questions, the right questions, without arousing the suspect’s suspicions. Writers are also usually operating undercover in this way, querying their family members, friends, and acquaintances on unfamiliar subjects, building up their store of knowledge.

A good detective, like an amateur psychologist, also is skilled at looking beyond surfaces, trying to discover the hidden meanings in words, expressions, gestures, aware that most things have multiple meanings. Beneath each innocent remark a slumbering reality can lurk, a subtext to the surface narrative.

Conflict is something that draws both detectives and writers. They know it leads to drama and clues that can help resolve questions about the people involved and the dynamics between them. They’re skilled, then, in piecing together a narrative from a series of events, paying attention to details most people miss: the silver skull & bones cufflink on the surgeon’s dress shirt; slight variations in a person’s story that offers clues to his/her motives.

Detectives and writers love ferreting out the truth and revealing lies. They’re constantly discovering new things in their surroundings, training all their senses to be alert to nuances. But in their quest, they also need to be subtle and try to blend in. It’s their subjects that they shed the spotlight on, not themselves.

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