The thing about being a mystery writer is that you're always a mystery writer. You can't turn it off. Last week in the supermarket I overheard a women telling the guy in the deli department that the club salad she had bought the day before had disappeared from the office refrigerator where she worked. The woman was almost positive she knew who had stolen her salad, and she was really steamed about it. Like Pavlov's dog, I immediately froze in the prepared dips and salsa aisle while my brain played a kind of pinball game that bounced out a mystery plot. Instead of “Who Stole My Cheese?” it became “Who Stole My Salad and Why Am I Being Arrested for Murder?” I couldn't help myself.
Brains don't know the difference between a true memory and a scene we vividly imagine, so somewhere in the recesses of my mind I half-way believe that woman whose salad was stolen has offed a fat co-worker, who always claimed he never ate anything for lunch except a fifty-calorie health bar. When found, the salad-thief had bleu cheese dressing on his cold lips. I imagine her headed for life in prison, and I see her husband and children weeping and asking, “Why, why, why couldn't you just let him have the freaking salad?”
I once dated a man who maintained that I attracted people who were like characters in murder mysteries. “You're like a pigeon cote,” he said, “and all the world's crazies fly straight to you like homing pigeons.” He meant it as an insult, but it made me think of Birdy, that wonderful book by William Wharton, in which a young man becomes so intrigued by the world of birds that he almost becomes one himself. Wharton probably got the idea for that novel by “overhearing” — the word writers use when they mean eavesdropping — two boys talking about birds. I prefer to think he did, and that he took what he heard and spun it out to its most outrageous and moving possibility. That's really all a plot is, just an idea taken to its most outrageous extent.
It's unsettling enough that mystery writers tend to blur the line between the real and the imaginary, but it gets downright bizarre when imaginary stories occur later in real life. I once wrote a story in which a box of cocaine was secretly loaded onto an Air Force cargo plane by a ground crewman at a Central American air base. The plane flew to an Air Force base in the U.S., where an accomplice removed the cocaine and delivered it to a big-time drug dealer. A couple of weeks after I wrote the scenes, somebody was arrested for doing exactly what I'd described. I wasn't psychic, I'd just taken available information, spun it, and come up with a highly possible scenario. Tom Clancy did the same thing when he wrote a novel in which a plane was deliberately flown into the White House.
The positive side of having a mystery writer's imagination is that fiction writers almost never commit crimes themselves. With very few exceptions, people who write about murder and horror are fairly mild-mannered, law-abiding people. Even if we had intentions of carrying out some heinous deed, we'd probably keep putting it off until we'd finished a chapter or a book or a series, or started another one, and by then we'd have forgotten about it.
However, writing that last paragraph has made me begin to imagine a plot in which a very popular writer starts planning to kill somebody. I think it will be a comedy.