Shakespeare wrote of the inaudible and noiseless foot of time. It certainly trots past in speedy but silent fashion, meaning for one thing we have sometimes found ourselves scribbling a newsletter the very morning of its transmission. We do fortunately occasionally get a hint from the universe that it's time to begin composing the next Orphan Scrivener and most recently just such a reminder arrived via a line in E. Phillips Oppenheim's The Great Secret.

The novel gets off to a rattling good start when the narrator takes Room 317 in London's Hotel Universal. He is just preparing to retire when a terrified man rushes in seeking his protection, his unexpected visitor being described in Lovecraftian mode as looking as if he had seen things "more terrible than human understanding can fitly grapple with".

For some reason this description reminded us of the need to compose this newsletter. And so...


The most frequent question asked of authors is "where do you get your ideas?" Or so I'm told. I've never had the question put to me.

I have been asked:

"How long did it take you to write that?"

"Do you have to pay to have books published?"

"Did you type all those pages by yourself?"

The last query occurred on a bus while I was reading someone else's thick manuscript. Not that it was obvious to a stranger in the seat behind me that the manuscript wasn't my own brilliant composition. I guess I look more like a typist than an author. Or maybe the woman was more impressed by typing than writing.

Still, as Robert Benchley once put it, "having been asked (by my cat)..." Well, we no longer have a cat, but I'm sure our cat would have inquired about where I get my ideas were she still with us, so I suppose I have no choice but to answer.

I get my ideas from Mary.

Okay, that's not entirely true. And I'm not saying how close to entirely true it is either. Actually I get a lot of my ideas where I always have -- out of my head.

The same place the school kid gets the idea to tell the math teacher the dog ate his homework and where the grown-up gets the inspiration to assert that the check is in the mail. Human beings just naturally make up stories or appropriate ones that are floating around.

Granted, the human mind is a mystery but the minds of writers are no more mysterious than anyone else's. Probably a lot less mysterious than the minds of barbed wire collectors and adults who go to conventions to dress up like funny animals.

When I was a kid, my friends and I would sit out on the back porch drawing endless stories on the adding machine rolls my grandfather brought from the office, gleefully relating and showing off to one another the ongoing adventures we were creating. Mostly involving guns and bloodshed. We ran through silver and red Crayolas quickly. Even in our play we were usually making up stories, retelling new versions of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, or enacting entire wars out in the back garden, dropping rock bombs on hapless cucumbers.

During the past couple weeks Mary and I put together a detailed outline for a new Byzantine mystery. We traded thoughts, jotted things down, dove into the web for a bit of research, made up characters, and pictured scenes. It was fun. It was play. There were no secret rites involved, no exercise of super powers, no Muses.

It always annoys me when writers puff themselves up by over-dramatizing the creative process. I remember a newly published writer enthralling a crowd of readers by describing how, being short, she had got up on a stool to see the world through the eyes of her tall protagonist. I'm not tall enough to know what it feels like being six foot four but I doubt it feels like standing on a stool. It's surprising the writer didn't lose her balance and fall off the stool the way she was patting herself on the back.

The truth is that writers aren't unique in having ideas, but through practice they have acquired extra skill in expressing them. That takes work, which is what Mary and I will have to get down to now.

By the way, you may wonder where I got the idea for this essay? The answer is from the electronic notebook I keep on my computer.

Specifically from the folder named "Ideas".


News-wise it's been a quiet two months since last we darkened subscribers' virtual doorsteps, well, quiet if you ignore the bangs and whistlings and assorted loud noises we heard after dark on Independence Day. Not to mention all those noisy fireworks. Still, here are gleamings, er, gleanings that may be of interest.


Or one of them, anyhow. A couple of days ago the outline for Elevenfer was, as Hollywood folk would say, green lighted. Thus by the time this newsletter arrives we will have begun writing John's latest adventure, set in and around his estate near Megara, Greece, a town where the exiled former Lord Chamberlain is not welcome. And that's just the start of it...


Life in a country house, that perennially favourite setting for mysteries, occasionally provides surprises, and not always those nasty shocks associated with the discovery of a body in the library. So begins Mary's August 18th blog on the Poisoned Pen Press website. It's too early to have its permanent URL but can be reached on that date via While subscribers are over there, they may care to browse around contributions on a wide variety of topics from other authors in the PPP stable.


Speaking of blogs, we must not neglect to mention the stripped-down blog of our shadow identity M. E. Mayer, to which MEM has been adding a number of reviews of Golden Age mysteries. For those who enjoy that type of ratiocinative fiction, novels that most recently received what we might term literary dismemberment from MEM are Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Man in Lower Ten, S. S. Van Dine's The Greene Murder Case, and Miles Burton's Beware Your Neighbour -- titles that serve as clues to the mystery of the somewhat sanguine header of this paragraph.


It's no secret I love classic tales of the supernatural (pause for obligatory declaration that M. R. James roolz) and Eric's piece up there brought to mind James' essay on Stories I Have Tried to Write, wherein James mentions stories that had crossed his mind but as he put it "never materialized properly" -- which I for one take to be a naughty nod to the ghosts who populate a number of his tales, so aptly described by a friend as often concerning strange noises in the cathedral close at midnight.

In any event, James reveals some of these stories were written but had ideas that did not blossom in their settings, so he recalls several of them for the benefit of other writers.

To paraphrase Leigh Hunt, we can love any author who is generous with ideas.

Two of those James sketches out in his essay have always appealed strongly to me.

The first is quintessential James: a couple of friends are spending Christmas in a country house owned by one of them. Disturbing events take place during their visit, such as disturbances in the shrubbery as they walk home at night after dining with an uncle who lives nearby -- he being next heir in line -- strange tracks in the snow, and efforts to isolate the house owner by luring his companion elsewhere.

The other idea, and I confess it is my favourite so the pointed sticks can be put away, concerns the possibilities of the Christmas cracker. Possibilities, that is, "if the right people pull it, and if the motto which they find inside has the right message on it". And if that is not a theme for a Christmas anthology of a different type I don't know what is. James adds the cracker pullers would probably plead indisposition and leave early, but feels it's more likely a long-standing engagement would be the real reason for their departure.

It seems to me these two ideas could fruitfully be combined. All manner of interesting developments suggest themselves, so shall we give a twirl or two of "what if", that useful crank handle for quick-starting plots?

What if the cracker pulled by the villains of the piece is found to contain a trinket appropriate to the menace hovering over them as well as the customary silly tissue paper hats so beloved of cracker manufacturers? It might for example be a miniature working compass, which was the best prize any of my crackers contained. However, the destinations towards which the needle of this particular artefact joggles back and forth would not be marked with the usual names but all would sport the same name, the place to which the duo is slated to arrive, and that very soon.

What if, having failed in their beastly machinations, they try to avoid their horrid fate? Of course, in the end they won't, but think of the possibilities! What if they attempt to seek sanctuary in a sacred place or one decides to sacrifice the other hoping Old Scratch would be happy with just one victim? Supposing they both refused to go to their meeting?

What if despite their reluctance they were forced to be in the cathedral close at midnight, the witching hour so appropriately described by Hamlet as the time to do business the day would quake to look on?

The possibilities are indeed many.

Inspired by James, we wrote a short ghost story several years ago in homage to his masterfully chilling creations. We couldn't work sinister messages in Christmas crackers into the plot but there's always another occasion...and meantime The Thorn may be read on our website at


Distinct signs of impending autumn have begun to appear this past week or so. Although the wood asters have not yet begun flowering, a scanty scattering of dead foliage on the lawns reminds us Thomas Hood observed autumn is the time Nature's book gets short of leaves.

Speaking of which, we'll leave subscribers this time round with our usual short reminder the date of the next issue of Orphan Scrivener will be October 15th.

See you then!
Mary R and Eric

who invite you to visit their home page, to be found hanging out on the virtual washing line that is the Web at There you'll discover the usual suspects, including more personal essays, our bibliography, the Doom Cat interactive game written by Eric, and our growing libraries of links to free e-texts of classic and Golden Age mysteries, ghost stories, and tales of the supernatural. There's also the Orphan Scrivener archive, so don't say you weren't warned! Intrepid subscribers may also wish to pop over to Eric's blog at or visit our shadow identity M. E. Mayer's blog at And just for the heck of it, we'll also mention our noms des Twitter are @marymaywrite and @groggytales and our author page is at Drop in some time!