Mystery of Writing Suspense

The Mystery of Suspense Writing

Charlene Bell Dietz

It was a warm, summer night in Wyoming, many years ago.

(wikipedia/commons/8/81/Night_at_Moulton_Barn.jpg Jackson, Wyoming)

Someone coughed outside the kitchen window. The short, cut-off cough, like a cough not wanting to be heard, caused me to glance up from my book. The sun, long set, made seeing outside, while inside, impossible. A mystery here.I like mysteries, but I tightened the hold on my book of Edgar Allen Poe stories. More crunching-gravel sounds turned my knuckles white. All my hearing cells stood on alert. Nothing much made me nervous, but tonight at age seventeen, before cell phones, I’m alone with the doors unlocked, windows open, and a mile from our neighbors in the town of Lander. My parents went to an out-of-town convention. Suspense grows.

wiki commons Alfred Hichcock

Hitchcock used what he called the “The Kuleshov Effect”, first coined by Lev Kuleshov. This technique has characters ogle, and often the camera then switches to those being ogled: think Rear Window. This sends chills up my spine because who doesn’t fear being watched at night through a window?

That long-ago night, as chills tickled my spine, I wonder if someone’s “ogling” me. Our house is off a lane about a quarter of a mile from one of the main highways to Yellowstone. The town has a population of 3,000 or so. Everyone knows everyone. However, streets, shops, and backroads to the wilderness become crowded in spring, summer, and fall because hordes of tourists descend on our little community nestled in the foothills of the Windriver Mountains.

Tonight’s intruder might be a harmless, late-returner to the reservation. The Washakie and Shoshoni reservations are fifteen miles north of our place. On occasion, we come home to find one of the tribes’ members asleep in our living room. No one locks doors in this life. We really don’t mind. Afterall, it’s an exhausting uphill walk to the reservations. Usually, when this happens the spouse trudges into town, reclaims the buckboard wagon and horse, and drives home. Her mate can stay as long as he wants in the local tavern, but he’ll have to find his own way home.

Yet, tonight, one of the summer strangers could be roaming the area.

According to Hitchcock, Indy Film Hustle, November 2002, my story here wouldn’t make a good suspense movie because I haven’t made the public aware of what’s possible. He states the writer must first give the readers a wide view of possibilities, which will raise the reader’s concern level. To create suspense, you must create anticipation. Anticipation requires knowledge of what could happen over time. Remember Chekov’s over the mantle rifle theory? Early on, the reader will anticipate the gun will play an essential part in the story.

In Writer’s Digest University, May 2010, William Cane analyzed how Stephen King creates suspense. Cane narrows King’s strategies to three stages: first the reader learns about something that might be a problem. Maybe it’s the obvious, like that of Chekov’s gun or something vaguer. The second stage requires a call back, re-visiting of the first. The final stage happens when the unknown is revealed and action takes place.

wiki commons Stanley Hotel in Estes Park (The Shining location)

For my scenario to become a full-blown suspense story, I would need to foreshadow this possible danger and then revisit it like a buzzing fly. The reader could encounter this danger in different ways—another glance, a sound, a warning by someone—whatever the author’s imagination can contrive. In the Shining, King used a room in the hotel to add suspense. The psychic cook tells the young boy, Danny, there’s nothing scary about room 237, but he continues to tell Danny he has no business going in there. He reminds the boy to stay out of that room. The boy passes the room and looks at it at times. This is a type of call-back which reminds the reader/viewer that there’s something amiss with the room.

Opinionator of the New York Times in December 2022, asked Lee Childs how he created suspense, and he said the answer to the question is like asking, “How do you bake a cake?” A better question is how do you “Make your family hungry, make your reader wait for something.” Lee Childs says the art of creating suspense happens when you “Teach your readers to stick around with little questions in their minds for which they long to know the answers.”

Another reason why my little tale doesn’t qualify as a suspense story: the reader has only one concern—what’s making the noise outside the window? A good suspense mystery gives the readers abundant questions, which the author keeps reminding them of, and then they wait to learn the answers.

Simon Wood listed some of his suspense tips for Writer’s Digest in July 2008. He believes multiple view points have an advantage because the reader can get into the head of the protagonist and the antagonist. Also, the author must create equally strong characters in these rolls. After all, your villain should not easily be defeated. Wood suggests if your readers have a ringside view of all the actions, they’ll know the villain’s dastardly plans before your hero does. You’ve given readers a sense of power, and upped their level of concern.

Wood and other masters of suspense suggest adding time constraints. Remember the old story about two people talking at a table with a bomb under it? If the reader doesn’t know about the bomb, there is no concern—just a loud, murderous surprise. If the reader does know about the bomb, the reader worries about the time limit. Since the reader can’t control the events, you—the author—have raised the reader’s anxiety level. That creates suspense. No matter how much stress your characters undergo, Wood says the only one who feels helpless is your reader.

Wood reminds us suspense loves dilemma. Everyone loves a win-win situation, but when faced with a lose-lose situation, they find themselves in a quandary. The antagonist will have no issues overstepping lines. The protagonist, by nature, will have a moral compass. For example: how does a mother choose to save one child’s life at the expense of letting her other child die? With the reader helpless, the suspense builds because they have to wait to learn how this will be resolved.

A page-turning suspense story must be unpredictable. Look at your own life. Often events don’t go as planned. Our real world is full of unintended consequences, pleasant ones or not so much. If a book is predictable, why bother to read it?

How does the seventeen-year-old me, in the first two paragraphs of this article, react? As with the first of three of King’s strategies, something that might be a problem has been identified. Yet, there are no call-backs or re visitations to this potential mystery.

If you knew the minds of the protagonist and the antagonist of this little story, as Wood suggests, you would be able to make informed guesses. Is the protagonist a sharp shooter, or is she concerned about humanity? Will she invite the intruder in for something to eat? Is the antagonist a serial killer, or maybe just a person who cons others? Hitchcock suggests that readers’ levels of concern will be higher if they are given this wider view of possibilities.

Should this high school student turn on the porch light and look outside? Is that equivalent to the dark, scary house with a noise in the attic, and one of the teens decides to take a flashlight and go investigate? This causes readers to yell, “No-no! Don’t be stupid!”

Here’s what happened: I called my best friend and asked if I could spend the night at her house, then I called the local police. I told them what I was worried about and asked if they’d escort me to my friend’s home. Within minutes they drove up, jumped out of their patrol car, with their sidearms at the ready, and . . ..

Well, this doesn’t qualify as even a good story because, it’s predictable and the protagonist called for someone to come rescue her. We come to King’s third strategy: the moment of truth and action. First, let’s look at what’s in the antagonist’s mind. I’m certain it couldn’t have been more than, “Yeah, that grass looks a whole bunch greener than what the rest of the herd is eating at our place.” The only action that took place was calling the neighboring rancher and letting him know his fence was down, and his cow was eating our lawn.

A page-turning suspense story needs to be unpredictable, give the reader a wide view of possibilities, remind the reader over again of a likely bad situation, then make the reader wait in anticipation. As Simon Wood said, “Suspense writing is all about creating a pressure cooker with no relief valve. You have to keep turning up the heat using multiple burners.”

Now let me ask, do you have an equivalent to Room 237 in your mystery?

Connect with Charlene Bell Dietz:

Novels by Charlene Bell Dietz:

The Flapper, the Scientist, and the Saboteur, Winner NM/AZ Book Awards, Kirkus Reviews Starred Review and named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2018

The Flapper, the Impostor, and the Stalker, Finalist NM/AZ Book Awards, Kirkus Reviews Starred Review and named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2018

The Scientist, the Psychic, and the Nut, Kirkus Reviews, Public Safety Writers Award Winner,

The Spinster, the Rebel, and the Governor, Kirkus Reviews, 1st Place New Mexico Press Women,

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Queen Elizabeth (b. 1533 – d. 1603) used about 3,000 straight pins a month, probably more than most, but still an impressive amount. Pins have been used for about 4,000 years, appearing around the emergence of the bronze age. You probably didn’t know this because men were our story tellers of early history, and they found battles more exciting than pins.


Yet, the lowly pin made all the difference.  The pin kept things in place and provided a showy way for the noble class, the gentry, the gentlemen to be 672px-Kaspar_Schoppe_-_Portrait_von_Rubensdistinguished from their servants.  Men and women dressed in pieces of clothing–many different interchangeable parts.  They could change sleeves, stomachers, collars, bodices, and other items for a different appearance for  different occasions.

Pins held these pieces of clothing together. Men’s clothing might use rows of buttons, but also pins you can’t see. Even children’s fine clothes required pinning.  The earliest known pins were formed from bone, with needles coming into being about the same time. However, Queen Elizabeth I would have used pins made of bronze, brass, or iron. Iron remained sharp longer, but like bronze would tarnish.  Pins came in long, medium, and delicate sizes. Delicate ones were used to attach lace and silk, like this gentleman’s cuffs and collar.

If you look closely at the photo of the woman you can see where pins undoubtedly were used. She has pearls in her hair, a collar that stands up more stiffly than from just being starched, her over dress contains many parts and decorations. We can see two roses at the neck line, a cape with a halo-like collar with pearls pinned to its edges around her Elizabethan collar that goes up and behind her hair, a bodice with several parts ending in a low pointed stomacher, drapes of pearls attached to her sleeves and around her cuffs and wrists, and the elegant fabric of her skirt pinned up in flounces around her hips. We can’t even begin to see her underpinnings.

This photo of a noble lady can be dated around the reign of Queen Elizabeth because of her Elizabethan collar and her manner of dress. She has most likely employed hundreds of pins to dress in this attire.  The importance these pins held for the noble can’t be denied, but even the kitchen maid and the peasant women required a few pins. They had to hold their caps in place–as well as their pinafores.


Upon discovering the importance of pins from the earliest of times until the late 1800s, I wondered how would an active person keep from yelping with pain. Then I delved deeper into the clothing of the 16th and 17th century and understood. These men and women, or their servants, knew how to pin correctly. Also everyone dressed in many layers of clothing, protecting them from the prickly points of pins. Besides, those who wore the most pins would have had the most staff to do their tasks. Sudden or laborious movements would rarely be necessary.

It’s been years since I’ve purchased a packet of pins.  A month ago I bought my husband a shirt and once at home I removed four short pins that had kept the shirt looking neatly folded.  Can you remember the last time you bought or encountered a new pin?

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From the End to the Beginning: Saying Goodbye

At this time of year, when thoughts turn to our families near and far, I often think about our family gatherings of the past. Here’s a repost of my December 2019 story of generational remembrances.

CHARLENE BELL DIETZ, Author: Inkydance Studios

Everyone says that cousins were marrying cousins. According to family lore, my great grandfather wanted a more diverse bloodline for his grandchildren.  When he married in 1859 he moved from Maryland to Lawrence, Kansas in a horse-drawn wagon .  Medicine, technology, and accessibility of the times around the 1860’s must have dictated the design of family lives back then because only two of their five children survived.

The family of four packed up and took the KP Railroad to the end of the line in eastern Colorado in 1872.

1874 Adobe to Victorian 1874 Adobe to Victorian

From there they set out in a covered wagon to make their home in Trinidad, Colorado and became one of the first 500 pioneer families in the state.

Great grandfather was a builder by trade so he built a one-room adobe home. In 1879 he enlarged their dwelling with clapboard. The little home metamorphosed into a Victorian…

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Charlene Bell Dietz

Engagement Required:

Young children often want the same book read aloud again and again or will latch on and study one book over and over, excluding all others. When this happens many parents worry about their child’s development. Developmental specialist say children engage in rereading because they have unasked questions and search for deeper meaning. As adults, we also search for answers when engaged in reading.

Imagination and Deeper Meaning:

 My six-year-old granddaughter came to spend the night with me. She often does this but with more prior notice and preparation because we live sixty-miles away. Her daddy dropped her off with hugs, kisses, and her overnight bag.  

This vibrant, happy child emanated despondency. No, she didn’t want a snack. No, she didn’t want to go see the beehive. No, she didn’t want to play a game.

We sat on the porch swing in silence. Finally, I pulled her close and asked if she wanted to talk.

“Grammy, do you think the police will arrest my mommy and daddy?”

Puzzled, I asked why she thought this.

Tears flooded her eyes. She whispered, “I couldn’t hear much. They’re up high.”

“Up high? Like upstairs?”

“I’m not big.”

Her father is quite tall. I got it. “What did you hear?”

“Tonight they plan to escape.”

Comparable to reading, when unanswered questions let minds play with scenery, characters, and plots automatic engagement happens, and no written words can demonstrate the height of engagement better than a child’s imagination gone wild.

All ended well when I told my granddaughter her father and mother with a few friends had decided to check out the Jumanji Escape Room experience if they could find babysitters.

Excellent Writing—Mundane Stories:

I’m a compulsive reader, and I’ve judged hundreds of books for writing contests, subconsciously flinging each book into one of five categories: 1. Waste of paper, 2. Needs help, 3. Almost there, 4. Excellent, and 5. Good grief, not again. 

Good-grief (humdrum) books seem to be written by excellent writers who have well-constructed sentences, clever plot ideas, great vocabulary, and strong verbs. However, to the authors’ detriment they write with complete clarity and say exactly what they mean. These well-spelled-out novels seem similar to college text books in that they leave no room for emotional interaction. With no question left unanswered the author has shut the reader out of the story. These stories create minimal concern, empathy, or suspense, leaving no motivation to turn pages or stay up all night.

A detailed description of a school, hospital, or library replicates what readers already know. This ordinary setting leaves the reader’s mind no room to participate. What if the library has a chained-off staircase? What if it leads to a turret where a shadow moves past a window? Now the reader has been invited into play. A reader’s imagination can create a dimension unmatched by even the best author’s written words.  


“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”


“I love you.”

“You’re important to me, too.”

When a writer uses on-the-nose dialogue rather than employing subtext, or explains all minutiae of appearances, scenes, and emotions, they’ve stolen the opportunity for the reader to improve the story with their knowledge. I don’t remember who, but some author said if your character cries, then your reader won’t need to. Brilliant.

Your Emotional Coauthor:

No matter what we write let’s leave room for our readers’ minds to enrich our stories. During revisions, let’s search for sentences, dialogue, and passages where we encourage readers to use the uniqueness of their own experiences. Go ahead. Assign readers to be your emotional coauthors, and let them escape into a page-turning experience.

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Stretch the reader’s credulity, his sense of logic, to the upmost—it is quite elastic—but don’t break it. In this way, you will write something new, surprising and entertaining to both yourself and the reader.

-Patricia Highsmith

If you’ve read Highsmith’s, The Talented Mr. Ripley, or, Strangers on the Train, by Dan Mallory, you’ll understand exactly what Patricia Highsmith means. In these two stories our imagination gets pushed into and beyond what we would normally accept as feasible. Dan Mallory, who was a senior book editor at William Marrow publishers, now turned author, evidently has taken Highsmith’s words as his mantra, bringing him a two-book, two-million-dollar deal in 2019.

Mallory published his novel, The Woman in the Window, under the pseudonym A.J. Finn. This author uses some of the same traits as the fictional Mr.Tom Ripley, the protagonist of The Talented Mr. Ripley, who is the ultimate impostor.

The Passive Voice, a blog written by a lawyer about his thoughts on authors, self-publishing, and traditional publishing talks about Mallory in his blog: A Suspense Novelist’s Trail of Deception.

According to The Passive Voice, Mallory, among other fictional activities, has falsely claimed teaching at and receiving a doctorate degree from Oxford. As a graduate student at Oxford, Mallory concentrated his thesis on Highsmith’s fiction, The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Mr. Ripley, unsettling as it may be, became an embezzler as well as a shrewd multiple murderer. What’s worrisome is that most who encountered the fictional Ripley found him to be charming and brilliant; not realizing he also was a most clever impostor.

It seems where ever Mallory goes, if he wants something, and it serves his purpose, he’ll leave a trail of deception, often including sympathetic stories about death and diseases. However, most who encounter Mallory describes him as charming and brilliant.

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Part 3: THOSE SNEAKY RESEARCH ASSUMPTIONS: Who wrote the 1635 version of “A Relation of Maryland”?

Imagine this: It’s England, the year, 1635. You’ve angered some notable Protestants along with the king’s men.You need to leave because you’re Catholic, and now they’re searching for you. A friend whispers in your ear for you to hurry down to Drury Lane and to talk to a man name Peasley.

You waste no time in doing so, and once at Peasley’s shop, he hands you a small booklet and says the second Lord Baltimore will have someone contact you with the name of a port, a ship, and a date.

In the meantime, you dampen your impatience by reading the booklet. Inside its pages you learn about the land, the weather, the best crops to grow, the indigenous people, and among other information a map, with a long list of necessary items one must take to survive.

Locked Door photo by C.B. Dietz

Father Andrew White, a prolific writer, wrote A Brief Relation of the Voyage into Maryland, which chronicled the harrowing journey across the ocean when Englishmen first landed to settle pre-colonial Maryland. His document focused on the soil, the climate, and the general nature of the country in 1634. Cecil Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore, became so enthralled with this accounting, he saw its value as a promotional pamphlet for populating his new territorial grant. Of course it would need some tweaking, like removing accounts of the terrifying sail across the ocean. In 1634, he published A Relation of the Successful beginnings of the Lord Baltimore’s Plantation. In 1635 a revised version, with maps and list of necessary items for settlers became the new promotional item with the name A Relation of Maryland.

Father Andrew White did not write this version, but according to Peasley, the gentleman who dispensed this pamphlet for the second Lord Baltimore, the authors were Jerome Hawley and John Lewger. I have no doubt that Jerome Hawley took part in this endeavor, but Lewger could only have taken the role of editor as he had never traveled to Maryland prior to 1637. I’m more inclined to believe Captain Thomas Cornwallis had a hand in helping Jerome Hawley.

Krugler, in English & Cathloic: The Lords Baltimore in the Seventeenth Century, says Peasley names Hawley and Lewger as the authors. Peasley, as a close associate of Cecil Calvert and being in touch with the gossip surrounding the Royals, would know both of these men well. Hawley was once the superintendent of the queen’s banquets after some nasty business in 1615 where he had some connection with the Countess of Somerset with some sort of dealing concerning the poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury. Peasley would be well acquainted with John Lewger because Lewger and Cecil were fast friends.

Think about how verbal information gets passed along. When asked a question, people usually reach for the easiest memory available. They may have to embellish what they don’t remember for it to make sense, or they might even lie if they haven’t a clue and don’t want to be thought stupid. Hawley and Lewger’s names would come quickly to Peasley’s tongue when asked who wrote this pamphlet. He probably was not acquainted with Thomas Cornwallis.

Thomas Cornwallis and Jerome Hawley were the right hand men of Leonard Calvert, brother of Cecil Calvert and the governor of Maryland. The three of them sailed together on the Ark and formed the governing body of Maryland with Leonard the governor and the other two his closest council. These two men worked side by side to thwart Indian raids, help create the initial laws of the land, and assisted the governor in quelling disputes between Protestants and Catholics. No one knew Maryland as well as these two men. When Cornwallis had to sail to England to settle a personal conflict, Hawley, as his defense and closest friend, accompanied him.

So in 1635, both of these good friends and settlers of Maryland were in England for the next two years, according to Bernard Steiner, Beginnings of Maryland. If Hawley helped revise and author A Relation of Maryland, it seems inconceivable to think Cornwallis didn’t lend his quill and thoughts to this document also. I’m sure Lewger, with all his schooling, made the perfect editor.

Strong assumptions, difficult as they are to ignore, can’t be used as factual unless there’s some compelling source. However, once something is sourced, and the source seems reliable, then it is perpetually cited as truth by others. Researching for the truth can make one a bit crazy.

Have you ever fallen into a gnarly research pit?


Krugler, John D. English & Catholic: The Lords Baltimore in the Seventeenth Century. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.

Steiner, Bernard Christian. Beginning of Maryland, 1631-1639. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, August-September-October, 1903.

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