All I knew for certain that day was that the nanny was dead, lying with her eyes wide open on the floor of her room in the house. She’d been violently sick to her stomach, and since she was only twenty-two, it wasn’t a stretch to assume that she probably died from consuming too much alcohol or overdosing on drugs. But I knew she’d actually been murdered, killed from eating poisoned chocolates that seemed to have been left for her boss.
No, I’m not a homicide detective. Nor am I a crime scene investigator. I’m the author of fifteen murder mysteries and psychological thrillers (including HAVE YOU SEEN ME, just released in paperback in the UK), and this was the premise for the opening of the first suspense novel I ever wrote.
It was about twenty years ago, and though I had a terrific day job as the editor-in-chief of U.S. Cosmopolitan, I also had a longtime secret dream to write a mystery.
For a few weeks I’d been playing around in my head with the germ of an idea—the death of a nanny working for a Manhattan-based magazine editor-in-chief—and then one Saturday morning, when my kids were still sleeping, I wrote the first dozen pages of the book, which involved the discovery of the nanny’s body by her boss, the editor. The scene was fairly gruesome, but I was in heaven creating it. I couldn’t wait for the chance to write more.
But, oh boy, a problem soon emerged. Though the nanny was lying there dead on the floor, I realized I had no idea who the killer was or what his or her motive was. In fact, I didn’t have a clue what was going to happen after page twelve, and though I thought long and hard, the rest of the plot refused to come to me.
One day, while fretting over the fact that my brain had stalled so badly, I happened to remember a comment by a woman named Laura Day, who had written a book called Practical Intuition and had been interviewed for the magazine I was running several years before. Day, who describes herself as an “intuitionist,” had said that if you find yourself stuck and unable to come up with a creative solution, you should put the question to the universe and wait for a response.
She wasn’t suggesting that the answer would soon be whispered in your ear by a spirit or angel. Her point was that when you frame your dilemma as a question, it readies your subconscious to find solutions in the world around you.
Out of desperation I decided to try it with my book. I sat down at my desk and asked myself out loud who the killer was and where his or her murderous rage had sprung from. It seemed a little silly and I certainly wasn’t expecting any miracles, but a week later during a business phone call, the entire plot appeared at the front of my brain. practically like a blurb you’d see on a book jacket.
It almost felt like I’d fallen under a magic spell, but when I thought things through, I realized that the answer/solution had been triggered by a comment from the person I was speaking to, and since my subconscious was on the lookout for answers, it had used the comment to spark the plot idea.
Ever since then, I’ve relied on the “ask-the-universe-a-question” approach to help me come up with plots for all my suspense novels, and also to aid me in crafting various scenes and dialogue. Though I write my books on a laptop, I ask my questions in pencil in a spiral notebook.
For my latest book, HAVE YOU SEEN ME?, for instance, I knew that a woman named Ally Linden was going to show up at the office one day not realizing that she hadn’t actually worked at the company in five years, and that she’d be missing two days of her life. I also knew something very bad had happened to her during those forty-eight hours, but I wasn’t sure exactly what the bad thing was or how the person responsible would try to prevent Ally from learning the truth. So, I kept asking myself questions until answers popped into my brain.
Sometimes it takes a few hours or even a few days for an answer to reveal itself, but once in a while it forms in my mind before I've even finished writing the question, and that’s such a rush.
Okay, so why am telling you all this? If you’re thinking of writing a novel or doing anything creative, perhaps this technique will be of value to you. But that’s only part of the reason I’m sharing it. Over time, through some experimentation, I’ve come to see that this strategy can work really well not only with creative projects such as fiction writing but whenever you’re feeling stuck in your personal or professional life, when you can’t seem to figure out next steps, or when you’re at a crossroads and not sure which path to head down.
When I’m stuck in these kinds of situations, I’ll form my dilemma into a single question, whether it’s “How can I better motivate the person I’m dealing with?” or “Which apartment should I buy?” or even “What color should I paint this room?” and then, over the next minutes or hours or days, I’ll overhear a conversation or see a headline or catch a glimpse of an image that begins to spark the answer for me.
Are you trying to make an important decision in your life right now? Are you unsure of what direction to take? Try saying the question out loud and allow the answer to reveal itself. It’s not as kooky at it sounds—you’re simply enabling your subconscious to work harder for you and find solutions in the world around you.
Oh, by the way (spoiler alert), it turned out the poisoned candy in my very first novel was meant for the nanny all along. She was murdered because she took up with someone’s husband and when the wife found out, she decided the nanny had no business being alive.