We Are Sitting On Our Own Hats

by jkatejohnston

13 February 2014

Dear Max,

I’ve been working on my mystery, and I realized that I have no idea how to make time pass. I’ve written seventy-five pages, and I think about three days have gone by. Even if I make my innocent guy a non-time-waiving pain in the ass, I need to fill at least seventy days to get to trial. (In real life it would take more like a year, even with no time waiver.) Crap.

Do I just write, “Three weeks later…” or “Before I knew it…” or “I went into a coma for a couple of months, and when I came to…” I mean, don’t you have to account for the time? How does Trollope do this?

Also, it’s taking all my strength not to write,

Let’s understand each other. Michael Merrick was innocent. But no one knew that at the time, especially not his defense team. He kept saying he didn’t do it, but we knew how many ways there are to feel innocent, especially with a really shitty crime. People feel, “I’m not that kind of person! I’m an ordinary guy!” And they are—an ordinary guy who happens to have taken someone’s life, usually impulsively and stupidly and humanly, and usually with intent to kill, however fleeting, which takes you out of manslaughter territory and into murder.

And why shouldn’t I write that? My crime isn’t a murder, but setting that aside, why not? It would be a new kind of genre fiction: the non-mysterious mystery. Simenon and Alexander McCall Smith are great at showing how ordinary most criminals are. But I think they still keep the mystery mysterious, don’t they?

Just to give you an idea of how far I’ve wandered from Best-Seller Land, the chapter I’m working on right now is called, “We Are Sitting On Our Own Hats,” and I’m trying desperately to think of some way to work cherry pie into the plot. I see an explanation is called for. Here’s a bit of the chapter:

We walked along the wall. “What are we looking for?” I whispered. Whispering seemed detective-like.

“Clues,” whispered Jill, smiling.


“Anything that doesn’t fit. Maybe a nice crushed bush. A footprint. Of course the rain would have washed that away by now.”

We walked and looked, and I felt more and more ridiculous. I thought of Sam and Dudley, the detectives in The Great Pie Robbery, which Sister Liz had roped me into reading to the some of the kids in her do-gooder homeless program. In that story, one of the thieves tore the seat of his pants on a rose bush while escaping, leaving the fabric flapping on a bush. Sam and Dudley chased them to a restaurant—”We are looking for two thieves with cherry pie on their faces!” But everyone in the restaurant is eating cherry pie. And how to find the torn pants if everyone in the restaurant is sitting down? So Sam says to each customer, “Excuse me, are you sitting on my hat?” The first people he asks are innocent. They stand up. “We are sitting on our own hats,” they say, pointing to their crushed hats. Their pants are intact. But Sam and Dudley eventually get to the true perps, who stand defiantly and have—yes!—torn pants!

Jill was definitely Sam, cool and observant, all the tools of her trade ready at hand: measuring tape, camera, maps, cigarettes to share with any potential witness, right there with the lighter and then with a  pen and notebook. And I was Dudley, the clueless detective, the chubby one, prone to mishaps but also to occasional bursts of good luck.

Jill pointed out one spot where the mulch around the landscaping was a bit stirred up, spilling out of the border onto the perfectly cut grass. She took a photo of that, and we left.

For this Diary of Record, let me add that the seventy-five pages are five-by-seven-inches, not full-size. Little pages to keep my spirits up.