Gas ‘N Go, Seeds from a Stem, and Lumberjack’s Reward (Or, Of Mystery Dinners and Storytelling)

“So, Michael, what do you think?” my mother asked me.  “Do you want to be a waiter?”

I couldn’t say with any enthusiasm that I did–even if it was just for one day.

My mother had decided to host a mystery dinner.  She invited our neighbors, a few close friends, some friends of friends, not to mention a few relatives.  It was going to be a big affair, and she needed all the help she could get.



But I had other ideas.  It was summer, the weather had been picture-perfect, with no reason to expect that to change anytime soon.  And, at twelve years old, there were many other things I would have rather been doing.  Some of the kids in the neighborhood (including my friends who ultimately inspired the main characters in The Eye-Dancers) were setting up a kickball game at a local playground.  I didn’t want to miss that.



“I could really use your help,” Mom went on.  “And it’ll be fun.  When you serve the guests food, they might not have any silverware to eat it with.”



Hmm.  Things suddenly sounded more interesting!  I asked her to tell me more.

Turns out, a mystery dinner was a good time.  Who knew?  I did decide to serve as a waiter that evening, back in the now-vintage 1980s.  My friends gave me guff the next day, informing me I had missed an incredible kickball game, but I told them I’d play in the next one.  Even back then, I knew I’d never forget that day, that dinner . . .



The concept of a mystery dinner is simple.  Guests are provided a coded menu.  There are a set number of courses for the meal.  My mother’s mystery dinner had ten courses.  Her menu had thirty items on it–so, three items were served per course.  What really made it interesting, though, was that the dinner guests had no way of knowing what they were ordering.  The menu didn’t have words like “potatoes, peas, chicken, or water” on it.  Rather, it contained cryptic descriptions such as, “gas ‘n go,” “seeds from a stem,” and “lovers cuddle.”  Seeing that the guests didn’t start the dinner out with silverware (forks and spoons and napkins needed to be selected from the menu), it was inevitable that some of them would be served mashed potatoes without a fork or a spoon; or butter without anything to spread it on; or a fork, a stick of celery, and a straw.  Each course was an adventure.  I remember a lot of laughing that evening.



I also remember the moment when I passed out the menus.  As the guests read through the nonsensical items, they questioned what it was they were looking at.

“Wait and see,” I told them.  “Just make sure you only circle three items at a time!”

Of course, the guests chatted among themselves, trying to figure out the mystery terms.  What was a lumberjack’s reward?  A devil’s advocate?  How about a degreaser or golden rods?  If their subsequent orders were any measuring stick, however, they didn’t decode the terms successfully!



At the end of the dinner, many of the guests vowed they would need to throw their own mystery dinner.

“I can’t wait to fool my neighbors!” one of our friends said, smiling.  “Eating mashed potatoes with a toothpick . . . I’d like to be on the other side of the menu the next time!”



I’m not sure if she ever went on to host a mystery dinner.

But I do know a thing or two about being fooled.


We often think about being fooled as readers.  We become engrossed in the plot of a novel, following the course of events, and then–wham!  Something happens that we never saw coming, and we feel as though we’ve been felled by a two-by-four.  Sometimes the surprise is troubling, and we may even put the book down without finishing it.  How could she have done that?  How did he get away with that?  No way!  But just as often, and probably more so, the surprise is welcome.  Predictability, after all, is rarely the hallmark of compelling literature.



But it isn’t only reading that oftentimes throws a mystery-dinner-like nugget our way.  Writing offers its own collection of surprising twists and developments.

When I begin a new writing project, I usually have a broad outline–not overly detailed, but nevertheless something I can use as a guideline of sorts, a plan designed on the macro-, as opposed to the micro-level.  Without such an outline (which is by no means formal; my outlines generally consist of a series of scratchy hand-scrawled notes organized in such a fashion that probably only I can decipher them!), I would feel lost, like a ship at sea without any navigational equipment.  On the other hand, if I crafted a super-detailed, point-by-point outline, I would feel stifled, and would run the risk of not allowing the natural creativity of the writing process to flourish midstream.



And that writing-process creativity often strikes at the least-expected times.  The muse is nothing if not capricious.  For example, as I started writing The Eye-Dancers, it never occurred to me that two of the main characters–Mitchell Brant and Marc Kuslanski–would turn out to be friends.  At the start of the book, they were acquaintances, classmates, who rarely spoke to each other.  And the fact that they would soon be thrust into a literally otherworldly adventure together didn’t mean they would suddenly become kindred spirits.  I envisioned them trying to join their heads together to solve their problem, work toward finding a way through the interdimensional void and back home–nothing more, and nothing less.  But a funny thing happened along the way.



In chapter 14, on their first morning in the alternate town of Colbyville, Mitchell and Marc chat by the banks of a stream.  They discuss their opposing viewpoints on what happened to them and how they ended up in this world on the other side of creation.  They bicker, they argue, and . . . they bond.  I envisioned the bickering and arguing.  But the bonding?  Not so much.



Confronted with this, I had a choice to make.  Revert back to my original broad outline, which did not include Marc and Mitchell bonding.  Or–allow the characters themselves, as they transformed right there on the page, to dictate the course of events.  It really wasn’t a hard decision.  Marc and Mitchell had spoken, outline or no outline!  There was a natural give-and-take between these two.  In a way I hadn’t foreseen, and despite being on the surface polar opposites, they were able to relate to each other.  It would not only be a mistake, it would be dishonest to deep-six this organic and spontaneous story development.

The creative process always has surprises in store for us.  And while sometimes it may seem chaotic to alter our original plans halfway through, for the most part such changes generally strengthen our works-in-progress, giving them a malleability and integrity they would otherwise lack.



A menu of green beans and mashed potatoes and brown gravy is surely needed to organize thoughts and point the way for a successful literary endeavor.  But along the way, don’t forget to sprinkle in a dash of lumberjack’s rewards, a touch of rolling stones, and a mix of sailor’s crumbs.



Thanks so much for reading!


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