Plotting a Murder: What Happens at the Intersection of Writing and Running

By Sherry Siska

For me, writing and running are intertwined. In fact, the quickest way from nothing to novel is through running.

I used to run with a mp3 player and a playlist heavy on songs about running. Then there came a blistering hot September and I was back at school. The best way to get my runs in was to go early in the morning, before daylight. I had to stop wearing earbuds for safety reasons.

Eventually, I got so used to not having a playlist to distract me, that I completely gave up my mp3 player as a running companion. What I found out is that without the music to distract me, running gave me the space I needed to get out of my own head, a necessary component to writing.

Oh, it doesn’t always happen — today was a case in point — but most of the time, after about a mile of mental whining, imaginary arguments, and negative self-talk, I settle into a rhythm and, once that happens, I find myself thinking about a story or characters or what I want to say in a blog post. In other words, I write.

We live quite close to a nice greenway and I spend a lot of time running or walking on it. It’s nice, soft gravel and just the right length for a good walk or run.

At every intersection, there are two short posts and a taller middle post. The posts all have a good size divot drilled out near the bottom. I’m not sure why; I suspect it has to do with expansion or something.

A couple of years ago I was running, and about 1/2 way along the trail, stuck in one of the divots, was a folded up piece of paper. I, being the curious — okay, nosy — person I am, pulled it out, unfolded it, and read it.

At first, I thought it was a love note written by a middle school girl to her middle school boyfriend. It had a little drawing of a cat at the bottom and a heart around the cat. The writing was big and flowery, just like most middle school girls write.

It only took me a couple of lines to realize that the writer was decidedly not a middle school girl. And the person to whom she was writing was certainly not a middle school boy. I had stumbled upon a covert letter from a married woman to her secret lover, who, evidently, was also married. Oh, and she signed it “All my love, Cat”.

I’m assuming that was the genesis of the drawing. Lover Boy’s name, I did not find out because she referred to him as “Hot Stuff”. His wife, however, was “that Bitch Vicky”.

I blushed to my toes when I read what Cat wanted to do to Hot Stuff. (But you notice, it didn’t stop me from reading the whole thing.) As soon as I finished reading it, I glanced around to make sure no one was looking, quickly refolded the love letter, and stuck it back in the hole in the post.

Then, I hightailed it on down the trail. I went about a quarter of a mile before I started the “what ifs…”. What if he saw me read the letter, thought I was a threat, and came after me? What if she saw me read the letter, recognized me, and sent him to kill me so that their secret remained safe? What if her husband saw me, grew curious, read the letter, and killed her. Or her lover. Or both of them. What if someone else found the letter, didn’t put it back, and he never got. Then, decided she was dumping him and went into a rage and shot her? Or her husband? Or both?

(Yes. I realize these are all gruesome and unlikely. I write murder mysteries. It’s where my mind starts.)

The point is, plot and story ideas can come from anywhere. You just have to keep your eyes open and then ask, “What if…”. For me, it just happens that a lot of the time, they come when I’m running.

Every single one of my posts here on Medium, as a matter of fact, originated during a run. All three of my novels were pretty much plotted out during a run.

When I find myself facing a particularly difficult chapter or a tangled up story line, I know that the best thing I can do is lace up my trusty Asics and hit the road. Often I find that the problem has worked itself out right about the time I pass under the interstate bridge at mile three.

Without running, I’m not sure I would ever get anything down on the page.

Running is not something I always love. I love having already ran and I love being fit and I love the stress release and the fact that I get most of my writing figured out while doing it, but the actual running, not always.

People sometimes ask why I do it, then, if I don’t love it. Why they ask, don’t I just walk. Walking is fine, but, well, it takes longer and I don’t get the same feelings from it as I get from running.

I’ve been thinking about that the last couple of mornings as I ran and I decided it has to do with the cadence of running. There’s just something about that steady rhythm of my footfalls that soothes me and lulls me and finally propels me out of my shoulda, woulda, couldas and lets my mind free to engage in the “what ifs” and to sort out the problems. It’s sort of like being part of a drum circle, which, if you’ve never done, you should; it’s loads of fun!

Sometimes, I break up with running. Just like I occasionally break up with writing. But, I always manage to find my way back to both. When I’m running more regularly, writing more regularly, I feel calmer and happier. I feel like I’m being true to who I really am.

And, sometimes, when I’m at the intersection of writing and running, I plot out a murder and I end up with a book.

Photograph:Mahir Uysal