• West Cork Literary Festival 8-15 July 2022

All About the Twist: Man Bites Dog by Todd Ritter

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Plotting and Planning

Todd Ritter

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It’s a headline we’ve seen many, many times before: Newspaper reporter becomes crime novelist.

The trend began with Edgar Allen Poe, continued with the likes of Edgar Wallace and lives on with masters such as Edna Buchanan, Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman and so many others. I, too, am among their ranks, having been a journalist for almost 20 years before becoming a full-time writer. Yes, I am a cliché, and proudly so.

At a book festival several years ago, I was asked why newspaper people make such good crime writers. I answered that we’re used to working on tight deadlines, following orders from our editors and keeping everything short and sweet.

That was only partly the truth.

While journalists do work on deadline, obey editors and write succinctly, there’s something else that makes them especially suited to mystery writing. Something more important than a clock ticking its way toward deadline or putting up with an editor asking them to rewrite something for the fifth time. That all-important thing is inspiration.

There’s a common adage in newspaper circles that a dog biting a man isn’t news because it happens so frequently. But when a man bites a dog? Well, that’s newsworthy.

toddritter140x210The same thing applies to crime novels. A good mystery or thriller needs to have a fresh and new twist to it, otherwise people won’t want to read it. For some writers, finding that fresh ingredient is a long, torturous process. Reporters, however, can find it in their everyday life. Truth, after all, is often stranger than fiction.

Journalists are granted access to situations unavailable to most people. They see the good, the bad, the unusual. In my own experience, I’ve sat in bars with movie stars, had coffee with cops, touched a Norman Rockwell painting and stood in the pouring rain watching a SWAT team burst into a house after an hours-long police standoff. It can be a very exciting job, and during that excitement, all sorts of writerly inspiration can occur.

I’ll give you an example: One night while working in an almost empty newsroom, I heard a report comer over the police scanner that a coffin had been found on the side of a nearby highway. That’s right, a full-sized, honest-to-goodness coffin. No one knew where it had come from or why it was there. All they knew was that it was frightening motorists and that some unlucky police officer had to open it and see if there was a body inside. (For the record, it was empty, had most likely fallen off the back of a truck and that no one ever came to claim it.)

At the time, I was a wannabe mystery writer looking for the perfect flash of inspiration. Hearing about that coffin did the trick. It was a true “Man Bites Dog” moment. I decided to write a novel that began with the discovery of a coffin on the side of a road. Only this time the coffin wasn’t empty and that the person inside had been murdered in a ghastly fashion.

A day or so later, I was engaged in another one of my newspaper tasks — writing and editing obituaries. While proofreading an obituary about a kind, hard-working grandfather of four, I noticed something strange: The man’s date of death was listed as the very next day. While clearly a mistake — the man had, in fact, passed away the day before — it set the wheels of inspiration spinning once again. I soon decided that police would have been warned about the murder of the man found in that coffin on the side of the road in the form of an obituary sent an hour before his death.

That story eventually became Death Notice, my debut novel. It’s what kicked off this strange, new career of mine, and I have a dusty police scanner in the corner of a newsroom and a typo in an obituary to thank for it.

That’s why reporters and newspapers play important roles in all of my books. In Death Notice, it’s misunderstood obituary writer Henry Goll. In Death Falls, it’s the trail of newspaper clippings from the sixties and seventies that lead to the truth behind a long-ago disappearance. And in Death Night, Henry returns to report on a current story that may be tied to a long-buried secret and a string of arsons.

I’m sure Edna Buchanan, Michael Connelly and Laura Lippman also have stories about oddball inspiration that struck while they were in the reporting trenches. All the many other journalist-turned-crime writers out there probably do, as well. Even Poe, that grandfather of the macabre, might have been prompted to write by something he witness on the job. “Man Bites Dog” moments are out there all the time. Reporter, by nature of their job, simply notice them more.

(c) Todd Ritter

About Death Night

24 hours: that’s all they have to stop a killer in his tracks… Perfect for fans of Gregg Hurwitz and P.J. Tracy.

Two things Perry Hollow Police Chief Kat Campbell never thought she would do again: Enter a burning building, and lay eyes on Henry Goll, the man who was trapped inside with her the last time she was in one. So Kat’s on high alert when, barely a year after the dust settled around the Grim Reaper killings, both happen on the same day.

She’s jolted awake at 1 a.m. by a desperate phone call telling her Perry Hollow’s one and only museum—home to all the town’s historical artifacts—has been set on fire. Arriving at the scene, Kat catches just a glimpse of Henry’s face among the crowd before she’s rushed into the charred building, only to find the museum curator dead…bludgeoned, not burned.

Kat has lived through some tense moments and seen some gruesome crimes, but the next twenty-four hours will be the most dangerous of her life as she and Henry seek out a killer and the motivation behind these terrifying crimes.

Todd Ritter returns to the beloved town of Perry Hollow, Pennsylvania with Death Night, his most poignant, cleverly plotted novel yet.

Pick up your copy online here!

About the author

Todd Ritter was born in rural Pennsylvania to a bank teller mother and a father who dabbled in taxidermy. He grew up among Bambi-esque forests and wide-open fields straight out of the cropduster scene from North by Northwest. Appropriately, his two biggest influences are Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock.

A journalist for more than 15 years, he began his career as a film critic while attending Penn State University. Currently, he works at The Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s largest daily newspaper. In the interim, he has interviewed celebrities, covered police standoffs and, yes, even written and edited obituaries.

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