What if?

Most writers I know adore a good what-if. That simple question is akin to creative crack, a cheap addiction with an extremely generous dealer.

After all, any topic is fodder for the what-if treatment. It’s the gift that, well, you know . . .

What if the Brits had won the American war for independence? What would our world look like today?

One particularly odd image in my answer to the above questions is imagining the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico singing God Save the Queen. It evokes a wonderful commercial I saw decades ago where the stereotypic Native American – one with long gray braids and a craggy face—eats a piece of pizza with a big smile and says, “Ah. Just like my mother used to make.”

You can bet those writers were playing with what-ifs.

What if Poirot grew tired of puzzles and opened a men’s clothing store?

Can’t you just see him measuring someone’s in seam? Of course, Poirot’s brilliant little gray cells would probably commit suicide from lack of stimulation.

What if Nancy Drew decided to drop out of high school and hitchhike through South America? What if she’d started toking reefer in junior high? What if her mother was in the picture?

I don’t know if Nancy would’ve butted into other people’s business or worked to solve crimes if her social horizons were broader, or if she’d broken a few laws herself. And, I doubt a mother would have let her do some of the things her father permitted simply because he couldn’t supervise his daughter all the time.

What if Sherlock had been well-adjusted? What if Watson was his true intellectual and observational equal?

What if Jane Eyre had had loving parents? What if Rochester had been a pleasant, happy fellow?

The mind just boggles, doesn’t it?

I know readers play with what-ifs all the time too.

My children derive quite a bit of their literary pleasure from extrapolation. My-daughter-the-Harry-Potter devotee has applied her innate logic to several questions about the characters as adults. She has a sensible theory about whom Cho would marry and why. She’s got a good idea about what Teddy (Tonks’ and Prof. Lupin’s son) would be like today. She’s certain Draco would still be a prick.

My other daughter has spoken with me about Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice and has wondered aloud about what would’ve happened if Lizzie had been attracted to Darcy from the beginning.

“I can tell you one thing,” my daughter said to me yesterday. “It’d be a pretty short book.”

Every time I write a scene, I make dozens of decisions that feel monumental in the moment. When I commit something to paper –or computer screen –it seems like the only possible option. The best one ever. When I’m in that frame of mind, I bristle—a little—to think other people might rewrite my endings or create their own narratives around my characters’ actions and motivations.

But when I’m in a what-if mood, writing is so much more fun. I let myself play and see where alternate decisions take me. And I love that people might invest so much emotional/mental attention to my work that they’d think about other possibilities.

Today, after the long weekend, I think it’s time to get our own little gray cells working. So, let’s stretch our creative muscles with this exercise:

Ask a what-if about any literary character, story or book
       and then – if you’re willing – give us an answer.



One of the enjoyable and unanticipated results of being the sole ’Rati that posts on a weekly schedule is that I now get all of the guest bloggers. The next two weeks are going to provide me with a much appreciated mini-vacation. And, dear readers, you’ll have the treat of two excellent writers. Talk about a win-win.

Look for

Julie Kramer on Monday, July 13

Rhys Bowen on Monday, July 20

16 thoughts on “What if?

  1. karen from mentor

    Hi Pari,
    What if Nero Wolfe lost his mind and suddenly began jogging outside for exercise and was hit by a passing car driven by a breathtaking young woman. While being tended by the lovely woman who struck him, he lost weight, discovered that he was a raging mysogynist, became enamored of said woman, married her,developed a love of humankind in general, gave up tending orchids, had a passel of kids and never ate anything but sloppy joes and macaroni and cheese for the rest of his life.
    Oh, and Archie would grow old in the bachelor apartment that they constructed just for him over the garage.

  2. Pari

    Thank you for being game! I love that alternate universe for Nero, though Archie sounds a little sad.

    And how would Nero keep off the weight with his new food regimen? That’s what I want to know.

  3. Louise Ure

    What if Jack Reacher got married, bought a house and set about saving for his retirement?

    Alas, all he’d be reaching for are items on the top shelf of the supermarket (just the way his character name came to be in the first place).

  4. Chris Hamilton

    What if Spenser’s dad died instead of his mom? Would he turn into Alan Alda, PI?

    What if Susan had fallen for someone who wasn’t a raging sociopath during her mid-life crisis? Would thousands of Spenser fans rejoice? Would Spenser’s liver be the size of Montana?

    What if Roy Hobbs didn’t go to Harriet Bird’s room? I guess that would pretty much ruin the story, wouldn’t it?

    What if Jack Reacher got himself a blackberry and got addicted to playing Brickbreaker?

  5. Pari

    Brahahhaahaha. I loved these.

    Of course, I’d be one of the fans who’d like to see Susan fall madly in love with someone in a different city, far far away from Spenser. It’d be such a relief.

  6. Cheryl Malaguti

    What if Kate Shugak ran for and was elected to the Alaska State Legislature? Obstructive fellow legislators could be made to see the light by one visit from Mutt.

  7. karen from mentor

    Isn’t Spenser’s liver already the size of montana?

    and Pari,
    he’d keep the weight off with constant sex….didn’t you see the part about the passel of kids????

    (oh gawd….my inner eyes…I just pictured Nero Wolfe having sex….a poker, I need a poker)

  8. Pari

    You’re probably right about Spenser’s liver. My stepfather was an alcoholic and his liver was about the only organ that was in good shape; the doctor said it had been pickled . . .

    Nero Wolfe and lots of sex? A poker wouldn’t be nearly enough to sear that image from my mind! Aghhh.

  9. Jake Nantz

    What would Elvis Cole do if Pike ever actually smiled?

    What would be Harry Bosch’s drive to solve crimes if he had grown up with a living, well-adjusted, non prostitue-who-was-murdered?

  10. JT Ellison

    Oh, you can’t even imagine my what if’s today. (Maybe you can, Pari.) But I love thinking about the possibilities. You’re right, what if is what sets me down to write!

  11. Pari

    You see, Jake,
    The possibilities are just endless. Aren’t they?

    The one you mentioned that really got to me was Bosch. W/O deep hurt, many of the best stories might never be compelling enough to keep us reading.

    What do you think?

  12. Cheryl Malaguti

    Hi Pari,
    Yes, I’m a long time lurker. I found Murderati due to the excellent Dusty and was thrilled to find so many of my favorite authors blogging together. I enjoy the questions posed in the entries, often answering them mentally but too intimidated to actually post anything. 🙂 (or don’t see the entry until the convo has moved on to the next one.)

  13. Pari

    Well, Cheryl,
    I’m delighted to meet you and am glad you decided to play with this one.

    Lurking is great, but it’s nice to hear from the quiet ones too <g>.


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