The writing game

The writing game

We were almost finished with a year of house-sitting for my sister-in-law when we decided to host a murder mystery party. Navigating online, I was dismayed by the ‘groovy’ and dated mystery kits available. But I was a writer, wasn’t I? And why did I have to wait until I was a bestselling author to create complimentary merchandise? As a (then) unpublished author, I had scoured articles outlining the paltry incomes of the average writer and knew that making a living of my pen alone would be difficult if I wanted to leave my PR job.

So I set to work sketching outlandish characters, plotting out motivations for murder and manufacturing evidence, for our guests to sleuth their way through. One moment, our friends were catching up and pouring wine for one another, and in the next, their Leinster accents were replaced with Germanic garbles or American meanders, as they stepped into character.

Decorum deteriorated in line with the narrative, normally well-mannered guests began swigging from the bottle or squaring up to each other. With pronounced prescience, a psychic foresaw another death. Another body convulsed upon the floor, a slight smirk appearing from under his faux beard. The game concluded with each guest making an accusation, the detective laying out their denouement, and the killer being led away by two charmingly apopleptic citizens. It was delicious, escapist entertainment, powered by the spirit of the guests. Yes, I may have written the game, but the players brought it to life. We were none of us actors, just thrill-seekers for an unusual experience. 

And just like that, I fell in love with writing murder mystery games. WhatsApp messages from strangers appeared asking if they could play. It was time to market the games online. I created a suite of games, each summoning up a locked room mystery.  A magical kingdom, a St Moritz ski chalet, the North Pole, 1950’s Ascot. Selling directly to the consumer on Etsy in 2016, sales began to trickle in, from the US, Australia and around the world.

After developing my own strategy for plotting immersive mystery games, I used the same plan to begin work on a murder mystery novel. Up to this point, I’d self-published a historical thriller, but now I wanted to nab a traditional publisher. All of the tweaking and teasing of plot points, sketching dozens of characters and sourcing murder weapons had been my great rehearsal.

In traditional publishing, once my agent Lina Langlee took me on, it all started to click into place. We went out on submission and got a three book deal with Poolbeg for my January Quail series (the first, Preserved, hits the shelves in November). During the pandemic, we also got talking to Hodder Studios about an idea for an innovative audio-led publication, Twelve Motives For Murder – a project which, in a way, is like being able to listen to professional actors playing out one of my murder mystery games, or indeed, books. The audio was released in time for Christmas in 2020, with the paperback following in October this year. Editing and the production of my writing projects – a traditional deal with an independent publisher, an audio project supported by print with one of the big five, and going at it on my own with murder mystery games - has shown me the importance of keeping lots of projects unfolding.

As a sole trader, one challenge is how to scale up. Selling digital products online is cutthroat and dispassionate. I’ve had to hone my SEO skills to keep up with the latest developments. Big players in the games industry easily target the keywords I’m succeeding in with large budgets, directing my traffic to their own offering. However, as a published author, I can differentiate myself from my competitors.

During the pandemic, my games became popular for Zoom entertainment. Instead of bum-numbing table quizzes, players could escape from being mummy in the kitchen to a southern belle, or a can-can dancer. With team managers scrambling to boost morale amongst remote staff, my market opened up. Over 30,000 players played one of my games with clients including Zurich, Facebook, Google and many well-known universities and public organisations. But now as the offices reopen, how could I follow these new customers back to their desks? And so, I created Murder at the Second Floor, a treasure hunt-style game aimed to get staff together for a laugh, to rub off some of that social anxiety on the first days back.

I really value the independence that my games business gives me. I can be agile. Develop new products, hit up new customers just however I want. But thankfully, that I can also call on the expertise of my publishers.

My dad is an entrepreneur. Growing up he regularly gave me the Alec Baldwin in "Glengarry Glenross" sales speech. As Blake said: “The money's out there, you pick it up, it's yours.”

Fiona Sherlock is a crime writer from Bective in Meath. Along with plotting and writing murder mystery novels, she also creates immersive mystery games for Zoom and in real life. She is the 2021 Meath Writer In Residence and contributes to the Sunday Independent on topics including motherhood, spirituality and society.