Sunday, January 29, 2012

Have You Seen This Boy? a guest blog by Todd Ritter

 Todd Ritter burst onto the scene a little over a year ago with the highly-acclaimed Death Notice, a small town mystery with some very sharp edges. While working at the Newark Star-Ledger (the same paper that brought us Brad Parks! Is there something in the coffee machine?) Todd's managed to publish an ebook novella, Vicious Circle, and another mystery, Bad Moon, all set in the same not-so-quaint town of Perry Hollow and featuring Police Chief Kat Campbell. 

Today, Todd shares with us part of his creative technique - and asks for your help in solving a real-life mystery.

I like to think of writing as being a kind of Impressionist painter. With a few sharp strokes of the pen (or a flourish of taps on the keyboard), writers can conjure up images that, while perhaps brighter and more distorted, still resemble the world we live in. And like the Impressionists of yore, many writers — myself included — base those images on something we’ve seen in real life.

Yes, that’s my highfalutin’ way of saying that I use photographs to help me write. Sometimes it’s out of necessity, like when I need to describe a specific object or real-life location that I’m not familiar with. Usually, though, it’s more for inspiration. Looking at a picture of a crumbling Victorian house on the wrong side of town helps me conjure up a different crumbling house in my head, which I then place, with a few more alterations, on the page.

I do the same thing with characters, which is why, not too long ago, I found myself scouring the Internet for pictures of children from 1969. The research was for my second mystery, BAD MOON, which, although set in the present day, focuses on the search for Charlie Olmstead, a boy who vanished on July 20, 1969. Because I’m quite possibly the most neurotic writer in existence, I knew I couldn’t complete a word of the book unless I knew what poor, little Charlie looked like.

So I fled into the comforting arms of Google, using a combination of weird (and, out of context, quite shady) search terms to find a suitable image on which to base Charlie. I typed things like “Boys+1969.” Or “Sixties+children+boys.” And “Pennsylvania+missing boys.” Thankfully, it wasn’t long before I stumbled upon the perfect Charlie.

Here’s the picture:  

And here’s how I described it in BAD MOON: The page was a reproduction of an old newspaper article, accompanied by a photograph of a boy who had a tiny nose and jug-ears. He wore a shirt and tie and had spit-slicked blond hair, leading Nick to assume it was a school picture. And although the boy was giving a lopsided smile, there was sadness in his eyes. Above the article and photo was a simple, devastating headline: PERRY HOLLOW BOY, 10, MISSING.

Not exactly what’s in the photograph, but not too far off, either. Like the picture in real life, I wanted the one in the book to be simple, but haunting. Enough for readers to keep tucked in their memory as they slowly discover what happened to young Charlie.

As for me, that picture is seared into my brain. I can’t think of BAD MOON without that image popping into my head. I also know that I never would have been able to write the book without it. They say a picture is a worth a thousand words. In this case, a picture was worth roughly a hundred-thousand words.

There’s only one problem: I have no idea who this person is. I forget the exact search terms I used to find it and, despite repeated attempts, haven’t been able to locate it again. Which is a shame. I’d love to track down whoever this person is, send him a copy of BAD MOON and thank him for inspiring the book.

This is where you come in, awesome Jungle Reds readers. I want you to help me solve this real-life mystery. Have you seen this boy? Maybe one of you out there recognized him. Perhaps he’s your brother or now your husband. Maybe he’s an old classmate or a former neighbor from way back when. Any information on his whereabouts would be greatly appreciated. So if you have an inkling as to who he might be, shoot me an e-mail at

I know it’s a long shot. The Internet is crammed with images, and the fact that one of you might know anything about this one is unlikely. But stranger things have happened. And if your information leads to me finding him, then you, too, will get a signed copy of BAD MOON.

Until I hear from you, I’ll be searching the unruly vortex that is the Internet, hoping that I’ll once again come face to face with the picture of the boy I only know as Charlie Olmstead.

Todd Ritter is an author and editor. His second mystery, BAD MOON, was released in October by St. Martin’s/Minotaur. You can visit him online at, read his blog, friend him on Facebook and chat with him on Twitter (@ToddARitter).


  1. Thank you, oh fabulous Reds, for inviting me to share this little mystery with your readers. Maybe I'll finally be able to track him down and give him a proper thanks.

  2. Hi Todd,

    Photos - me too. But only for the 20s. Funnily enough, I don't need to do it for modern stories.

    Your boy there in the pic is heartbreaking. No way he's headed for a happy ending, or are we mystery resders and writers just so steeped in blood and death that it seems that way?

    Others see a flower bed ready for planting, we see a freshly filled grave?

  3. Hi Todd, thanks for the interesting post! I use pictures, too. I'm always looking for good "character" faces, and will scan magazines for "ordinary" people in features. I sometime model a character on an actor, but would never tell:-)

    I'd love to know what happened to your boy...

  4. Hi, Todd! Fascinating post! I'm afraid I don't know your boy, though.

    I also use photos of people and places when I'm writing. Some of them would make people think I'm crazy. They're not good enough to help describe something, but for various reasons, they give me a feeling or have an atmosphere that's critical to what I'm writing.

  5. So interesting, Todd.

    For me it's photos of places that inspire. Interiors and exteriors of houses. And right now I've got a 1911 map of a neighborhood in the Bronx.

    I once was on a panel with a writer who said he finds inspiration for short stories in portrait photos.

  6. Nice to see I'm not the only one who sometimes needs a little photographic help when writing. For BAD MOON, I had everything from magazine covers to clothing ads. And our mystery boy, of course. Catriona is right. There is something heartbreaking about that picture. I think it's the eyes.

  7. So nice to know we're not alone! I buy UK home magazines for interior setting ideas. UK Country Living is good because there are less obviously upmarket interiors, and certainly not everyone in my books can afford House and Garden rooms!

  8. Yes, funny how you see one ..and it's familiar because it's someone you created. works both ways, you know?

    I never thought about looking for ordinary people in magazine ads. Hmm.

    What a fascinating post..lovely to meet you. Will you let us know if you hear anything? How amazing if you do...

    Wonder if that would be a good thing.

  9. I want to curl up with Deborah Crombie's No Mark Upon Her.

  10. I want to curl up with Deborah Crombie's No Mark Upon Her. Would love to read this book! Thanks for the opportunity!

  11. "I want to curl up with Deborah Crombie's No Mark Upon Her"
    Many thanks, Cindi