Read “The Snake in the Well”

March 6th, 2015

You may recall that I spent an afternoon last week with a class of second graders, and together we shaped the outline for a mystery story, which I proceeded to write. The outline came from the elements the children chose for the story, and we did it this way: I gave them the particular element (for example, “We need a name for our hero and heroine.”) I took a number of suggestions from the class and then we chose the winner in a random way.

So, here are the essentials that the children chose for the story:

The title is “The Snake in the Well.”

Our main characters are twins named Gavin and Christiana. They’re eight years old.

They live in Fridley, Minnesota.

They have a pet rattlesnake.

His name is Bob.

The mystery: Bob has gone missing (and is at the bottom of a well).

The children investigate Bob’s disappearance and find these clues:

1. An open door
2. A snake skin that has been shed by Bob
3. A snaky trail in the dirt
4. They hear a rattlesnake rattling

The sad ending chosen for the story is that Bob does not survive. Although he’s brought up from the well, at the story’s end, he rattles his last rattle.

However, I’ve given the story a little bit of an upswing at the end. When I asked the kids for suggestions about the kind of pet that’s gone missing, these were the suggestions they gave me that we didn’t use:

· A green snake
· A giant ant
· A scorpion
· A dragon

At the end of the story, all these suggestions come into play, with one very surprising result.

I hope you enjoy this collaborative effort. Me, I’ve never had so much fun.

The children will be creating some of their own artwork to accompany the story. When they’re finished, and with their permission, I’ll share that with you.


The Snake in the Well
Mrs. Haggar-Olson’s Second-Grade Class

Christiana and Gavin were twins. They lived in Fridley, Minnesota, in a big house with a big yard and big shady trees. Before the city grew around it, the house had been part of a huge farm. Even now, there was still a garden and lots of room where wild things grew. There was even an old stone well that had once supplied water for the farmhouse.

snake photoOn their eighth birthday, the twins received an unusual present from their mother. It was—I’m not kidding you—a rattlesnake! Now, most people would think that a rattlesnake is the most terrible, horrible gift anyone could get on their birthday. But not Christiana and Gavin. And here’s why: Their mother was a herpetologist, which is a big word that means a scientist who studies snakes and other scaly creatures. The twins were used to things that slithered and hissed and felt cold to the touch. Their mother explained that this rattlesnake was a very special one. It was the last of its kind, a snake that had been part of a very top secret government experiment many years before. The government wanted to increase the intelligence of some rattlesnakes so that they could be used as spies in desert countries. The experiment worked—sort of. The snakes became very smart and could communicate with humans using their rattles as a code. One rattle meant yes. Two rattles meant no. Three rattles meant, well, it could mean many things. For the twins, it would come to mean something really important, which I will tell you about later.

There was one big problem with that government experiment years ago. When the rattlesnakes became smart, they also lost their poison. They could no longer defend themselves against the other creatures of the desert. Those that were released into the wild were never heard from again. And now there was only one very old, very smart rattlesnake left.

The twins named him Bob.

Bob lived in a large aquarium that the twins kept in their bedroom. The first thing they did every day when they came home from school was run to their room and say hello to Bob. They would find him coiled up, his little forked tongue flicking the air, his black eyes eager to see them. They would ask him about his day.

“Have you been lonely?”

One rattle. (Yes!)

“Did any bad animals try to eat you?”

Two rattles. (No!)

“Would you like to play?”

One very excited rattle.

Hide-and-go-seek was their favorite game. Bob was very good at it. He could hide in places the twins would never look, and he was so smart he could always find them in the places where they hid. They only played the game inside the house, because outside there were hawks and foxes and dogs who would love to eat a rattlesnake that couldn’t defend itself.

After they finished playing, Bob would give them three rattles. And do you want to know what those three rattles meant? They meant, “I love you.”

One very sunny spring day, the twins came home from school and ran to their bedroom. But to their surprise, Bob was not in his aquarium. They looked everywhere for him. They looked in all the places he hid when they played hide-and-seek. They even looked in all the places he was too smart to hide, like the stove and the microwave and the dishwasher. They couldn’t find him anywhere.

“Bob!” Gavin called. “Bob, where are you?”

But he heard no rattle in reply.

Then Christiana noticed that the back door was open, just the littlest bit but wide enough for an old rattlesnake to slither through. The twins ran outside into the bright sunlight. Because it was spring, everything was growing big and green and wild, and there so many places for a snake to hide, if that’s what a snake wanted to do.

“Bob,” the twins called. “We can’t play hide-and-seek out here. It’s too dangerous.”

No rattle-rattle-rattle to let them know Bob had heard.

They peered under the steps. They crawled through the garden. They dug among the shrubs. They even looked up into the branches of the oaks and the elms, although rattlesnakes are not very good at climbing trees. But they could not find Bob anywhere.

Then a shadow appeared on the ground, circling and circling. The twins stared up into the sky. Above them flew a hawk, a deadly enemy of snakes everywhere.

“Oh, Gavin,” cried Christiana. “If that hawk sees Bob, it will snatch him up with its talons, and Bob will become hawk food. We can’t let that happen.”

“We have to find him,” Gavin said. “And we have to find him now.”

“How?” Christiana asked. “We’ve looked everywhere.”

Gavin said, “This is a mystery. To solve a mystery, we need to find the clues.”

Now, instead of looking for Bob, they looked for clues that might lead them to Bob. And do you know what they found? First, they found a snakeskin. All snakes shed their skin so that they can grow larger. Even an old rattlesnake like Bob could still grow. And that’s what he’d done when he’d slithered out of the house, grown just a bit and left his old skin in the grass of the backyard.

Next, they found a long, slithery line in the dirt of the garden. That was another thing snakes sometimes left behind, a trail made by their wiggly bodies as they wove across the ground.

“He went that way,” Christiana said, pointing toward the far side of the garden.

Above them, the hawk flew lower and lower, looking for an old snake to have for its dinner.

In the tall grass and wild flowers on other side of the garden, the twins lost Bob’s trail. They startled a rabbit that went hop, hop, hopping away. They spotted a squirrel that chattered at them furiously from a nearby oak tree. They scared up dragon flies and butterflies and bumble bees, but no Bob.

Christiana began to cry. “Oh, Gavin, we’ll never find him. And this sun is so hot I’m roasting.”

Gavin said, “Let’s get some water from the well and cool ourselves off. Then we’ll look for more clues. Don’t worry, Christiana. We’ll find him.”

The twins walked to the old well, which stood in the middle of the tall grass and the wildflowers. There was a wooden crank built above the well’s stone wall. A rope hung from the crank and disappeared into the well, and the twins knew that at the other end of the rope was a bucket for hauling up the cool water. The well was so deep and so dark that the twins could not see the bottom or the wooden bucket there.

Gavin began turn the crank. The rope began winding around the crankshaft. The bucket began to rise.

Then Christiana heard a familiar sound.


“Bob!” she cried, looking all around her. But she couldn’t see Bob anywhere.


The sound came again, but faint and growing fainter.

“Bob!” Gavin and Christiana yelled together. “Where are you?”


Finally the twins realized that the sound was coming from inside the well. Gavin cranked faster, and the bucket rose into sight. And there, in the bottom of that old wooden bucket Bob lay curled. His forked tongue flickered weakly. His black eyes seemed a little glazed, even for a snake. His rattles hung limp at the end of his tail, barely making a sound now.

They lifted him and held them in their hands together, and they could feel that Bob was almost at the end of his journey as a snake. He gazed up at them. His tongue eased from his mouth, and, as if waving goodbye, gave a final flicker. With his tail, he gave one last rattle-rattle-rattle.

And then Bob was gone.

With tears in their eyes, they carried him to the house. Their mother was waiting for them on the back steps. They laid Bob down gently.

“He’s dead,” they said. “He died because he got out of the house.”

“No, children,” their mother explained. “Bob lived thirty years. That’s very old for a rattlesnake. It was just his time to go. Bob knew this. When it’s a rattlesnake’s time, he likes to find a quiet place alone.”

“There will never be another snake like Bob,” the twins said.

Their mother nodded. “That’s true. But we can always get another pet. How about a puppy this time?”

“Or a green snake?” Christiana said, brightening. “They’re pretty and only a little poisonous.”

“No more snakes,” their mother said.

“How about a scorpion?” Gavin said.

“No,” said their mother.

“Or a giant ant,” Christiana said.

“Children,” their mother pleaded. “Be reasonable.”

Christiana and Gavin both thought awhile. Then Gavin looked at Christiana, and Christiana looked at Gavin, and together they said, “We want a dragon!”

And that’s how the twins ended up with Kyle, the Komodo dragon.

komodo dragon

“The Snake in the Well”

February 24th, 2015

Snake in the WellSo here’s the next great mystery I’ve had a hand in producing: “The Snake in the Well.”

I spent yesterday afternoon in a classroom full of second-graders, talking to them about the importance of stories—in my life, in theirs. They were the most unabashedly enthusiastic audience I’ve entertained in, well, maybe forever. The last part of my time with them was spent in constructing a mystery together, the story of a beloved pet rattlesnake named Bob which has gone missing from its aquarium. The kids suggested and then chose the plot elements—the names, the setting, the kind of pet at the story’s heart (some wild suggestions there!), motives, clues, and finally the title. And now I’m going to take all this information and write the story. I’ll send it back to their teacher, Mrs. Haggar-Olson, and the kids will create the accompanying artwork. Then we make the book.

I’m betting both my Edgar and Anthony that the story these kids have given me is a winner. I’ll keep you posted on the progress.

Magna Cum Murder

February 1st, 2015

I’ve been getting a lot questions about Magna Cum Murder, the wonderful mystery conference in Indianapolis next fall at which I’ll be a guest of honor.  Because it’s both intimate and vibrant, this conference is a perennial and special favorite of mine.  Kathryn Kennison, the lovely moving force behind everything, has been staging this gathering for twenty years, attracting top authors from around the world.  I’ve been on panels with Michael Connelly, Charlaine Harris, Anne Perry, Val McDermid, and Tess Gerritsen, to name just a few.  And Indianapolis is a lovely city, with a lot to offer new visitors.  I guess what I’m saying is that if you’ve never been to Magna Cum Murder, I really think this is the year you ought to give it a try.  I’d recommend registering soon, because the conference hotel, which is the Columbia Club, always fills quickly.  It would be great to see you there this October!

One Million Books

January 20th, 2015

There are mileposts in every writer’s career, I suppose.  Getting an agent.  Getting a publisher.  Getting that first book into stores and into readers’ hands.  I could go on and on, because a writer’s career is simply a journey, and although every journey doesn’t have an identifiable destination, it seems to me they all must have moments that mark progress.

One Million Books

So here’s a recent one for me: According to my publisher, sometime in the past few weeks, I sold my one-millionth novel.  Bells didn’t chime.  No fireworks.  I didn’t even pop a cork on a bottle of champagne.  In the grand scheme, it’s probably not much.  But for a guy who began by wanting only to write a story good enough that someone might actually want to read it, well, this is a pretty big deal.  And also, it’s an opportunity to say thank you to all of you out there who bought one of my books (or two or three) and made this milestone possible.  We all need friends on our journeys, and I’m so glad to have you with me.

The Quiet Horizon

January 1st, 2015

As another year is about to sink completely into the realm of memory, I can’t help but look back and marvel. I couldn’t have asked for, hoped for, or even, if I’d been able, crafted for myself a better twelve months. It’s been filled with the fruit of many labors. An old book greatly honored, a new book warmly received, and the contours of a future book roughly completed. Specifically, Ordinary Grace received an incredible number of accolades: the Edgar, the Anthony, the Barry, the Macavity, the Dilys, the Squid, the Silver Falchion. Windigo Island, the fourteenth entry in my Cork O’Connor series, appeared on a number of best books of the year lists. And the first draft of This Tender Land, the companion novel to Ordinary Grace, was finished. If one of the things that keeps us vital is steeping ourselves in the work we love, then it has been a year of great vitality and great passion.

As I look ahead now, what do I see? 2015 will be a quiet year in many respects. I will have no novel published in the upcoming year, so no long book tours, no long periods that will take me away from home and family. I’m looking forward to months and months of peace, of uninterrupted writing, of simply catching my breath. In each of the last three years, I’ve scheduled more than a hundred events—signings, author talks, workshops, conferences. This year will be different, blessedly calm, filled with quiet, I hope, the kind of quiet that allows deep contemplation to become possible, the kind of quiet that feeds our souls.

In terms of the writing itself, for those of you who are interested, this is what I’ll be working on. I will polish This Tender Land and prepare it for publication in the spring of 2016. I will complete the next in the Cork O’Connor series, a novel I’ve just begun to outline, and that will probably also appear in 2016. And I will begin work on a short novel, an idea that has been knocking around in my brain for more than a decade. So, clearly, I won’t be idle.

Every year is different from those that have come before. Although I have plans, I don’t really know what to expect. Life has a way of surprising us, doesn’t it?

And so, I wish every one of you the best on your own journey in the year ahead. May your days be filled with vitality, with passion, with love. And also with that blessed quiet that will feed your soul.

A few 2014 highlights:

William Kent Krueger
January: What exciting news! Ordinary Grace has received a nomination for the Edgar Award for Best Novel! I couldn’t be happier for this book, which is so different from those in my Cork O’Connor series that I was afraid no one would be interested in publishing or reading it. I’m tremendously grateful to Atria Books for having supported Ordinary Grace from the outset. So very grateful to the independent booksellers who made sure that the novel got into the hands of readers. And especially grateful to all of those out there who read the story and embraced it. Now, to pop the cork on a bottle of champagne!

February: In my books, I write a lot about cold weather. I’m often asked if I believe you should write what you know. Definitely. Here I am with my wife, Diane, in our backyard. Yeah, like every Minnesotan, I understand winter pretty well. And understand, too, why the ancients used to have all kinds of orgiastic celebrations when spring finally came.

March: Driving cross-country from the Tucson Festival of the Book to Left Coast Crime in Monterey. Had to hit the National Parks along the way. What treasures! Here I am in Sequoia National Park, just a few minutes from viewing the famous trees.

April: I’m in Grand Rapids for the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College. I’m here with two thousand other attendees from all over this continent. This is one of the most amazing conferences at which I’ve been asked to present. The list of stellar authors across a broad range of disciplines is incredible. The focus, of course, is how faith informs our writing, but it touches on so many significant aspects of our lives. It is, quite frankly, knocking my socks off. (Photo taken at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum)

Edgar and Me
May: I couldn’t be happier having won the Edgar Award for my novel Ordinary Grace. In so many ways, it feels like the culmination of a lot of years of hard work. Not just the writing of a dozen plus novels, but all the ceaseless labor to get those books into readers’ hands. When I was given the award at the ceremony in New York City, the meat of my acceptance was simply this: “To write, to be published, to be read, to be appreciated. What more could any storyteller ask for?”

August: I’m at Killer Nashville, which has just become my new favorite mystery conference! As a guest of honor, I received a stunning black Fender guitar. Here I am with Clay Stafford, founder of Killer Nashville and all-around great guy, living it up with my new Fender.

August: When you do a signing in northern Minnesota, you never know who might be looking over your shoulder. One of Bullwinkle’s relatives dropped in on my signing at Piragis Northwoods Company in Ely and just had to stick his big nose between me and store manager Jordyn Nyquist.

September: I’ve taken a couple of days off from the book tour to volunteer at our church dining hall at the fabulous Minnesota State Fair. Here I am working the food line—hot steam table on a hot day!—with my lovely wife. One of the things I appreciate about the dining hall is that for every meal someone buys there, our church donates a meal to Save My Starving Children, a great non-profit organization that helps feed hungry children around the globe. Food, fun, fellowship, and a worthy cause—what could be better!

September: So, here I am among the brewing vats at the Excelsior Brewing Company for what was one of the most unique signing venues I’ve ever experienced. I talked to a very large audience, all of us pressed between these stainless steel behemoths and the serving counter. We drank really good beer, I talked really loud, and honest to God, we had a great time of it. Beer and books, a combination ordained in heaven.

September: In Europe for the very first time! Sunset on the Danube.

November: At Bouchercon in Long Beach. On my right, the Macavity. On my left, the Barry. Aren’t they lovely?

December: I finished the first draft of the companion novel to Ordinary Grace. When published, it will be titled This Tender Land. Oh God, I think it’s good. A lot of revision still to be done, but I believe I’ll pop the cork on a bottle of champagne and allow myself a little celebration of this milepost. Cheers!