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What Keeps a Reader Up at Night?

July 16, 2017 by Diane

In high school, there was a guy (wasn’t there always?) named John McLean. He strode across campus in a long pea coat with epaulets, hands jammed in the pockets. He had pale, lightly freckled skin, brown hair that flopped across his forehead, and a small red scar across the bridge of his nose.

I was mad about him.

He hung out with me. Once. I sat on the front lawn at school with my best friend. John sauntered by, then flung himself down next to me. He plucked at the grass, and a bee stung his index finger. It was Karen who took his hand and removed the stinger.

Oh how I envied her, holding John McLean’s hand.

John’s feelings for me were probably non-existent. I saw him at a party once through a haze of marijuana smoke. Later, I typed a poem about it—which was less a poem and more a wishful journal entry in stanzas—with a line about him looking up and “reaching out without reaching out,” and how I suddenly felt “tired, so tired,” (but in a good way, as in: “I can sleep for a long, long, blissful sleep” way, because John McLean had looked up and reached out, sorta).

No, John had feelings for a girl named Cathy, who lived on the same mountain where I lived, and rode the same school bus as me.

Oh, how I envied Cathy, waiting for the bus with John McLean’s arm around her.

Why am I telling you this?


So far, you might be intrigued, but you’re not really invested in John McLean like I am. I haven’t fleshed him out on the page, like I have in memory. As a reader, you’re not ready to stay up late flipping pages to find out what happens next. Sure, there’s a hint of conflict, a want that I, as the protagonist in this real-life drama, have, and something in the way of me achieving it.

But what if I add this:

Forty-odd years later, on a July night, I decide to look up John McLean on the internet. I want to see if he’s overweight and bald, or slim and rich, or married with kids, or divorced and wandering Nepal in his long pea coat.

Why am I so curious at 11 pm on a weeknight, knowing I need to rise and shine for work the next day? What compels me to go down this rabbit hole on the internet at this point in time? And why am I fascinated by a guy I haven’t thought of, except fleetingly, since high school?


I want to know: whatever happened to John McLean?

First, I try to find him on social media. Nothing. Then, I Google his name and the city of my high school. I find a woman whose last name was McLean. Her obituary says she was preceded in death by her nephew, John McLean.

Wait, my John McLean?

Okay, technically, not mine. But still. I need to know: is John McLean dead?

I sign onto my high school alumni site, something I’ve never done, browse the yearbooks, and narrow down a year when he appears. I scroll through the grainy photos one by one, wondering if I’ll even recognize him, until…bingo! There he is, with the eyes and nose of a lion, grinning like someone who’s just been reprimanded and doesn’t give a shit. I must have drooled over that photo all summer long when I was fifteen. Of course I’d recognize it!

Where did he go after high school? I spend another hour searching through archives of old newspapers, and then…this:

John McLean was found dead near his truck in Half Moon Bay. He was 29 years old.

It can’t be!

I count back from the year of publication, and that puts this John smack-dab in the middle of my high school, at the exact moment of time that I attended.

I’ve found him.

Dead. At 29.

So young!

No wonder he never appeared on Facebook or Twitter or any social media site. He died before they were invented!

According to the obit, John was an avid pilot. A pilot?—I had no idea he loved to fly. He raised bunnies and cattle. John McLean? A rancher?

Now, I’m consumed by his story. I need to know what happened. But it’s 2 a.m., time to turn off the light, which I do, feeling spooked and saddened and wistful, spinning “what-ifs” in my brain.

What if I track down his sisters? According to the newspaper, they lived in San Jose at the time of his death. Do they still live there? Would it be weird to ask them what happened? (Yes! Not to mention creepy.)

What if I dig into the archives of the Half Moon Bay Review to find out about the accident that killed him?

What if I search his college alumni website?

What if I phone Karen, who I haven’t seen in thirty? forty? years, and say, “Remember John McLean?”


“John McLean. From high school.”


“Oh, come on.The guy with the long pea coat.”

“I don’t know. Maybe. Why?”

“He died when he was twenty-nine.”


What if I talk Karen into flying to California to join me as an amateur sleuth?

What if, by finding out what happened to John McLean, I am somehow changed in the process? (Having less to do with the boy I remember, and more to do with the youth I’ve lost.)

Then, I’ve got the makings of a memoir.


What if I fictionalize this story? I’m agoraphobic, haven’t stepped outside my cottage in ten years, and this obsession over John McLean is the one thing that gets me to face my fear. It’s no cake-walk, going out into the world, tracking down the sisters, retracing his steps from high school to his final day on Earth. There are obstacles I need to work around (with the help of a side-kick, of course), not to mention the fear I need to overcome. But something drives me to answer the riddle, which says volumes about me. And what if all my detective work digs up something about John McLean that rocks my world in ways I never could have imagined?

Then, I’ve got a novel.

Story is answering the question: what happened? Supply an interesting premise with a universal theme (who hasn’t wanted to track down an old crush?), appealing characters, a mystery, and a quest that forces the protagonist to change, and you’re well on your way to keeping your readers burning the midnight oil.

Whatever happened to John McLean?

I’m hooked.

Is it just me?


  1. mydangblog says:

    No, you’ve got me hooked too! What are you going to do? He reminds me of someone I used to know and I’m invested in this too. Can’t wait for another installment!

  2. Tonya says:

    If writing this story helps you grow, it will help your readers grow, too… And hook them the way you’ve hooked us. 🙂

  3. Joan says:

    Got me interested!!!

    • Diane says:

      Ah-ha! Another one hooked. It occurred to me when I was searching online that this is exactly what happens when I’m reading. I just want to know what happened.

  4. Pearl Allard says:

    You had me at scar. (Maybe because I just finished reading Harry Potter…)

  5. Gale says:

    Hmmm… Just swimming along, enjoying the clear water, when … what’s that? Something suspended from higher up, something that looks interesting as it flutters past and darts back the other way like … Yeah, it’a a hook 🙂

  6. Anita Weisheit says:

    definitely a hook! i’ve got one like that too! i had a friend, mike, in college who i was absolutely over the moon for. we were both writers, and we both dumped our “safe career” majors to study literature. after i moved to wyoming we exchanged emails, letters, phone calls, until one day my christmas card came back return to sender, unopened. his email became obsolete, his phone number disconnected.

    to this day, i have no idea what happened to him. last i knew he’d moved to california and became a beach bum who loved surfing. maybe a shark ate him?

    • Diane says:

      That would definitely propel me to put on my sleuthing hat. Another great story in the making! I sense a theme here: high school crushes who vanish.

  7. Karen says:

    Hey!! loved loved reading this!

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