Sunday, December 31, 2006

Favorite Fictional Characters

I’ll talk about scenes tomorrow. Today I want to pick up on a thread from over on Razored Zen , where Charles has posted lists of his favorite fictional characters from books, and from movies and TV.

I found compiling this list fascinating. Some of my choices were givens, since they’re from my favorite books. Some are characters I’d like to be (or wanted to be when I was a child). Others—such as Conroy’s Bull Meecham, or Captain Jack Sparrow—are not necessarily likeable or even admirable people, but are such wonderful, memorable creations that I felt they belonged here. And I’m sure I’ve left off some great ones that just didn’t occur to me.

Another interesting thing about this list is that these “people” are, for the most part, characters I first encountered long ago. Many are characters that caught my imagination as a child to such an extent that I’m sure they influenced the person I grew up to be. Some are adventurers; a surprising number are cowboys/gunslingers. And as Basil Ratbane will doubtless note, less than half are women. Which leads to a question: Why do we, as writers, create so few truly memorable, inspiring female characters? Or rather, why do MALE writers create so few memorable female characters, since I note that all the female characters on my list were from books written by women.

From Literature
1. Francis Crawford of Lymond, from Dorothy Dunnett’s The Lymond Series
2. Philippa Somerville, from the same
3. Scout, from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
4. Hero Hollis, from M.M. Kaye’s Trade Wind
5. D’Artangnan, from Alexandre Dumas
6. Bull Meecham, from Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini
7. Brother Cadfael, from Ellis Peters’s medieval mystery series
8. The Kid, from Henry Herbert Knibbs’s The Ridin’ Kid from Powder River (What can I say? I LOVED that book as a child.)
9. Huck Finn, from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
10. Abbie, from LaVyrl Spencer’s Hummingbird
11. Shane, from Jack Shaefer’s book by the same name
12. Travis McGee, from John D. McDonald’s series (hey, it’s my list; I can have 12 if I want to)

From Movies and TV
1. James T. Kirk
2. Indiana Jones
3. Brett Maverick
4. Emma Peel
5. Captain Jack Sparrow, from Pirates of the Caribbean
6. Cher, from Clueless
7. The Cary Grant character from Father Goose
8. Chad Cooper, from Laredo
9. Paladin, from Have Gun, Will Travel
10. Alexander Mundy, from It Takes a Thief

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Constructing the Modern Scene

The scene as we know it in modern genre fiction is heavily influenced by Hollywood. Think about the nineteenth-century books you’ve read. The hero has a fight with his father, then he walks outside and talks to the gardener. He gets on his horse and rides along looking at the cows and corn until he gets to his aunt’s house, where he… You get the idea. Life in the 19th century novel flowed. Life in the 21st century genre novel is a series of quick, dramatic flashes. Scene One: The hero has a fight with his father. Cut. Open, Scene Two: The hero is in his aunt’s house…

How a writer handles his scenes can make a difference between a manuscript that sells, and one that gets a form rejection slip. Over the next few days, I’m going to be taking a look at scenes, how to set them up, and what they need to accomplish.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Story Arcs

(Above: Interior of St. Bartholomew-the-Great)

Much of my understanding of story arcs comes from reading how-to books written by screenwriters. Novelists can waffle all over the place and still succeed on the strength of their wonderful prose or unforgettable characters, but no one can nail a story’s structure like a good screenwriter. Moreover, Americans today spend so much time watching TV and movies that I think we're conditioned to stories told in a Hollywood-like framework (just as the length of the old 78 records conditioned us to the 3 minute song). So I advise anyone interested in writing genre fiction to read books by people like Syd Field and William Froug. (But no, you don’t want to be a screenwriter. As bad as the publishing industry is, the screenwriting business is even harder. And when they say they won’t look at a screenplay by anyone over 40, they mean it.)

The old rule of thumb is that the first quarter of your story should be devoted to “setup” or Act I; the next 5O% should be the middle of your book or Act II, while the last quarter of a book should be Act III, or the crises/climax/finale. But in my experience, if you follow that formula—whether you’re writing a screenplay or a novel—you risk writing a story with a very slow beginning. I also don’t like formulas. I think every story needs to find its own flow, its own balance. Nevertheless, people have been telling stories in three acts since Aristotle, so it’s obviously a useful concept to keep in mind.

Perhaps the most important contribution this whole Story Arc concept has made to my own writing is that thinking about it makes me take a step back from my manuscript and look at the story as a whole. It is very, very useful for a writer to ask herself things like, Does the tension keep increasing? The conflict? Do the stakes keep rising higher?

I also like the concept of “pinch points” and “plot points.” They remind me not to tell a story that’s too linear, and to space out my twists. The best stories go zinging off periodically in new, unexpected directions, like they’ve just been whacked by the flipper of a pinball machine. Think about the books you’ve read that somehow didn’t "feel right” to you. Sometimes it’s a failure in character. But often it’s the story arc that’s out of whack.

I don't know about you, but I'm getting fed up with plotting. Since I've now started writing the chapters for my proposal, I thought next time I'd talk about the concept of Scene and Sequel, which I suppose is a kind of plotting, but more organic to the writing process. A friend of mine, Charles Gramlich, has been talking about plotting over on Razored Zen . Now he's started a discussion about what he calls the "Periodic Writing Table," looking at the various elements of writing. Charles writes in the three genres that I don't read--science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I have read his short stories, so I know he's a terrific writer. But I didn't realize how terrific until I recently started his COLD IN THE LIGHT. It's taken me years to get up the courage to try it (I scare easily), which is a shame because it's a wonderful read. I'll be talking about it more when I finish it (which won't be until after the proposal is in!).

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Mechanics of Plotting

(Huck says, "So that's how you do it!")

Someone recently said to me, “You’ve talked a lot about the theory of plotting, but not the mechanics. How do you actually sit down and PLOT?”

Warning: Long Post. I use a mulit-tiered method in plotting my books. It’s a crazy system, but I’ve found it works for me. If you’re interested, here it is:

First, I brainstorm a scattering of possible scene ideas, suspects, secrets, plot twists, etc, jotting down my ideas in a notebook because I have a lousy memory. Sometimes I do this solo, but I find it works best with someone else. When my daughter Samantha was young, I used her as a sounding board. I can still remember mulling over plot problems in THE LAST KNIGHT with her, when she was in her early teens. (Back then, I didn’t do as much in-depth advance plotting, so those plot problems appeared when I was in the middle of writing the book.) Over the last few years, my husband, Steve, has become such an important part of my plotting process that I’d now have a hard time plotting without him.

When I’m ready to focus on the book (as in, Holy Shit! The proposal is due at the beginning of January!), I’ll have a more focused brainstorming session, when I try to finalize suspects, flesh out characters and conflicts, come up with the first ten or so scenes in the book, plus a few ideas for the middle and a very rough sketch of the climax. Then I sit down at the computer with my notes and type up lists of my characters, suspects, secrets, and plot twists as they’ve developed so far (I have terrible handwriting, and if I wait too long, I can’t read my own scribbles). I come up with names for my characters because names are important, and as long as I’m still calling characters things like The Pimp and The Thief, they don’t feel like real people (although their names frequently change, often several times). I also transfer my scene ideas to 3x5 cards, one card per scene, and shuffle the cards around into what seems like a logical order. Often I’ll even color-code scenes, using different colored note cards for each suspect, with another color—say, blue—for scenes from Sebastian’s personal life. I find that the first scenes typically fall easily into place, one behind the other. Often I’ll have the last five to ten also fairly well in focus. But I always have a pile of Floating Scenes I can’t yet see how to fit together.

I then sit down and type up a list of the scenes I have arranged in order so far. These descriptions are very brief, as in, “Scene One: Hero in refuge for ex-prostitutes talking to girl who seems to be high born when killers break in and massacre everyone. Hero survives by going out the window or something. Scene Two: Sebastian in a shop looking at guns when Hero comes up to him. At her insistence, they go for a drive in her carriage. She tells him about the murders, asks for his assistance, explains why. Scene Three: Sebastian goes to talk to Lovejoy…” Invariably, I also end up with a list of questions for my Floating Scenes that I’ll need to answer before I can put them in order, such as, “How does Sebastian learn about the third girl?” or, “How do Sebastian and Hero get lured into the trap?”

This probably sounds like a lot of “make work,” and in a sense it is. At this point, I’m mainly mulling over my characters, letting the story gel in my head, looking for problems. When I’m ready, I brainstorm some more, sorting out story problems I’ve discovered in the first part of the book, progressing the plot with another ten or twenty scenes, plus some more Floating Scenes I know will go somewhere later in the book. Then I go off and make more scene cards, shuffle them around, again look for problems, pay more attention to things such as story arc, plot points, etc. I keep doing this—alternating between scene cards, typed outline, and brainstorming, until I have a typed outline of the entire story.

Most writers on contract with a publishing house sell on proposal. When I was writing historical romances for Shauna Summers at Ballantine, I’d say, “I’d like to do my next book about a Victorian travel writer in the South Seas. The hero is an Australian renegade, and they get chased by cannibals and the British Navy—a kind of AFRICAN QUEEN meets FATHER GOOSE,” and Shauna would say, “Sounds great. Go for it.” That kind of freedom is rare. I now sell my mysteries on the basis of a formal proposal, which means 3 chapters (or 30-40 pages if the chapters are short, which mine are these days) plus a synopsis. With the book outlined scene by scene, the famously dreaded synopsis is actually very easy to write. I suspect it’s the need to submit a more formal proposal that has turned me into such an advance planner. Having now seen its benefits, I don’t think I could ever go back to the looser kind of outline I used to do.

I often wonder how seat-of-the-pants writers put together a proposal. Someone like James Lee Burke could just say, “I want to do another Robicheaux book,” and his editor would say, “Great. Go for it.” But what do the rest do—write the entire first draft and then write the proposal and send it in? A dangerous thing to do, since I’ve personally known two writers—successful, award-winning authors of more than ten books—who’ve had editors reject their proposals. That’s hard enough to take when you’ve invested months plotting out a book and writing the first chapters. But if you can only write when you can’t see where you’re going, you’d have to write the entire first draft before you could pull together a proposal. Having that rejected would really hurt.

I don’t want to suggest, of course, that my way of plotting is the only way to do it. It’s just the way I do it. I’ve heard of Plotters who use sticky notes and move them around on a bulletin board. Some use timelines. Some people use only note cards; others draw up meticulous outlines that run to 50 or 100 pages. Not only do they list each scene, but they outline each scene, too, in detail. At the risk of sounding like a Pantser, that would be overkill for me. And yet I actually did that a few years ago for one book—Confessions of a Dead Romance Writer (unfortunately still in search of a publisher)—and I had more fun writing that than I’ve ever had, by far.

But however much we do or don’t outline, at some point we all need to quit planning and just sit down and start writing the damn book already. And no matter how much advance plotting I’ve done, I still find that requires a scary leap of faith. Scary, but exciting.

Over the next few days, I’m going to be taking another look at plotting, first at the idea of story arcs and plot points, then at the concept of scene and sequel. And if you’re curious, the first scene of this book—new working title: WHERE DEMONS SLEEP—should be up on my website by the end of the week.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas from New Orleans

Yes, there still aren’t any curtains on any of the downstairs windows, and that strip of trim you can see along the top of the French doors in my office isn’t painted yet. And yes, the front arched window is still not trimmed out and there's no lamp shade and nothing is hung back on the walls. NEVERTHELESS, it felt wonderful to be celebrating Christmas in our own house this year.

My mother thinks we’re weird, but for several years now we’ve been wrapping our presents in brown paper with silver and gold ribbon (the packages with gold paper you can see are, ahem, for my mother). The electric train was one of Steve’s presents to me—he was paying attention to my sad tale a few weeks ago about how my dad gave away our electric train when we moved the summer I was eleven. It’s the first time in more years than I care to remember that I’ve found a toy for ME under the tree, and it was pretty neat. At the moment, it’s chug-chugging around the tree in a giant loop. Toot-toot.

Yes, conversation at our family’s big Christmas Eve get-together was still dominated by “So how’s your house coming?” conversations, but we did manage to talk about a few things besides Katrina this year. Despite everything—or, just maybe, because of everything—we’ve had a wonderful year.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Creating Suspects

(Above: Nick getting in the Christmas spirit.)

I've written books in three genres over the course of my career--romances, thrillers, and mysteries. Ironically, I find that romances and thrillers are plotted in very similar ways. Mysteries are a little different. But in all genres, the need for a satisfying story arc remains strong. As a book progresses, its characters become more emotionally involved in the action and the peril--whether to life or happiness--becomes more acute. It's like tightening a screw: with every twist of the wrist, the point bites deeper.

In many ways, suspects in a mystery are subplots. These are people with their own histories, their own agendas, their own goals, and their own secrets. Their stories flesh out a book, give it substance, and shine a new light of understanding on the life and character of our victim.

So how do I come up with these suspects? I look at my victim’s life, and the suspects grow naturally from there. If her life doesn’t seem to present enough suspects, I give her a more complicated life!

I then give each of these suspects at least one but preferably two or three deep, dark secrets. These secrets form an important part of the game that is a mystery, because it’s when we discover suspects are lying about something that they look “suspicious”—or at least more suspicious. Most people have aspects of their lives, past and present, which they’d rather keep hidden. (In fact, some people will kill to make sure their secrets stay secret.) These secrets are useful in another way, too, for they present opportunities to introduce “twists” into a story. The plot seems to be going in one direction; we discover a secret and—surprise—the story takes off on a new, unanticipated path.

One mistake some writers make is creating suspects who are too similar to each other. If my suspects are three young English lords, for instance, it’s hard for my readers to keep them straight. It’s also rather boring. But if my suspects are a lord, a pimp, and a thief, not only is each distinct in the reader’s mind, but their differences provide me with an opportunity to explore various aspects of life in Regency London. And as fascinating and fun as the clubs and ballrooms of Mayfair might be, I’ve discovered my readers also like learning about the seamier side of London.

One of the reasons I like planning a book in advance is that it gives me a chance to arrange my suspects—along with the unfolding of their secrets and the resultant plot twists—in a useful pattern throughout the book. That’s an important part of plotting any book, not just a mystery: creating a good story arc with well timed plot points. I plan to talk about that more after Christmas.

But for right now, I’m going to let you in on a secret. When I started plotting this book, I thought I knew who the killer was. But as I’ve worked my way through the story, learning more about my victim’s life, the suspects, and their secrets, I’ve changed my mind. It’s someone else,

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Plotting Murder

I don’t know how other writers go about plotting their murder investigations, but I use a variation on a childhood party game I think they call “hot potato.” I lay out a series of five or so suspects, each with their own secrets that they’re working hard to keep hidden. My hero’s investigation shines the light of suspicion on each. First, Colonel Mustard looks guilty. No, wait! It must be the Old Maid. No, no! It’s the Butler; I know it’s the Butler—and so on, until All Is Revealed at the End.

It’s a fun game, sort of like laying out a treasure hunt. But it all starts with the victim, and his—or her—life. Who is she, and what was going on in her life that made someone want to kill her?

There is a tendency, I’ve noticed, for mystery writers to create unlikable victims. The guy is such a lowlife and has so many people wanting to kill him, that I have a tendency to think, Good riddance! They should give whoever killed the jerk a medal, rather than sending him to prison for murder.

A turning point for me was my reading of Nelson DeMille’s THE GENERAL’S DAUGHTER. I’d never felt such sympathy for a murder victim, and it occurred to me that mystery writers were losing an opportunity to generate some powerful emotions by always making their victims nasty. It’s easier, obviously, to come up with a lot of people who want to kill a guy who’s embezzling his boss’s business, cheating his wife, beating his kids, and betraying his country (look at the long list of suspects with reasons to kill the nuked ex-spy in England) than it is to come up with suspects with a reason to kill a nice person.

So who is my murder victim? In this book, it’s the nineteen-year-old daughter of a man named Lord Basil Irving. How did she end up as a prostitute? Who wants to kill her, and why? Is it her father? Her ex-fiancé? A man who fell in love with her? The slimy owner of the brothel from which she fled? Or is it someone else entirely?

I’ll talk more about creating suspects next time.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Plotting Begins

(Above: Carlton House, now demolished.)

If you’ve been following this thread, you know that I am beginning the plotting of my fourth Sebastian St. Cyr book with three core Ideas: a historical event that actually occurred in London in the spring of 1812, certain developments in the gradually unfolding tale of Sebastian’s private life, and a spectacular murder.

The murder in this case is the brutal slaughter of eight former prostitutes in a house of refuge run by an old Quaker. Seven of these victims are simply collateral damage. The actual target of the attack is a young woman of nineteen who calls herself Ann Jones. The only witness to the murders is Hero Jarvis, the daughter of Sebastian’s nemesis, Charles, Lord Jarvis.

For me, the plotting process consists largely of asking a series of questions that flow inevitably from my initial ideas, then finding the most successful answers to those questions. The first, most obvious question is, What was Hero Jarvis doing at that house? The easy answer—that Hero was working with the women—I immediately reject. Hero is a strong-minded, independent woman with reformist ideas that trouble her father, but she is no Do Gooder. Thus, I realize I must take a closer look at Hero’s character in order to find the “right” answer.

After a bit of floundering, it comes to me. What if Hero is developing a theory—a theory that most women are drawn into a life of prostitution for economic reasons? She is researching this theory by interviewing the women at the house of refuge when the attack takes place and she barely escapes with her life. In fact, she is interviewing our intended victim, Ann Jones, when the house is hit. Yes, much better.

I remember reading once that a writer should automatically reject the first solution, the first character sketch, the first scene setup that leaps into his head, because that first concept is inevitably a cliché, or the obvious solution, or the expected. I’ve always found it a good piece of advice, but I don’t expect to be reminded of its importance again so soon, with my very next question.

I know I want Hero to ask for Sebastian’s help in solving this mystery, so the next obvious question is, Why does Hero go to Sebastian for help? Why not go to her father, the most powerful man in England behind the Regent himself?

The obvious answer is, Because she’s afraid to go to her father; he would disapprove of her working with prostitutes. The problem with that answer is that I see Hero as a strong, even headstrong, woman. Not only that, but for Hero to fail to step forward and provide evidence to a crime because she’s afraid of making Daddy angry would cast her in a despicable light.

For a while, I’m stumped, even panicked. I NEED Hero to go to Sebastian, but I can’t think of a good enough reason for her not to go to Jarvis instead. After banging my head against this locked door for days, it suddenly occurs to me: Hero does go to Jarvis! Of course Hero goes to Jarvis. Jarvis is the one, true to character, who squashes the official investigation into the murder because JARVIS doesn’t want the scandal. He sets one of his own men—the dastardly Colonel Epson-Smith we first meet in WHY MERMAIDS SING—to hunt down and destroy the men who endangered Hero’s life. But Hero doesn’t know this. And so, determined to find justice for the murdered women, Hero turns to Sebastian.

It occurs to me that one of the keys to successful plotting is to keep searching for explanations or developments that remain faithful to one’s characters. It’s one of the reasons I like plotting a book out in advance. If my writing had come to a screeching halt for days while I tried to come up with answers to these conundrums, I’d have been tempted to go with the easy solutions, the solutions that would have required me to play false with my characters. But since I hit those roadblocks at the plotting stage, I was able to just go around them and continue plotting other aspects of the story while waiting for the solutions to come.

Next time, I’ll talk about plotting the actual murder investigation.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Plotters vs. Seat-of-the-Pantsers

Writers typically fall into one of two camps: those who plot their books before they begin, and those who do not.

The latter types like to live dangerously and fly—or rather, write—by the seat of their pants. Believing that advance planning kills their muse and destroys their interest in a story, they jump in with little idea of where their story will go. In a romance, they’ll start with a “cute meet” and fumble their way forward from there. In a mystery, they don’t know ahead of time who will turn out to have committed the murder or why; sometimes they’re not even sure who—amidst all the characters magically appearing on their pages—will actually be the one to fall victim to a foul deed and start the mystery rolling.

In the hands of a master, this “winging it” approach can be highly successful: James Lee Burke, for instance, says he can never see more than two or three scenes ahead as he writes, yet what he produces is brilliant. Unfortunately, with many “Pantsers”, the result is all too often a wandering storyline, gaping plot holes, an unbalanced story arc, and a host of other dastardly results.

As you can see, I’m not a fan of this approach. Yes, it can work, and work well. Yes, there are best-selling writers who use this approach. But then, there are a lot of books published every year—including best-sellers—that I find just don’t hold my attention. And you know what? I’ve discovered, after a little bit of digging, that most of the writers whose books I put down are Pantsers rather than Plotters. Now, that might tell you more about me as a reader than anything else—unless I’m reading something beautifully literary, I like a tightly knit, well-constructed book with a good story arc. There are obviously many readers who don’t mind a more rambling, casual, disjointed tale. The Pantsers are for them.

If a recent discussion on the DorothyL mystery listserv is anything to go by, a surprising number of mystery writers—like romance writers—use the Pantsers’ approach. There seems to be something about the act of plotting out a story in advance that kills their joy in writing it. Some Pantsers do massive rewrites to pull their ramblings into something cohesive—and publishable. Others seem to be able to tap into their subconscious so successfully that they claim their books require almost no rewriting. There’s a lot of New Age-like talk about whether Plotters are left-brained or right-brained, but the discussion is seldom flattering to the Plotters. Plotting is often portrayed as plodding and pedestrian; the antithesis of creative; Pantsers typically see themselves as the truly creative ones, giving birth to an almost mystical product.

Frankly, I’ve never been able to decide if I’m left or right brained. I am very analytical and very methodical—I was, after all, an academic. Yet I’m also very creative—for many years I planned to become a professional artist. One of the reasons I like plotting my books out in advance is that it gets all that analytical stuff out of the way, so that when I sit down to actually write, I can just relax and let the story flow without worrying about structure.

Incidentally, there is a third kind of writer. These people never plot anything out on paper, and they don’t use notecards or post-it notes. But they’ve given so much thought to their story before they begin that they already know their story arc, their key scenes and major characters. They may not be plotters in the traditional sense of the word, but I don’t think they can really claim to be writing by the seats of their pants, either. They just have amazing memories. I’m not one of them.

Next time, we finally get to roll up our sleeves and have fun. The plotting begins.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Core Ideas

(Above: St. Martin's Lane, from an old Victorian print)

WHERE DRAGONS LIVE (working title) will be the fourth book in my Sebastian St. Cyr Regency mystery series. Before I ever sat down to write Sebastian’s first book, WHAT ANGLES FEAR, I knew I wanted to write a series. I decided that while each book would be a stand-alone mystery, I wanted the series to also have an overarching storyline of its own. As readers of the series know, all is not as it seems in Sebastian’s life. With each book, that mystery unfolds a little bit more.

I also decided that I would peg many of the mysteries in the series to actual historical events that were occurring in Regency London at the time. Thus, the plot of the first book is closely tied to the proclamation of the Regency in the winter of 1811; the plot of the second book is influenced by the gloomy reports from the warfront in the summer of that year, and the plot of this fourth book is strongly linked to an event that occurred in the spring of 1812. And no, I can’t tell you what that event was, because it would ruin the end of the book.

My plotting of WHERE DRAGONS LIVE thus began with two Ideas: that unnamed Historical Event, and the next steps in the pre-planned evolution of the mystery of Sebastian’s private life, including his troubled relationship with his father, his ill-fated love affair with the actress and French spy, Kat Boleyn, and his long-standing feud with his nemesis, Charles, Lord Jarvis. At this point you’re probably saying, But where’s the victim? Where’s the murder?

Believe it or not, the Idea for the murder was actually the third addition to this brew. It took me a while to come up with it, but I think it’s a good one: the brutal slaughter of eight former prostitutes in a house of refuge run by an old Quaker. The only witness: Hero Jarvis, daughter of Lord Jarvis.

This is where my thinking about the story starts taking off, as I set about answering all the questions that now arise, such as, What in the world was Hero Jarvis doing with a bunch of ladies of the night? and (of course) Who killed them? Why? And what does any of this have to do with the Historical Event of the spring of 1812 that will form the end of the book?

Soon, I’ll talk about how I go about answering those questions. But tomorrow I’m going to bravely wade into that raging, age-old debate: plotting vs. writing “by the seat of one’s pants.”

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Where Do You Start?

All books begin with a core Idea—some spark that makes the writer think—or say—Hey, that’d make a great book! But the best books, in my experience, actually come from the conjunction of two or three separate Ideas that capture a writer’s imagination. The ugly truth is that one Idea, by itself, is usually too thin to carry a book to its conclusion and sustain reader interest to the end.

So what do I mean by an Idea? Even when we’re talking about books, it’s usually easier to use movies as examples because the unfortunate truth is that more people see a given movie than read a given book. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC, for instance, is the joining together of three main Ideas: 1) a conscious decision on the part of its authors to recreate an old-fashioned adventure tale complete with a classic clash of good and evil; 2) a swashbuckling archaeologist hero; and 3) a Nazi attempt to gain control of the lost arc of the covenant.

This is typical. One of the initial Ideas to grab a writer’s imagination is often a Colorful Character (Indiana Jones), while another is a Intriguing Situation, or Mystery, or Struggle (in this case, the race to find the arc of the covenant). A third or fourth Idea, if present, is usually for a significant complication or Subplot (the relationship between Indie and Marion), an unusual or spectacular Setting (Nepal; Egypt), or—as in the case of RAIDERS—a conscious decision to retell a fairy tale or classic construction--what I like to call a Plot Frame. I'll talk more about Plot Frames later.

The idea for my own WHAT ANGELS FEAR began with an intriguing Character—my hero, Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin—and a Plot Frame I call the Innocent Man Accused of a Crime. To this I added a Intriguing Situation—the discovery of a young woman raped and murdered on the altar steps of a church—and two other elements that appealed to me: the involvement of Sebastian’s own father in the crime, and a Machiavellian powerbroker who moves through the shadows. I also knew I wanted a strong Subplot involving the French, and Sebastian’s relationship with a woman from his past. All these Ideas were buzzing around in my head for several years before I ever sat down to plot WHAT ANGELS FEAR.

But as a mystery series progresses, the time allotted for this leisurely brewing of plot lessens, as do the options. The series writer finds herself with a pre-existing cast of main characters as well as a new set of constraints: Is this murder too much like the last one? or, Oh, wait; I can’t have a chase through the sewers; I did that already in book number two. And so on. These constraints—and the time pressure to get a new proposal in by January 1—change the plotting process slightly. But only slightly.

Next time, I’ll talk about the Ideas that form the genesis of WHERE DRAGONS LIVE.

Friday, December 15, 2006


(Huck says, I think I'll just take a nap, okay?)

This is my favorite part of the writing process: plotting. It’s fun. I can’t say it’s “pure” fun, because there’s still angst and frustration and worry involved, but this is the stage at which I get excited, I laugh, I first experience the wonderful bubbling surge of energy and passion that will carry me through the next 10-12 months of actual writing.

WHERE DRAGONS LIVE is the working title of what will be the fourth book in my Sebastian St. Cyr Historical Mystery Series. I know I won’t be able to keep this title because the word “dragons” makes the book sound like a fantasy rather than a Regency mystery. But I need something to call it other than The Book, so until I come up with something the marketing department will like better, WDL it is.

All writers do some things well by instinct, while other aspects of their craft are learned. I’ve been told I create wonderful, memorable characters; it’s one of the things I do by instinct and as a result I would have a hard time ever writing an article entitled “How To Create Memorable Characters.” But when I first started writing, I wrestled with the plotting stage. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past fifteen or more years reading about plotting and thinking about plotting. As a result, I could write an entire book on the subject.

I won’t bore you to that extent, but over the next week or so I thought I’d take you along on my plotting odyssey.

Bon voyage.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Goodbye, Balis Drive

Yesterday marked a milestone of sorts for me: we drove up to Baton Rouge and cleaned out the storage room we rented in the dark days after Katrina, when we needed someplace to go with the items we were salvaging from our flooded house. There was a time when the unit was packed, although in the last few months its contents have dwindled to a few boxes and a table a friend salvaged from her flooded Midcity pied-a-terre. We still have another storage room, here in New Orleans, but because we rented it before the storm when Steve and I were combining our two houses, its existence is not as permeated with Katrina-trauma.

Just driving into that section of Baton Rouge behind Albertson’s and Wal-Mart has a nasty effect on my physiology. My stomach begins to churn, my heart pounds, my breath grows rapid and shallow—the full gamut of what one clever writer called “cardiopulmonary hyperbole.” Unfortunately, there is no original way to describe the way the human body reacts to stress, and every time I drive down those streets, I’m transported back to the fall of 2005, headed back to Sam’s apartment after another long, exhausting, heartbreaking day spent gutting our house, the rear of the SUV stuffed with another load of books, china, lamps, odd bits of furniture.

I hope I never have to go there again.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Pushing My Buttons

The Internet can be a wonderful tool for disseminating information and ideas that never make it into the mainstream American news media, controlled as it is by large corporations with powerful political agendas of their own. It serves an even more valuable function in countries such as China, where governmental power over the media is overt. Unfortunately, the Internet can spread insidious lies just as easily as it can broadcast the truth.

This week, such a lie, entitled “Australia’s ‘Politically Incorrect’ Stance on Islamism,” landed in my inbox. It was sent to me by a nice, if somewhat naïve lady who obviously doesn’t know me well enough to know that this screed, far from meeting with my approval, punched half a dozen of my red-hot buttons (religious arrogance and intolerance, racial bigotry, the distortion of history, fear mongering, etc, etc). Because I was very busy and not in the best of moods (I’ve been reorganizing flooded files and dealing with a year-and-a-half’s worth of important papers that, for lack of a file cabinet, have simply been thrown into bankers boxes), I fired off a rather heated response, and then went back to what I was doing.

I know, I know. After all these years, I ought to be wiser. But it seems I never learn to stop, take a deep breath, swallow my passions, and react calmly and tactfully. Every time I fly off the handle like that, I think, “Next time…” Except of course that "next time" my passions will take over and I’ll react exactly the same way. Those who like me in spite of this fault find it amusing. Those who don’t…well, I guess they avoid me.

After receiving a hurt, indignant reply from this lady, I went back and took another look at what she’d sent me. Skimming this “news report” the first time, I had taken it at face value. I love Australia, but I do not love the present prime minister, who uses racism and bigotry to whip up support for a disastrous foreign policy and has set back multiculturalism in Australia by some 40 years. But on a second, more careful reading, I realized the “news report” was a fake.

I spent a total of 12 years living in Australia: a year in Sydney, 11 years in Adelaide. Australia is a determinedly secular state, so the lines about the country being “founded by Christians” on “Christian principles” whose “words” are “on the walls of our schools” rang a decidedly false note with me. Then a reference to “Our Pledge” made me laugh. Australians don’t have a “Pledge.” So I pulled a line out of the “news article” and Googled it. Up came hundreds upon hundreds—if not thousands—of earnest blogs, all carrying the “news report” and all parroting the same line: Look what the Aussies have said! If only our country would do this!

The problem is that the “news release” is a hoax, a lie. And yet, as we speak, tens of thousands of gullible people are emailing it to their friends as an example of what “we” ought to do. Suddenly, it wasn’t funny any more. It was scary.

Rather than being an official statement of Australian government policy released “last Wednesday,” this hoax was actually cobbled together from random statements made by Howard and three other members of his government last year in interviews held in the wake of the London bombings. Into these cherry-picked and often distorted quotes, our fabricator then added other lines that no Australian (except maybe Pauline Hanson and some of the neo-Nazi lunatic fringe) would ever say. Then he or she sent this lie out onto the Internet, where it has taken on a life of its own.

Although I am a historian who has studied and taught twentieth-century history, I’ve always had a hard time understanding how the mindless hatred, bigotry, and intolerance of Nazism managed to sweep Germany after World War I. I don't find it so hard any more. Some might find that statement outrageous, but please note I didn't say that's where we are; I'm simply saying that today's climate helps me understand what happened, then, a bit better.

And understanding is a good if sometimes scary thing.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Learning from LOST

I’ve recently been hooked by the TV series LOST. Over Thanksgiving weekend, my daughters were doing marathon viewing sessions of the first two seasons, and I made the mistake of wandering in to sit by them for a while. I had meant to work on my Christmas cards. Instead, I found my eyes straying more and more to the TV screen, until I finally gave up all pretenses of working on the cards.

I’m not much of a TV person. I watch a few episodes of WITHOUT A TRACE a year, and that’s about it. Of course, the nice thing about watching a TV program the way we did is that you’re not annoyed by commercials (for which I have no patience). But I think I would have been impressed by the program even without that luxury. Not only are the episodes well written and well acted, but I think the series has much to teach storytellers in any medium about characterization, pacing, tension, and suspense.

One of the things I found the most fascinating about the series was the way the writers handled the characters. When I analyzed what sucked me into the program, I decided it was the characters—the desire to know more about them, to understand them better, to see what happened to him. The show is a brilliant study in effective characterization.

These are fully rounded, multi-dimensional characters. Like all of us, none of the characters are all good or all bad. All have their virtues, all have their failings. Most TV characters are simply characterizations—villains with few or no redeeming features, heroes who are always noble, always self-sacrificing, always calm and courageous, always PERFECT. The characters on LOST are far from perfect. In fact, a member of my Monday night writing group doesn’t like the show for that reason—he likes to have a good, old-fashioned hero. And I must admit, I found myself wishing for just one calm, level-headed “hero” I could rely upon. But then I realized a hero would have ruined the show. These characters need to fumble their way forward, with all their flaws. They need to work their own problems out; if they had a “hero” to organize things for them, think for them, control them, the story would be ruined.

When I’m reading, I find I’ll often put a book down if I don’t like the main character to the extent that I don’t care what happens to them. Of course, in LOST, there is no “main” character; it’s an ensemble cast. So while it’s good to be reminded that characters can have flaws and still be attractive and compelling, I’m not sure a cast of such flawed characters would work in a book. What do you think?

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Lights of Winter's Chill

(Press says, "This tree ritual is strange, but I like it.)

It got down to 36 degrees here in New Orleans last night. To understand what a shock that is to my system, I should add that just last week I was wearing short-sleeved t-shirts and had the ceiling fans on in my house. Brrr.

I’ve been busy doing the revisions for the third book in my Sebastian St. Cyr series, WHY MERMAIDS SING. This is another one of the stages in writing a book that I hate. I get the manuscript back from my editor and she says, “I love it, but…” Her BUTS are always perfectly valid—she’s a wonderful, insightful editor. Yet following through on her suggestions is sheer hell. The scenes of my books are carefully constructed so that one flows intrinsically into the next. The need to go back and add new scenes wrecks havoc with that interlocking system. The book is always better in the long run, but getting it there gives me fits.

So I played hooky yesterday and started putting out Christmas decorations. A nice interlude, although I found my thoughts drifting, inevitably, to last Christmas. Last year when we were rebuilding our house, our decorations were limited to a wreath I hung on the gate in an odd gesture of defiance (I say “odd” because I’m not sure what I was defying. The destructive power of nature, perhaps? The corrupt idiocy of our government?). It was the only Christmas decoration on the street and it looked kinda strange, amidst all the devastation. We did put up a tree last year, but at my mother’s house. Last year, only two places in town had trees to sell—small shipments that were gone in an instant, so we were very lucky to snag one (FEMA had commandeered all the trucks, and no one could get workers to man their lots anyway). We were so busy that if it had been up to me I probably would have skipped Christmas. But I went through the motions for my girls, and in the end I was glad I did.

Last night, Danielle’s choir was singing at Celebration in the Oaks. For those unfamiliar with New Orleans, Celebration in the Oaks used to be a big moneymaker for City Park (which, despite its name, gets no revenue from the city of New Orleans). There were always two parts: a Walking Tour in the Botanic Gardens, and a Driving Tour through the Park itself, with a fantasyland of lights twinkling magically through moss-draped live oaks. They still haven’t been able to get the Driving Tour through the Park itself back up. But while the Botanic Gardens suffered terribly from the flood, they have made amazing progress bringing it back, and the Walking Tour was if anything more beautiful than ever. There was a cold, bitter wind blowing last night, but I am glad we had the opportunity to go, both to support City Park and because, despite the cold, I left with a warm glow in my heart. Slowly but surely, this city is coming back.