Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: What Kind of Trip is It?

Tarifa, Spain

Authors are praised for strong, vivid writing that makes their settings seem “just like another character.” The Virginia countryside of SA Crosby, Val McDermid’s remote reaches of Scotland, a gritty part of Philadelphia in Liz Moore’s Long, Bright River, the barren Utah countryside in The Never-Open Desert Diner by James Anderson.

Yet, our characters are not necessarily glued to one place. Many stories take them away from the familiar, detailed world that’s been established and put them on the road. There may be too little time/space to develop a complete, three-dimensional picture of these secondary settings. This is where you need a few telling details.

You can think of such a destination as a bare-bones stage set, and the writer embellishes it selectively and, to some extent, quite naturally. If there’s danger, there might be the smell of garbage, trash in the streets, ominous sounds (or even more ominous quiet), streetlights blinking out. If there’s romance, there may be beaches and outdoor cafes and bright colors. Ideas about which aspects of a place to describe and how to describe them come from the place, from the character, and from the character’s purpose in being there. These descriptors need to be tightly connected to all three or they risk feeling arbitrary or superficial.

The protagonist, of my forthcoming novel, Manhattan architect Archer Landis, travels to Brussels for work and to Tarifa, Spain, for powerful personal reasons. In Brussels, he has to get a job done. He is organized, deliberate in the parts of the city he chooses to see. But in Spain, he can’t escape the emotional reasons motivating his trip, which calls for a different type of details. Food and street life and contemplation-inspiring vistas are emphasized, as opposed to the newspapers and briefcases and cabs of Brussels.

Even though I’ve been to Tarifa, the geo-linked photos that people post in Google maps were helpful reminders—whitewashed walls, narrow brick streets, flowering plants in clay pots, wrought iron balconies. These were among the features an architect like Archer Landis would notice. If he’d trained as a Navy Seal, there would have been a totally different significance to the claustrophobic streets, the balcony shutters standing ajar (a hidden watcher?), the low-rise, flat-roofed buildings, perfect for snipers.

In my story, these elements were easily worked into the action. For example, Landis naturally notices how the whitewashed buildings bring light into the narrow streets; when his trip is going badly, he hates the red geraniums’ aggressive cheerfulness. Looking across the patio of their penthouse suite, Landis notices the tightly packed buildings, and how hard it will be to find whom they’re looking for. By contrast, his friend and bodyguard Carlos notices how easy it would be to jump from one of these other roofs to theirs.

This is a reconsideration of this issue of setting, which I’ve gone back to now that the publication of Architect of Courage is scheduled for 4 June!

Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: Seeing the World through a Character’s Eyes

Writing about Manhattan-based architect Archer Landis in Architect of Courage, I had to try to think like he does. Not only does that mean jumping the gender divide, it means bringing to the fore all my instincts about design (my mom was an artist) and my opinions what it takes to be a responsible architect today. Luckily, I’ve subscribed to Metropolis magazine for decades and watched the field’s attention warm to green design, then to sustainability, and, the concern of my post-9/11 character, security.

How can design make buildings safer? In the novel, Archer Landis travels from New York to Brussels to visit the site one of his firm’s major design projects about to break ground. It’s the redesign of a major station in the city’s rail and subway system. The station I chose for his firm to work on was Schuman station, located in the heart of Brussels’ European Union district. Aside from strictly architectural considerations, he faces two major challenges.

Foremost, Landis is worried about terrorism, and he wants to be sure there’s nothing about his firm’s design that makes it more vulnerable. Would a glass canopy make terrorists think access is simple, or that they are too easily scrutinized? I incorporated Schuman station into the novel early on, and had thought a lot about its attractiveness as a target. Nevertheless, I was shocked when, on the morning of March 22, 2016, in real life, suicide bombers attacked Maalbeek metro station, one stop west of Schuman. In this coordinated attack, 35 people were killed and more than 300 injured. I could only wish my fictional choice wasn’t so plausible.

Landis’s second concern arises from protests at the site. Construction will involve removal of a building regarded as “Belgium’s Stonewall,” where a young gay activist was killed some years earlier (again, in real life). The protests seem manageable, and Landis doesn’t immediately realize the danger associated with them.

Eventually, of course, he must deal with both of these dilemmas. I find the melding of fiction and reality a challenge that, for me at least, brings a story vividly to life. To write about Brussels, a city where I’ve never been, I used several detailed maps of the city center and the EU district, and walked the streets with the little Google maps guy. I studied the websites of hotels near Schuman station, restaurant menus, and news outlets, as well as the station itself, which had indeed undergone a major renovation, thoroughly described and dissected online. The availability of that information to me, to you, and to anyone, led to a major epiphany for my fictional architect, in this era of endless information and unpredictable risk.

Architect of Courage is scheduled to be published 4 June 2022.

Where Do Writers’ Ideas Come From? Who Are These Women?

Archer Landis, the Manhattan architect at the center of my forthcoming novel, Architect of Courage (publication date: June 4), has been married and faithful to his wife Marjorie for thirty-odd years. But Julia Fernández, a new associate in his firm, has unexpectedly stolen his heart.

In my manuscript, describing these two women and their worlds didn’t happen all at once. At first, my thoughts were akin to a pencil sketch I kept going back to—adding, subtracting, refining, and shaping details—so that their ultimate descriptions show them to be distinct three-dimensional characters. Writing the book’s early drafts, I did not understand them well enough to do that.

Where They Live

In the novel’s first chapter, you see Julia’s Chelsea apartment as Archer, with his strong design sensibility, sees it. He appreciates all the references to her Spanish origins—the sangria-colored walls, the chaise longues upholstered in deep carmine velvet, the glittering matador suit on display. “It would require all his French curves and a full palette of rose and violet pigments to reproduce the effect.”

In sharp contrast, Archer and Marjorie’s penthouse in an Upper East Side high-rise is light-filled, with floor-to-ceiling windows and views of the East River. All straight lines and pale gray walls, white leather upholstery, with a painting by Joan Miró providing only “a confetti of color.” A totally different woman lives there.

What They Wear

Archer thinks of Julia as the bright bird in his office. She wears simple silk dresses in shades like watermelon pink, lime, and saffron. She has licorice-colored hair. You get the picture. In Landis’s eyes, she’s delicious.

Marjorie wears long knitted skirts and tunics with drapey attached scarves in the palest rose, taupe, beige, and off-white. Colors so faint that, over successive scenes, Archer cannot always identify what they are.

How He Feels about Them

My intent is that these details say much more about the differences between Julia and Marjorie than their taste in interior decorating and clothing. Much later in the book, Landis muses on his love for them both, calling Julia his dazzling sun, and Marjorie his moon, the one who could regulate the tides within him and light the darkness. This analogy (I hope) recalls to the reader the earlier evocative descriptions constructed from specific details.

Beyond the Superficial

When a new character is introduced in a story, the standard inventories (height, hair, eye-color, clothing, voice) tend to be flat and uninteresting. They read like the author is ticking the boxes. They’re nothing like the telling details that reflect the real person and help illuminate their character.

Here’s Flannery O’Connor’s description of a woman at the beginning of her short story, “Parker’s Back.” O’Connor starts by having the woman doing something (snapping beans), rather than stopping the story action while Mrs. Parker stands there, as if waiting to have her photo taken. Then “She was plain, plain. The skin on her face was thin and drawn as tight as the skin on an onion and her eyes were gray and sharp like the points of two icepicks.” From these 35 words, you learn as much about Mrs. P. as a person as you do about how she looks. Such insightful descriptions are something to aspire to!

A Story too Tragic to Write?

How can a writer depict events based on real tragedies without becomng exploitative? A good example of a story that might be difficult to fictionalize is described in Oscar Schwartz’s story in the February issue of Wired. It recounts the sad case of Australian mother Kathleen Folbigg convicted in the crib deaths of her four children.

After a seven-week trial, she was found guilty of murdering Patrick (who died at eight months), Sarah (ten months), and Laura (nineteen months) and guilty of manslaughter in the death of Caleb (nineteen days). She was sentenced to forty years in prison, subsequently reduced to thirty years. Her time in prison is spent in protective custody, to avoid violence by other inmates.

From the beginning, Folbigg has maintained her innocence. Recent scientific advances support her “natural causes” defense, especially accumulating knowledge about how mutation in the CALM2 gene—a mutation Folbigg and her two daughters all carried—affects heart rhythm. Her sons also carried dangerous genetic mutations in the gene BSN and were known to have health problems. Autopsies revealed that none of the children showed any sign of being smothered.

In 2018, these advances in genetic understanding were presented to a New South Wales court, and the Wired article focuses on the sharp division within the scientific reviewers, one team based in Sydney and the other in Canberra. At the outset, Schwartz says, “the Sydney geneticists were looking for near certainty that a genetic flaw had killed the children, rather than merely reasonable doubt as to whether their mother was the culprit.” As evidence accumulated over time, the Sydney group didn’t budge. Eventually, the presiding judicial officer made his decision: “I prefer the expertise and evidence of [the Sydney team].” Prefer? That’s a strange way for a non-scientist to pick and choose among the facts presented.

The diaries Folbigg wrote when she was depressed and frantic about her children’s deaths didn’t help her, either. Though her entries were subject to many interpretations, again the prosecution had a “preferred” one. As of 2022, more than a hundred eminent scientists have signed onto a petition calling for Folbigg’s pardon, citing scientific and medical explanations for each of her children’s deaths.

In the original trial, the prosecution echoed the logic of the discredited statistical argument of pediatrician Roy Meadow, which long held sway in British courts, that “One sudden infant death is a tragedy, two is suspicious, and three is murder, until proven otherwise.”

The use of faulty statistics in cases of multiple crib deaths was dealt with quite handily in Michael Carter’s The Mathematical Murder of Innocence. In that novel, a statistics-savvy juror eviscerates the prosecution’s case against a mother who lost two infant children. That book was based on the real-life cases of British women later deemed to have been wrongfully convicted. Sally Clark, the most famous of these mothers, never recovered from the psychological trauma of losing her children, followed by her unjust conviction, and died of acute alcohol poisoning four years after her release from prison.

Perhaps Carter made a good choice in putting the narrative burden on an outsider (the juror), rather than one of the more immediate participants. The mother’s point of view would be too heart-rending, and the lawyers might come across as biased, one way or the other. In the Folbigg case, even the scientists ended up taking sides. The problem with sides is that a story risks becoming too polemical, focused on constructing arguments, rather than understanding hearts. These are compelling stories, but difficult to handle well.

Where Do Writers’ Ideas Come From? Why an Architect – Take 2

The protagonist of my novel, Architect of Courage (AofC), scheduled for publication June 4, has lived in my head so long, it’s hard to remember when he wasn’t with me. Or, for that matter, where he came from. I wrote a version of this post 18 months ago, but now that the book’s publication date is nearing, it’s time for an update.

One aspect of the choice, is that I didn’t want the story to be about a cop or a p.i., or a former CIA officer–I wanted an everyman. The kind of “ordinary” person who lands in extraordinary circumstances. How such a person deals with trauma and fear is and carries on despite them is of great interest to me. A person whose world is literally “upside down.”

n AofC, Archer Landis recalls a childhood doing a lot of what I had to do, tromping around housing developments, being disappointed in what was on offer. So he created his own design for “the perfect house,” which his parents had built and lived in the rest of their lives. He has this sketch framed in his office, and as the story proceeds, his feelings about it and what it represents change markedly.

In college I lurked around the studios in the architecture school, fascinated by the students’ model buildings and the smell of sharpened pencils, rubber cement, clay. A scene in the novel has Landis ruminating on that kind of by-hand work versus today’s 3-D printing. Decades later, I’m still a rubber cement kind of gal.

Landis is confronted with people who are his symbolic opposite. He wants to build; they want to destroy. Their destructiveness affects him directly, personally and professionally, and threatens his family, his business, his life.

To write about Landis, I had to try to see the world through his eyes, an architect’s eyes—the things he notices, how he approaches relationships, the way he circles back to the touchstone of his calling. Straightedges and French curves and stone samples. Also, quite a lot of the story takes place at his office—interactions with staff, police visits, coping. While I tried hard, I had to make sure the world I’d created rang true, and I asked a prominent architect to read an advance copy. Ralph Hawkins, FAIA, Chairman Emeritus of HKS, Inc., one of the nation’s largest architectural firms read it and, thankfully, not only survived the experience without tearing out his hair, but gave it a nice blurb too!

Photo: Elmgreen & Dragset, The Hive, 2020, stainless steel, aluminum, polycarbonate, LED lights, and lacquer, commissioned by Empire State Development in partnership with Public Art Fund for Moynihan Train Hall, Photo: Nicholas Knight, courtesy Empire State Development and Public Art Fund, NY. See it!

“How Fun!” Language Evolves

Today, on International Mother Language Day, we pay tribute to our first languages, the ones our mothers cooed to us in our cradles. Why I didn’t grow up with a West Texas accent is a mystery. As Visual Thesaurus writer Orin Hargraves says, the term “mother language” also suggests “the source, inspiration, or protector of something”—in this case, the valuable developmental skill of communication.

Lots of online commentary—snarky Facebook posts, helpful grammar websites—tackle the topic of “correct” language. But what is correct, under what set of rules? For writers of fiction, not just the grammar characters use, but also the word choices, diction, and rhythm of speech support development of distinctive voices.

S.A. Cosby’s wonderful Razorblade Tears meticulously captures the small-town Virginia speech patterns of the Black protagonist, Ike, as well as his down-and-out white partner in crime, Buddy Lee. Stephen Graham Jones creates a pitch-perfect rendering of the rhythm of Blackfeet tribe members’ speech in The Only Good Indians. (I read audio versions of both these memorable books, in which the language was further elevated by the quality of the narration.)

In Anglophone countries, “Standard English” is what educated white people speak. But even in England, many people don’t speak it. Just ask Henry Higgins. Like him, critics of people who speak nonstandard English are affronted by perceived lapses. “The ways in which some white speakers feel licensed to disparage black speech,” Hargraves says, “is not different in kind from the way the Britons, starting in the 1600s, disparaged the speech of Americans.”

Like all languages, English evolves. Reading novels from the 18th, 19th, and even the early 20th century demonstrates how vastly different are today’s ways of expressing ourselves. My story “The Adventure at Sparremere Hall” is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and part of the challenge of writing itwas to immerse myself in the loquacious, roundabout style of John Watson who “wrote” more than a hundred years ago. Here’s a short paragraph. “This looks promising, I thought, and with a breath of anticipation, I slit the envelope with my paper knife. The letter was indeed intriguing, and when I came to the end I was quite uncertain how the great detective would react to it.” Today, we’d say, “There’s an intriguing letter here, Holmes. Listen up.” This is to say, what is the “correct” or “ideal” English speakers should aspire to? The expression “how fun!” first struck me as awkward and ungrammatical. But it’s useful, and everyone understands what I mean.

Although many people decry nonstandard English, Hargraves points out that dialects and vernacular speech do follow rules, just a different set of them. The people who speak those variants know their rules, which is essential in order for them to communicate with others who share that dialect. Consensus wins out in a population of speakers, Hargraves says, and “the way most people in a community speak has a way of becoming the way that everyone speaks.”

From a writer’s point of view, it isn’t possible to merely throw in a few “ain’ts” or drop a few “g’s” in order to establish a rural character. You have to develop an ear for it, to feel it, like Cosby and Jones do. Then the reader will feel it too.

Can Hardware Help You Write?

Discussion boards for fiction writers frequently discuss book-writing software, and writers weigh in on their favorites—Scrivener, Final Draft, and others, including LivingWriter, which was named “Best Book Writing Software of 2021” by Ameridian. These programs are designed to overcome the shortcomings of “the No. 2 pencil of the digital age”—that is, Word. Word, some authors say, is simply not designed for them, with its distracting toolbars, its ease of making changes that invites endless revisions, the hyperlinks that encourage disappearing down research rabbit-holes. Could “distraction-free” writing apps help?

Is it time for a rethink of the whole word processing thing? In a recent New Yorker article, Julian Lucas seems to say “yes,” and he’s not the only one. The industry has heard the complaints—even shares them—and has responded with focused writing tools and devices. For example, some have developed tools that make it harder to make constant revisions, in some cases going so far as to eliminate the backspace key. (Yet, I’m reminded of why the ability to make changes is so valuable. In her letters, Flannery O’Connor, miserable with lupus, repeatedly complained about needing to retype whole novels in order to accommodate her changes.)

In general, these new writing devices are stripped-down. Distractions discarded. Lucas’s first such device was the Swiss-developed iA Writer. It was designed to do one thing right—write. Or, as its developer hoped, “eliminating the agony of choice.”

The Freewrite Smart Typewriter (pictured above) is a stand-alone word processor that shows only ten lines of text at a time. Rewriting as you go is difficult. The machine encourages you to just keep going. Text is saved to the cloud and synced with your “real” computer for later editing.

If you like to mark up your text with scribbles, arrows, and underlines, word processing is a clunky way to do it. The reMarkable is “digital paper” that responds to a special stylus, “a computer disguised as a non-computer,” Lucas says. Call it an antidote to distraction, as described in this promotional video. Apparently academics especially are attracted to the improved mental focus and are taking up the remarkable. Competitors are appearing.

Lucas’s article contains more examples of dedicated work-processing hardware, as companies try to adapt writing devices “to our selves and to our circumstances.” For myself, I’ve never thought of distraction as a problem. When I’m in the middle of writing and need to look something up, I switch over to the Internet to answer my question and learn more. Not doing so is a little niggling loose end that’s more distracting than the menus and toolbars. Everyone has to find their own best toolkit.

The Short Story Four-Minute Mile

Sherlock Holmes

Half-finished in a Word file on my computer is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche story, the second one I’ve written. What I hadn’t realized is that my two stories follow a very well-trodden path laid by Arthur Conan Doyle and followed by Holmes acolytes ever since.

In a Sisters in Crime webinar last week with short story dream team Art Taylor and Barb Goffman, Art presented the classic seven-part structure of a Sherlock Holmes story (which he credited to the apparently out-of-print book, Sherlock Holmes for Dummies). Through some process of osmosis, it seems I’d absorbed and followed at least the first few of those parts: Part 1 – cozy domestic scene; Part 2 – Sherlock shows off; Part 3 – the problem is presented. In my first Holmes story, the problem arrived by letter; in the new one, via a distraught Mrs. Hudson. Structural awareness greatly simplifies the writing job and prevents wandering about in rhetorical left field. I know what needs to get done.

In a short story, emphasized Barb, the writer has to focus. As she puts it, “A short story is about one thing,” even if that thing is unclear at the start. If you’d asked me what my story “Burning Bright” in Busted! Arresting Stories from the Beat was about, I would have said, “Two Wisconsin ne’er-do-wells plan to rake in a lot of money by having a tiger fight a bear.” I would have added, “and it’s also about an outraged deputy sheriff trying to stop them while trying to persuade her dad to move into assisted living.”

So, would Barb say “Hey, that’s two things”? Only after I wrote “The End” did I realize the story was only superficially about those two things. What it was really about was respect for autonomy.

Art cited six steps in a typical short story, and they usually, though not necessarily, appear in order: 1- Introduce the character, 2- express their desires, 3- action (what the character does about those desires), 4- factors that impedes obtaining the desires (3 and 4 can repeat several times), 5- the climax, 6- resolution. In the classic analysis of Cinderella (below), action and impediments trade places many times (nothing to wear? fairy godmother).

Art pointed out that the six steps are useful as a tool for planning a story, and for diagnosing why it isn’t working. Barb pulls several of the steps together and recommends starting a story is by asking, “what’s the conflict?”

Lest you think these are recommendations to write to a formula, they are not. The variety and rearrangement of parts is practically infinite. Someone once said to crime writer Donald Westlake that writing genre fiction was easy: All you have to do is follow the formula. And he responded, “I’ll give you a formula for running a four minute-mile. Run each quarter-mile in less than a minute.” (Art’s talk and his slides will be in the members section of the Sisters in Crime website.)

Between Author and Reader: Amazon

A recent New Yorker article by Parul Sehgal that asks “Is Amazon is changing the novel?” sure sounds like a must-read for authors. There’s some history in there and some juicy stuff about the company some writers call “The Great Satan.”

The struggle writers face in meeting the demands of the book marketplace (versus readers) is not a new phenomenon. Sehgal cites an 1891 novel, New Grub Street, as an example of “pitiless portraits of the writing life.” A character in that book asserts that “literature nowadays is a trade,” and how many versions of that have you heard in recent years? The term potboiler was coined to reflect books created without regard to craft, but just to keep the stew pots boiling.

A hundred thirty years ago, the Amazon of book distribution was Mudie’s Select Library. Mudie’s market power–along with publishers’ financial incentives—demanded hefty three-volume works, much as publishers today like series books and for much the same reason. One popular book in a series sells the others.

But nine-hundred pages (roughly) were a lot to fill, then or now, and writing styles and habits developed to support that requirement. Victorian writers larded in subplots, created large casts of characters, and wrote desperate cliffhangers to carry readers (and themselves) through that long slog. Toward the end of the 19th century, new publishing forms began to take hold, notably less expensive books printed on cheap pulp paper, which opened book purchasing to new markets. As night follows day, new forms of reader enticement emerged, including the development of popular genre fiction—crime novels, Westerns, and the like.

Now, Amazon controls almost three-fourths of U.S. online book sales to adults and almost half of all new-book sales. In that river of print are the company’s own book imprints—16 of them. Do authors write a different kind of book when they know readers have power over not only their own book purchases, but can influence others, as well? Not one-on-one, either. Success or failure is right there on screen, thanks to reader-posted stars.

Kindle Direct Publishing takes reader feedback even farther, right to authors’ wallets. KDP writers are paid based on the number of pages read—increasing the financial incentives for producing lots of pages, new books every three months, and littering them with cliffhangers to keep readers hooked.

Whether all this has an impact on book quality, I’ll leave to you. In my opinion, it helps account for the increasing violence in crime novels, and the bizarre and gruesome nature these crimes. The frequency of plots with “girls” (usually not a child) and children as victims is simply used to raise the stakes. Do you see other evidence of Amazon’s effects? on you? on other writers? on readers?

Random Story Ideas

Buried in newspapers (online, of course), news magazines, advice columns, and every other account of real-life people and situations is a motherlode of story ideas. Here are a few I’ve been  hoarding that gave my internal story manufacturing machine a jolt.

Story Generator #1

“In 2001, following the accounting scandals at Enron and other companies, a publication called CFO Magazine quietly abandoned its annual Excellence Awards, because winners from each of the previous three years had gone to prison.”

Story Idea: Final meeting of the CFO Excellence Awards committee, harassed by pleas NOT to receive the award, nicknamed “Kiss of Death.”

Source: Evan Osnos article about white-collar crime, The New Yorker last August.

Story Generator #2

In response to employee work-at-home demands, designers envision a virtual representation of an entire office showing who is “at work,” wherever they are. It “tracks key team members and contacts based on (meeting room) reservation systems to ensure they are ‘showing face’ even when absent from their desk.” [sic]

Story Idea: The flowering of system gaming strategies; or, the Return of Big Brother.

Source: The Perkins Eastman Design Strategy Team “dream office” article in Metropolis, Sept/Oct 2021.

Story Generator #3

An obituary describing the deceased’s high school baseball career at length, naming team members, and recoungting highlights from notable games. Family gets a mention; career a sentence. Deceased is 76.Story Idea: If an eighteen-year-old knew that, 60 years later, tonight’s game would be the high point of his life, what would he do?