Where Story Ideas Come From: Picking a Time Period

Sherlock Holmes, detective

Knowing how much research I have to do to write a story in the near-present, the thought of writing historical fiction overwhelms me. Ditto, science fiction set in the future. I can’t imagine how much cross-disciplinary science a provocative author like Neal Stephenson knows, in order to construct a plausible future to frame his compelling plots. My head spins.

Writing in the current time also has challenges, of course. When cell phones first became ubiquitous, some authors tried to ignore this massive social change and offered plots that could easily have been resolved and tragedies averted with a quick phone call. We seem to be beyond that problem. A few authors get around it by setting their stories in the past—even the way past—which accomplishes many things, one of which is making it harder and slower for characters to travel from one place to another and to communicate.  

My novel Architect of Courage, coming out June 4 (pre-order link here), is set in the summer of 2011. The ten-year anniversary of 9/11 was approaching, and my plot is tied to it. In real life, the authorities are on high alert when any significant anniversary is looming that might incite anti-government or anti-American actions: Ruby Ridge, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Branch Davidian siege in Waco, Texas, are examples. The biggest of all: 9/11. This made it plausible for the Joint Terrorism Task Force members in the novel to be hypersensitive about the possibility of a terrorist infiltrating the architectural firm at the center of the story.

Even though I cannot imagine tackling a whole historical novel, I have written three short stories that are Sherlock Holmes pastiches. These weren’t the result of any special knowledge I have about the period (except as a reader of Conan Doyle), but in response to the publishers’ solicitations. We know a lot about the late 1800s and the Victorian era, thanks to television and the movies. As a result, establishing a common understanding with readers is quite doable.

For one of these stories, the research was actually rather simple (fun too). It’s set in 1884, around the time Queen Victoria’s adult son Leopold, who had hemophilia, died from the effects of that condition. I have several biographies of the Queen on my bookshelf, and was able to find out how much people of the era knew about the heritability of the disease. Potentially damaging rumors abounded as cases appeared among her descendants. These were useful in the plot.

It was also easy to find old newspaper accounts of Leopold’s funeral, which provided vivid detail. I had Dr. John Watson attend the ceremony, and some of these details appear as his observations. Even the 1880s were not free of the fear of terrorism, due to mounting pressure for Irish Home Rule—another plot point. Again, the precise time chosen presented specific story opportunities

But going back further in time? I’ll leave that to the excellent authors of historical fiction.

Talking Funny

Language Lounge is a monthly column for word-lovers, and writers seem automatic members of that tribe.  I access the column through Visual Thesaurus, which is a graphical thesaurus that creates a network of word similarities, rather than a list, and helps in finding that word that’s ever-so-slightly out of reach.

The columnist, Orin Hargraves, this month talks about discourse markers (a new one on me), which help writers create and readers follow the flow of a narrative. As he describes them, “they’re linguistic signposts to indicate the direction they are taking or to clue up their audience about how something should be taken.” Perhaps the most obvious example is a negative one. How many times in the truncated communication environment of social media has one of your comments been completely misconstrued? Jokes and sarcasm, especially, are easily misunderstood. At least my jokes are. Why I insert a {ha!} at the end.

Examples of discourse markers he provides include “of course,” which indicate the writer (or speaker) knows the audience probably already understands the next bit. Of course you do. Writers (or speakers) can signal that what’s coming is an opinion with a discourse marker like “In my mind,” or “I think.” I knew someone who liberally used phrases like “To be honest,” or “Candidly.” It took me a while to catch onto the fact that whatever followed was likely an untruth. So, in a perverse way, his usage was actually quite helpful. Similarly, “With all due respect” usually signals an impending insult.

In particular, Hargreaves focused on the word “funny,” as in “Funny you should say that,” or “funnily enough,” when what follows is unlikely to be funny (ha-ha) at all. Nor is it “odd” or “peculiar,” which funny, by extension, sometimes means. What this discourse marker seems to signal is, “I’m about to say something that doesn’t exactly follow what you just said, but is somehow related to it.” Like this:

Joe: “I really hate broccoli.”

Jane: “Funny you should mention it. I feel the same about peas.” Nothing to do with broccoli at all, but related to the larger category, cringy foods.

Hargraves says people use a great many “funny” signals:

  • “that’s funny,” preceding an observation the speaker finds remarkable or unusual. (“That’s funny, I could swear I left my keys on the counter.”)
  • “funny enough” introducing a slight or suspicious coincidence (“The body was in the alley and, funny enough, in the exact place the psychic said it would be.”)
  • “funny how” about things not funny at all (“Ain’t it funny how time slips away.”)
  • “it’s funny to” introducing something unexpected (“It’s funny to picture them searching for that missing gun, while I had it all along.”)

When a character’s conversation is taking an unexpected turn, you can keep readers (and hearers) on track if you send a funny signal.

Where Story Ideas Come From: Who’s Number Two?

A fine line exists between making secondary characters memorable and turning them into caricatures, distinctive, but not clichés. Even though the trope of the comical sidekick is common, in skilled hands it still works.

The main character, beset by story problems, may need to retain some seriousness. Even so, sometimes a little lightening of the mood is needed. Strong, funny number twos who retain their individuality include Lewis in Nick Petrie’s Peter Ash books and Juanell Dodson in Joe Ide’s I.Q. stories. I start chuckling the minute they appear.

As protagonists, investigators—law enforcement or p.i.’s—have more freedom for snark and gallows humor than crime victims do, being one step removed from the tragedy. I’ve laughed out loud at John Sandford’s jokes and Tami Hoag’s squadroom putdowns. Knowing how to keep a balance is key. I recall a police procedural where every bit of dialog generated a snarky response from a secondary character. That became annoying. It was too transparently a device.

In a short story, an author may have two or three additional characters to sketch out, and in a novel, quite a few. Giving them distinct characteristics keeps readers from becoming confused. Like the terra cotta warriors, each should be different. Compared to the main character, there’s probably less detail about secondary players, and finding the right broad strokes to convey them is an art. It’s iffy whether to term rough-around-the-edges Nina Borisovna Markova a secondary character, as she’s the third point-of-view character in Kate Quinn’s The Huntress. Quinn has thoroughly worked out who Nina is and how she got that way. Nina’s behavior, which breezes past “distinctive” into outrageous territory, is nevertheless consistent and believable. And, of course, she’s a perfect contrast with the main character, a sophisticated, erudite Englishman (and Nazi-hunter).

I don’t know how Quinn developed Nina’s character, but I can imagine her starting with the Englishman and constructing a new character who is the total opposite of him in important ways. Then, perhaps, she constructed the kind of background story for Nina that would produce such an unusual person.

My novel, Architect of Courage (available 6/4) has a number of secondary characters that were fun to work out. Colm O’Hanlon is the attorney for the architecture firm Landis + Porter and for Landis himself. He’s a genial guy and affects Irishisms for his own amusement, but he never takes his eyes off the ball—that is, whatever is needed to protect his clients.

Landis’s two principal assistants, Charleston Lee and Ty Geller are very different personalities, alike in that they’re both harboring secrets. Charleston is polite and deferential, a child of the South. He’s steady, deliberate. Ty has a short fuse and a bit of a chip on his shoulder. Charleston has to learn to take more risks, and Ty has to learn how to manage people.

Unlike a novel set in an investigative agency, Landis doesn’t have all the skills he needs for what he hopes to do. He’s backstopped by the introduction of Carlos Salvadore, an investigator in the criminal law department of O’Hanlon’s law firm, whose job description involves “heavy lifting.” Carlos goes about his business with quiet efficiency, solving problems Landis doesn’t even know he has. Good or bad, strong or weak, all these characters serve the story. You’ve probably heard authors say that sometimes, a character intended to have a walk-on part take over, and I can imagine that happening! Sometimes it leads to a new series, too.

More Short and Sweet: Tips on Effective Prose in Short Stories

Last week Sisters in Crime sponsored another of its “Short and Sweet” webinars about short-story writing. Talented author Art Taylor again hosted, along with award-nominated Ed Aymar, to talk about constructing a text. There’s a great satisfaction in doing it well. As Brendan DuBois said in the current issue of The3rdDegree, there’s a “satisfaction in seeing how an author can tell a gripping story in the confines of a relatively small playground.”

The prose—that is, the words on the page—are not just a delivery vehicle for character and plot, Taylor said. How a story is told is its own experience. If it’s told in a style that makes you think of floating down a lazy river on a summer day with the insects buzzing and the green smells rising, that’s a different experience than a style like a machine gun’s rat-a-tat-tat.

Of course, you can have both. If you lull the reader with a warm, sleepy meandering text until unexpected events cut it off with the rat-a-tat-tat of hard consonants and short sentences, that wakes the reader up. In my writing, I default to long sentences, chains of clauses linked by commas and conjunctions. I have to remind myself not to write a fight scene that way! Make it punchy.

I’m sure I was nodding when Taylor said, “Let the reader do some of the work.” Over-explaining is annoying. Trust that your reader is following along and understands some things without explanation. “She started making dinner, so they would have something to eat that night.” Clearly, everything after the comma should go. If you can envision your readers saying, “I get it, I get it!” then cut.

Short stories, especially, benefit from pruning everything unnecessary. Taylor called this “economy, efficiency, and an unrelenting focus.” Nothing should be in the story that doesn’t serve its purposes. Taking this a step further, he suggested that each line of a story ideally should accomplish several things.

A recent short story described a journalist and his investigations of hazardous jobsites. He takes a woman to dinner and, in the middle of their evening, a terrorist appears and shoots a dozen people. It was like walking into another story. Perhaps the author used the crusading journalist trope to make readers sympathetic to the murdered man, but weren’t there more integrated ways to accomplish this? It’s as if the story wore a plaid skirt, a striped blouse and a polka-dot vest, when what it needed was a dress. Fancy, sure, but One Thing.

I was relieved to hear from Ed Aymar that he writes lots of drafts. Me, too. And he endorsed the idea of reading work out loud, especially dialog. It’s one of the quickest ways to spot where the text isn’t working. Another of his good ideas is to rewrite your text a bit when using it for a reading. The pacing and emphases may need to be adjusted.

Sisters in Crime has archived the video of Taylor and Aymar’s presentation for its members. “Crafting Prose in a Short Story” is full of additional writing tips, too. Join?

Photo: the 3D printed dress at Selfridges Department Store, London, was photographed by Bradley Harper.

Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: Creating a 360-degree Character

Archer Landis, protagonist of my forthcoming murder mystery, Architect of Courage, is not one of those characters who seems to have no life outside the confines and events of the story. Writing about his role as the head of a large architecture firm with offices across the United States and in Dubai, with all its challenges and demands, allowed me to develop him as a more fully rounded character, a person with a “real life.” Using a single point of view in this story may make that total immersion easier.

When bad things start happening to Landis, he has to take into account their effects on his family and staff. He’s running a big business, he employs hundreds of people and encourages new architects, clients have invested millions of dollars in projects his firm is leading. The world isn’t waiting while he recovers from events directed at him; decisions have to be made. He can’t just ignore all that and, in the story, dealing with familiar issues reassures him he can handle the unexpected.

As an example in which the character’s life didn’t mesh realistically with the story, I think of a mystery in which the protagonist (a police detective) had a partner who was a female hockey player. Possibly interesting, no? Some possible plot implications too, right? In that novel, the women’s hockey team had an important all-star game coming up. The pressure was on. But in the month or so of story time, she never attends a single practice. The author introduced hockey as an important part of her world and barely mentioned it thereafter. Missed opportunity.

One of the parts of Archer Landis I gave attention to is his role as mentor to his principal assistants. How much leeway does he give them? How does he reward, critique, and support them? They responded in unexpected ways, as people do, and there are still some Grand Canyon sized opportunities for misunderstanding. Landis is devoted to many aspects of his work, but one he doesn’t like? H.R. problems. And there are always those.

His relationships with his fellow architects, several of whom are close friends, are also important, if dwelt on less. When he needs them, they rally around. As do his firm’s attorney and public relations manager. It’s clear he’s been the kind of person whom others have confidence in and want to help, even though he’s stumbled here and there. I never have to come out and say this, it’s obvious in their actions toward him. Showing, not telling. At least that’s my hope!

Unconventional Content in Your Fiction

Award-winning Australian author Sophie Masson provided her thoughts for writers about using unconventional content in a recent Writer Unboxed column. Masson is an internationally published author of more than 70 books. Unconventional content includes “newspaper articles, extracts from books, diary entries, audio transcripts, records of phone calls, email chains, text messages, social media posts,” and the like to enhance and extend a story.

Such content can be a succinct way to sum up a situation, convey factual information, or provide another perspective without having to delve into lengthy exposition. (The worst example of this I’ve seen was a description of the merits of a particular weapon reduced to bullet points.)

Susan Rigetti’s exciting new novel Cover Story consists entirely of these scraps. Much of it is a diary kept by the main character, Lora, Ricci, in which she reveals her personal take on her situation much more candidly than dialog likely would. Like a troublesome Greek chorus, messages between an FBI agent and prosecutor, interspersed among the diary entries, make clear that not everyone sees the situation as Lora does. Messages, emails, and other scraps of information also serve to build the fictional edifice.

As Masson points out, such unconventional content “allow authors to create a richly-textured story-world with many varied strands to its narrative tapestry.” The most familiar form of this is the epistolary novel. You probably know that Jane Austen liked the epistolary form and that Pride and Prejudice was originally written that way. Letters (remember them?) play a large part in that story, even after she converted it to a more conventional narrative.

Masson says these different forms shouldn’t be introduced arbitrarily. They need a real reason to be there;  to “really belong in your story.” I’ve written four short stories featuring Brianna Yamato, a rookie reporter at the Sweetwater, Texas, Register. Each story ends with the newspaper article that results from her digging. It’s fun writing those stories in newspaper style, and in them, each clue Brianna followed is slotted in place so that the whole picture of events emerges. There’s a sound reason for the newspaper story to be there; that’s her job.

Masson ends with some advice: do your research to make the unconventional content sound appropriate to its era and style, whether an 18th century newspaper story or 21st century texts; similarly, read aloud any audio transcripts or social media posts to check their voice; use these pieces strategically and fairly sparingly, unless the story consists solely of them, like Cover Story, or another example Masson provides, the crime novel The Twyford Code, by Janice Hallett.

Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: Staying Oriented in Time and Space

Harold Lloyd, clock, cliff-hanger

Everyone works differently, but it really seems to help me to visualize what I’m writing as if I were watching a movie. That helps me know where my characters are in space (in the living room, the bodega, the office) with all the site details that potentially shed light on their situation and is even more helpful in tracking time.

Although where characters are in space seems relatively straightforward, you occasionally find a book where characters must have some undisclosed teleportation super-power. How else did they start out in one place and suddenly end up in another?

I’m a fan of Chris Roerden’s Don’t Murder Your Mystery, and she has several chapters dealing with time and place. Her advice about choosing a setting—fewer bars and restaurants where the only thing that happens is an exchange of information—is especially valuable. Keeping track of time is trickier. Advice in her chapter titled “Crazy Time” has saved me on numerous occasions. It’s made me conscious of the benefit of small, but subtle, reality checks about time-of-day (light, sun, sounds).

As always, where these issues are managed well, they’re unnoticeable, but where they aren’t, you can learn by negative example. A book I read recently described the trees with their spring buds, then a chapter or two later—perhaps a week or so later in story time—the characters were complaining about a winter snowstorm. I flipped back a chapter or two, wondering whether my recollection of the spring blossoms was a misunderstanding, but it was not.

A pet peeve of someone in my writing group is ignoring the phases of the moon. Full moon sparkling on broken glass one night (thank you, Anton), and a dark, moonless night the next. If you’re putting the moon in one of your stories, check here to find out what it was doing on any particular date.

If I had to guess, I’d bet time and space errors crop up most often during revisions. It’s like changing the name of a character, the original name is almost impossible to expunge totally. It keeps sneaking back onto the page. If the writer wrote a draft set in winter, but decided to skip all those scarves and galoshes and changed the timing to spring, one winter reference stayed frozen in place.

I try to prevent such dislocations and discontinuities by just keeping track, in the computer or on paper, not in my head. Though I’m a pantser, this much organization is essential. I maintain a table with columns for chapter number, topic, date (e.g., Thursday, June 2), and word count. Couldn’t be simpler. The table saved my bacon when my editor asked me to compress Architect of Courage. I added a column for “New Date” and avoided mountains of bothersome recalculation.

Originally, the novel started on June 2 and ended August 16; the revision started the same date and ended July 22. I squeezed three-and-a-half weeks out of what had been eleven weeks of storytime, and I would never have been able to proofread all the glancing mentions of day and date otherwise.

Starting July 23, I hope my character Archer Landis takes a serious vacation. I put him through a lot in those weeks!

Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: Slivering the Backstory

Authors are constantly admonished not to get sucked into the quicksand of backstory—especially early in a book or at the introduction of each new character—yet there are aspects of a character’s prior experiences that writers really do want readers to know. There are relationships and episodes from the past that help in understanding who the character is in the today of the story. You can recognize when there’s too much backstory when your mind wanders. And “too much” doesn’t refer to word count, but to relevance.

A great many authors have steered around that particular hazard and made it work for them. Richard Osman did in The Thursday Murder Club with his character Joyce’s diary—a natural place for someone to record observations about the past; in Ann Patchett’s clever The Magician’s Assistant, the backstory is the story.

Since my character, Archer Landis, is about age 60 in 2011, he was in his early twenties as the Vietnam War was ending (I’ve done this arithmetic about a hundred times, convinced I have it wrong!). The war, the draft, the demonstrations would have been very much top-of-mind for him at a crucial and formative stage of life, and their impact would have been indelible.

I didn’t need a deep dive into his war experiences—like Michael Connolly did so well in his first Harry Bosch novel, The Black Echo, or as Frederick Forsyth did in The Avenger. Characters in both of these novels were tunnel rats, and their Vietnam war experiences shaped their subsequent lives and futures. Understanding their war experiences in depth was appropriate. Those scenes were so powerful and immersive that each time the story returned to the present day, I was briefly disappointed.

But I didn’t need that. Instead, I doled out Landis’s war memories in small bites. He returns to his Vietnam experiences at three points in the novel. I hadn’t realized it as I wrote, but in each case, those experiences recapture his attention when he’s in the greatest immediate danger. It’s as if the intensity of the hazard resurrects them. In one example, anticipating a possible violent confrontation, he contrasts his experiences confronting the Viet Cong with his options in the present-day situation. This memory triggers a reflection on the kind of person he has become. It isn’t a digression to tell a war story; it’s showing who he is now.

These snippets are reminders that Landis engaged in the issues of his day, in the past and the present. He was a part of those past events, just as he’s aware of the world of 2011. Such fleeting references help me—and the reader too, I hope—see Landis as a fully rounded person who has a past, but is not dominated by it.

Image by Vinson Tan for Pixabay.

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!

Sherlock Holmes at the Grolier Club

This week my friend Nancy and I visited Manhattan’s Grolier Club, founded in 1884, a bibliophile’s paradise. On view there (until April 16) is the special exhibit, Sherlock Holmes in 221 Objects. Every mystery-lover will recognize the significance of that number.

Especially remarkable is that the 221 objects were selected from the riches of one obsessive collector, Glen S. Miranker, and a number of them are one-of-a-kind. His is a collection “rich in bibliographic rarities, manuscripts, books, correspondence, and artwork, all with intriguing stories to tell beyond their significance as literary and cultural landmarks.” Seeing Doyle’s small, careful handwriting as he makes notes about possible stories, or pens his drafts and writes to his publisher and Gillette, is truly a thrill.

If, as the Grolier Club flyer says, Conan Doyle’s creation became “a literary juggernaut,” it was a theatrical one, as well. London’s theater world wasn’t interested in the possibility of staging versions of Conan Doyle’s stories, but U.S. actor William Gillette (pictured) was, and he made it happen, playing the role of Holmes on US stages from 1899 to 1932.

The artwork from theater posters and programs, as well as the book covers of the many editions in which the stories appeared—both legitimately and pirated—often indelibly captures the Great Detective, sometimes in contemplation, pipe in hand, and sometimes on the hunt across the moors. And sometimes just in the Art Nouveau designs in vogue around the turn of the last century.

If you’re in New York in the next month, visit The Grolier Club, 47 East 60th Street. Call ahead for a timed reservation, because the number of visitors at any one time is controlled. Masks required.