Where Story Ideas Come From: Why Courage?

I didn’t set out to write a book about courage. In fact I was probably on a second or third draft, pestering myself with questions like, “what am I really trying to say?” “why might readers find this book not just entertaining but meaningful?” “do I find it meaningful and why?” i’m not a writer who can dash off several books a year; I have to think about them a while. And thinking about these questions, I finally realized I was missing an easy opportunity to express what it is about, without having to pen a preachy narration.

In the opening pages of my new book, Architect of Courage, Manhattan architect Archer Landis discovers his lover has been murdered. He’s afraid of the fallout if he’s caught in her apartment, and without considering the implications, he delays calling the police. Instead, he hastily returns to the business dinner he’d left not long before, determined to make the call from there. Alas, circumstances prevent it. What had he been thinking?

The dinner is to celebrate the important award one of his best friends is receiving and now he has to sit through it. The friend, Phil Prinz, takes this speaking opportunity to talk about courage. Now, we’ve all been to dinners where the speaker rambles on about some high-flown topic, and we’ve occasionally been pleasantly surprised to hear some nuggets worth remembering. Phil chose a worthy topic, but he’s no orator.

Still he breaks the topic down in an elegant way, describing four kinds of courage (briefly in the novel): physical courage, you know what that is; mental courage, when people dare to think in new ways; emotional courage, when they put their feelings on the line; and moral courage, when they do the right thing simply because it’s right. Landis doesn’t spend a lot of time then or later reflecting on Phil’s remarks—he’s too upset about what happened earlier in the evening. But I hope I’ve planted a seed for readers so they recognize that, despite his early failure, Landis displays all of four types of courage before the story ends. But if all you’re looking for is a lively adventure, there’s that too.

Available from Amazon on preorder!

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.

Detroit in Fiction

Cars, Motown, the long destructive tail of the 1967 riots. The Tigers, the Lions, the Pistons, the Redwings. These pretty much sum up my home town of Detroit for many people. Well, maybe not the Lions. But the city is a lot more complex—and interesting—than these. When I was growing up, Detroit was the country’s fourth-largest city; now it’s the 27th. That massive change—due to white flight, the auto industry’s shift to the nonunionized South, and other difficulties—was accompanied by a lot of pain. The semblance of optimism in the past few years follows an excruciating and stuttering journey. Fiction tells the story of that journey and the families affected by it.

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

The Turner family of thirteen children has to decide what to do with the house they grew up in on Detroit’s east side. The relationships among the siblings are complicated, and the city itself is like a character restricting their choices. Their parents moved north from Arkansas after World War II to escape the Jim Crow South, and while they faced prejudice and changing economic circumstances, their children are now almost all firmly middle class. When they come together to celebrate their widowed mother’s birthday—possibly her last—you see family relationships in action, the accommodations, the cheer, the old wounds, and the shared expectations. A lovely book.

Grand River and Joy by Susan Messer

Some intersections carry their own weight of associations—Hollywood and Vine or Naomi Hirahara’s Clark and Division—and in this book, Messer delves into the months leading up to the 1967 riots/rebellion and their aftermath. The violence lasted five days, and the city has needed almost fifty years to recover, the entire lifetimes of a great many of its poorest, most affected, residents. Messer’s story shows the ways lives intersected—black and white, Jewish and non-Jewish, old and young. At a time when tensions and the possibility of danger were rising, tough decisions were needed.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Many readers assume that Detroit is the unnamed rust-belt city that occupies the first half of Morrison’s classic, which helped gain Morrison her Nobel Prize in literature. A complex coming-of-age story, rich in cultural and folkloric references.

Elmore Leonard’s Detroit Crime Novels

From the age of nine, Elmore Leonard grew up in Detroit and graduated from the University of Detroit. Called “the Dickens of Detroit”  Leonard set many of his crime novels there, including City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit, 52 Pickup, and The Switch.

Image: Peter Mol for Pixabay.

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!

Spies, Spies, Spies!

You might with justification believe that John le Carré’s death marked the end of sophisticated spy fiction. Three reasons to take heart.

First up, le Carré may be gone, but his work isn’t quite finished. While I enjoyed what at the time was termed his “last” espionage novel—Agent Running in the Field—the posthumously published, rather slender, novel Silverview is also worth a read. Both are expert at focusing your attention in one direction, while all along, the protagonist is engaged in a much bigger, much more complicated game. It’s that combination of spywork and grifter that I find so intriguing.

Over his career, le Carré had done such a convincing job of peopling the various sides in the Cold War and setting their minions against one another, that I for one wondered what he would write about after the breakup. I shouldn’t have worried. Not only were there many more books, but the Russian menace was apparently just on pause. Too bad he’s not still here to probe its current-day secrets. (You’ll recall that in The Russia House, set in the Gorbachev years, le Carré’s premise was that the Soviet military menace was not all it was cracked up to be. Fast-forward to 2022.)

Second, let me introduce you to a 21st century spy novelist who I believe is a potential heir to le Carré’s mantle as chronicler of the cynical, conflicted, mistake-prone and sometimes baffling and baffled espionage agent: author James Wolff. A member of the UK government for fifteen years, he writes under a pseudonym. His two books—2018’s Beside the Syrian Sea, and 2021’s How to Betray Your Country—are a different breed than the usual spy story, more complex, like the people he portrays.

In Wolff’s work, you have a strong sense that the context and actions of the characters are grounded in reality, as the agents are, too, flaws and all. As Wolff said in an interview with the Harrogate Festivals, “I don’t think that a book can be thrilling if the reader doesn’t believe that the characters are real.” No need to amp up the energy with over-the-top, implausible situations and confrontations. I’ve lost patience with authors struggling to pack in yet another far-fetched idea or action scene.

And third, finally, Apple TV has finally started showing its original production of Mick Herron’s Slow Horses, witty and quick-witted. As Apple describes it, the spy drama “follows a dysfunctional team of MI5 agents—and their obnoxious boss, the notorious Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman)—as they navigate the espionage world’s smoke and mirrors to defend England from sinister forces.” And Mick Jagger singing the theme song! What more can you ask? There are eight novels and three novellas in Herron’s series, so, fingers crossed, there will be lots of good watching ahead.

Exciting News for Readers and Writers

Frank Coffman, editor of the ambitious new publication JOURN-E (“The Journal of Imaginative Literature”), included my short story “The Old Man of the Mountain” in his inaugural issue, published on the vernal equinox. A call for submissions to the next issue (autumnal equinox) appears on the journal’s home page.

This innovative magazine includes fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and illustration, all geared around what Coffman calls “the genres of the high imagination”: Adventure; Detection and Mystery; Fantasy; Horror and the Supernatural; and Science Fiction. In its first issue, the balance among stories by genre is about even, with most sections checking in at around 50 pages.

My short stories mostly have “and it all worked out” endings—not necessarily happy, but some measure of situational control reestablished, and not leaving the reader in need of therapy, either. Except this one. I started working on it several years ago, and quite a few drafts were needed to get it into publishable shape.

The experiences in the story could apply to any tragic wartime situation and its lingering impact on those left behind, the so-called “survivors.” Although the enemy who wreaked havoc in my story is the long-gone “Nazis.” Now, perhaps, one could substitute “Putin.”

I also drew on a frightening experience from my college years, when I was working at a summer theater near Pittsburgh. The theater manager put her interns up in a bedroom in her basement. The other intern hadn’t arrived yet, and I slept down there alone. It was very dark. Very dark. And one night I felt like the dark was palpable, suffocating me. Of course, after a moment of frightened paralysis, I got up and turned on a light. Problem solved. But the feeling of oppressive blackness was something I resurrected for this tale.

I must mention Dominique Bibeau’s story, “Russian for Beginners” in the March/April Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (translated by @JoshPachter), which brought that frightening claustrophobia back once again.

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.

The Runaway

Fans of award-winning author Nick Petrie’s high-octane action adventures won’t be disappointed in his latest, seventh in the series. The Runaway again features knight-errant Peter Ash, a U.S. Marine no longer serving in the military, who, over the course of these thrillers is gradually learning to manage a debilitating case of PTSD. At the same time, Petrie’s writing shows ever-increasing skill and confidence with no sign of flagging.

The sparsely populated countryside of several Great Plains states—Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska—features heavily in this story. The area has its beauties, but it’s remote. A stranger sticks out. Mostly, there’s not much help around if and when you need it. And he will.

Driving across Nebraska, using one of the back roads he prefers, Ash encounters a small white car parked by the side of the road. Out of gas? Mechanical problem? It’s in Ash’s nature to stop and help—part of his atonement for Iraq and Afghanistan—but it seems no one is around. Then a heavily pregnant woman emerges from behind a cottonwood tree.

Helene is terrified and trying to escape her husband, but the car she’s appropriated broke down. Husband Roy is a high-end thief, robbing empty vacation homes. He used to be a Minneapolis police officer and has cultivated connections with cops across multiple states, which makes going to the police a risky option. Yet he’s said he’ll help her, and he’s determined to do it. Though a controlling spouse is a familiar plot idea, Petrie’s skill in developing Helene’s character keeps you caring about her fate.

Roy’s hunt for Peter, Peter’s hunt for Helene, and his strategies to keep them both alive make for a page-turning, stay-up-late adventure. The story’s not just about the difficulty of escaping a wily and determined spouse. It’s about the internal resources you need to actually go through with it. Helene is very young. Can she do what needs to be done? For his part, Peter is not only clever about resolving difficult situations, he displays a strong streak of humanity, as well.

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The Ones We Keep

Bobbie Jean Huff’s powerful new domestic drama, The Ones We Keep, is a real standout. It’s quite a testament for a debut author’s novel to be compared to the works of Elizabeth Strout and Diane Chamberlain! I enjoyed it thoroughly, as much for the quality of the writing as the fully developed and compelling characters.

As the story begins, New Jerseyans Olivia and Harry Somerville and their three young boys are vacationing at a Vermont lake. Olivia, returning from a walk, sees a police car leaving the resort, and two teenagers she encounters on the trail tell her a boy from New Jersey has drowned. All Olivia can think to do is run. If she gets away, if she hides, if she cuts off communication with her family and friends, she will never know which of her boys is lost. I have three sons, becomes her mantra.

Once she makes this break from what would have been her reality, it’s somehow better to keep that door firmly closed than to go back and face her loss. The story describes the accommodations she must make as she builds a new life, how Henry and the two remaining boys cope with her absence, how time moves on. Olivia’s choice may not be one most of us would make, but it is the choice she believes she has to make, in order to keep all her sons alive in her mind and for her own survival.

Bobbie Jean Huff and I are acquainted, having taken some of the same writing workshops together, and I couldn’t be more delighted that this novel turned out so beautifully!