Writing Organically

Stephen King does it, he writes organically, and another writer a little lower on the popularity scale, myself, and of course many others.

The First Writer and Editor: 'Take out that part?! Are you nuts? How is the stampede scene at the end of the cave going to make sense without it?!'

The First Writer and Editor: ‘Take out that part?! Are you nuts? How is the stampede scene at the end of the cave going to make sense without it?!’

A recent conversation with my sister revealed that people don’t know what the heck you’re talking about when you say you write organically. I told my sister that “nothing much was happening in my story,” and she delivered a long silence followed by “well?”

The most common reaction to my stories, although I’ve addressed organized crime and human trafficking, is that they are a “fun read.” That was kind of mysterious to me given the heavy subject matter. Then I realized that my books are like many others, they are adventures.

That’s always what I wanted them to be.

Of course, I place myself in my characters’ emotional lives and the physical movements and thought process begins and that’s what keeps the plot moving along. My research on the subject matter usually provides information for the reactions of my characters in a given situation.

If the plot gets stuck, for some reason or another, I just keep plowing along meaning my protagonist continues to do what she’s doing until another element pops up, or some event occurs to change the course of her actions. Which means I focus on another character and that character makes a surprising move and my protagonist reacts.

I also begin with a vision or two. Then I write to the vision, they usually reveal themselves in the course of the research on the chosen subject. I write to make the visions believable when the reader finally reaches them. But, I have no idea how the heck I’m going to get there, that depends on the research, the motives and the personalities of the characters.

Many wonderful writers, other than Stephen KIng, do a complete and detailed outline before they start. One new writer asked me how I began if I had no outline. I usually pick a subject I’m interested in, and what I think is a good move for my protagonist that has to do with research into the publishing business as well. Then my protagonist is fashioned by my own experience, sticking to that principle that you write about what you know. Endless details are the blood of your story, generally you don’t know them if you write about a subject you know little about even given the research.

I was an investigative reporter and so is Carol Rossi, my protagonist. A character, a subject and we’re off to the races.

I can see trying, however, to branch into subjects you know little about.

Do you do outlines?

Do you stick to what you know?




Memory, That Trickster

I’ve been thinking about memory lately, and how well or badly it serves us. My own memory is not as useful as it once was, that’s for sure. I always made lists and posted memos to myself. Now I have to remember to look at the lists! And my once enormous fund of completely useless factoids is slipping away.

But here, I am thinking about something more complicated, the twists our memories can take.


This began with a long-running disagreement between two people I know well. As they both talked to me, I observed that they kept going back to certain sore points. OK. But they kept forgetting any details that did not support their emotional story line. It seems our memories, like our computers, can’t hold unlimited data. We unconsciously select what we can use, or what interests us, or even just what stuck at a moment when the memory card had some available space. mem1

Some more examples:

– a relative was collecting some family history. Having my dad and one of his sisters in the same room, she interviewed them about their mother’s background. And not one thing they thought they knew was the same! Her father had died in Russia when she was young and the only detail they agreed on was which relative brought her to the US. That was because they had both known him. It was very funny.

– the time I finally owned up, as an adult, to being scared of dogs as a child. My sister said, “That’s because of the time a dog grabbed your mitten with his teeth and dragged you.” It all came back to me instantly, but I had completely forgotten it until then.

– all the times my grown children mention a childhood memory and are shocked that I don’t share it. And all the times I remember pieces of their childhood they have forgotten. We were in the same moment, but experiencing it differently


– and my favorite – the people who insist the Good Old Days of their youth were better times than now. That time is otherwise known as the Great Depression and World War II. Depression1

This isn’t merely idle musing for mystery writers. The witness who is sure he saw the dead man threaten a cop before the cop started shooting. Or was it the other way around? The classic instance in the classic Twelve Angry Men, where it finally becomes clear that a witness could not have seen what she testified to. (No spoiler but if you’ve never see the movie, go rent it ASAP.)


Then there is the witness who is sure she would recognize her attacker, until DNA proves otherwise. The suddenly retrieved memory of a long-ago crime. The child who remembers abuse and the parent who denies it ever happened. The child who saw something but did not understand it and reports what he saw with his child’s interpretation.

There is a plot twist in every sentence, isn’t there?

TBT: The Confession by Mary Roberts Rinehart

A double Dell mystery: The Confession and Sight Unseen by Mary Roberts Rinehart, originally published 1921, reprint 1948

A double Dell mystery: The Confession and Sight Unseen by Mary Roberts Rinehart, originally published 1921, reprint 1948

I’ve been traveling, so pardon this quickie post. While flying a leg, I started reading this set of mysteries my Mary Roberts Rinehart. So far, I’ve gotten through The Confession, which is interesting since it was written in the 1920s. Without overmuch focus on the era by the author, contemporary for her, it’s before the time of ubiquitous car travel and features the occasional horse carriage, when a woman with newborn relatives in the family had to be concerned about only vacationing places with plentiful access to cows. One of the important aspects–you can tell from the wonderful cover– is the telephone, the single instrument located down a hall. The pace of the novel taking place in a small, insular town is slow, like a hot summer, which helps the claustrophobic atmosphere build as the otherwise-sensible protagonist begins to question her own sense. More than mystery, it’s psychological suspense.

As the title indicates, a confession to a crime is a linchpin of the plot. I have a manuscript of my own with a sort of written confession that becomes important. It’s an MS never to-be-published, I’m pretty sure, but I don’t blame the plot point for that. Anyway, it made me wonder whether you’d ever used a confession as an important feature in a crime plot of yours, or do you recall your favorite novel in which one was used?

Dreams of Dickens, Wagner, and Van Gogh… And Yours?

Dickens' Dream by Robert Will, watercolor, 1870. Charles Dickens Museum, London

Dickens’ Dream by Robert Will, watercolor, 1870. Charles Dickens Museum, London

In Nicholas Nickelby, Charles Dickens wrote:
Dreams are the bright creatures of poem and legend, who sport on earth in the night season, and melt away in the first beam of the sun, which lights grim care and stern reality on their daily pilgrimage through the world.
Bedroom in Arles, oil on canvas, 1888.

Bedroom in Arles, oil on canvas, 1888.

Van Gogh wrote:
I dream of painting, and then I paint my dream.
Tristan and Isolde by John Duncan, oil on canvas, 1912.

Tristan and Isolde by John Duncan, oil on canvas, 1912.

Wilhelm Richard Wagner wrote:
For once you are going to hear a dream. I dreamed all this [Tristan]. Never could my poor head have invented such a thing purposely.
There are now coutless guidebooks and resources for both harnessing and unleashing, healing through and profiting from dreams and daydreams…. Have you ever created something based upon a dream, or had a creative problem solved by one?

Fidelity or Adultery? That is the Question

bed_frameI’ve come to a definite conclusion about the things I read and watch of late.  I find I’ve become increasingly uninterested in plots that include infidelity in a marriage. It seems so easy to me for characters to forget promises they’ve made and loyalty to a spouse to enjoy the secrecy and intrigue of adultery. The marriage bed is no longer sacred.

I know this happens in real life. My husband and I were part of a group of eight couples when we were newlyweds. Before we moved away from our hometown, there was only one other couple besides us still together. Nearly all of these marriages ended with adultery. One husband engaged in a work-place romance. Another friend lost her husband to her best friend. With another, the affair was between two men. I’m not foolish enough to think it never happens, but I am tired of seeing it as a gratuitous sex on the screen and between the pages.

I’ve been wondering if other people feel the same way. One thing I enjoy about murder mysteries is while the crime is often about passion, it can be passion about anything, not just love and sex.

I still enjoy romance novels, and I love the many mystery series I read. While John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport was a real lady’s man when he was single, he hasn’t been unfaithful to Weather since they married. Eve Dallas and Roarke value each other and their commitment too much to consider infidelity. Robert B. Parker’s Spenser adores Susan even though they have never married.

I also know I can choose the “hotness” of the books I read, but I’ve always enjoyed a variety of genres and books. I’m just tired of seeing adultery as a key plot element.

Anybody else thinking this way?

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch Series

The City of Bones was a clever title and I was more than eager to read at least one mystery of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch Series. He’s written more than twenty-plus novels, and this one was highly recommended by a fellow writer. I was all ready a fan having loved The Lincoln Lawyer, the movie.

Mr. Connelly is an American author of crime fiction, in particular, the LAPD Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch and criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller. He’s the winner of the Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

In between writing books I set out to learn more about American iconic writers in general. As I’ve said many times before, I’m a big fan of Swedish author, the internationally famous Henning Mankell, who wrote the Kurt Wallander Series which is featured on PBS, public broadcasting.

I’ve grown to chuckle and become very fond of Kurt Wallander while considering Mr. Mankell a master writer. His books have a depth to them that reflects society worldwide, Sweden, in particular. And, Kurt fumbles around in life, trying to keep pace with personal issues, aging, illness, his daughter, and his love life, all this juggling while he ingeniously solves crimes. Yet, Mankell stories are consistently bigger than Kurt Wallander.

In reading the City of Bones I was disappointed in the narrow scope of the plot. The many twists and turns, on this cold case, seemed just a ploy to get us through the story, add the numbers of pages required to call it a book. Connelly’s writing is polished and the twists and turns were well set into the plot. I intend to read at least one of his Mickey Heller tales and others since he too seems, from the many titles, to cover a great deal of ground.

What is your favorite Michael Connelly tale? And why?

Pardon the Ravens by Alan Hruska

HruskaIf you’re into legal mysteries, you’ll want to read Pardon the Ravens. Set in the 1961, this book follows an interesting case for young, inexperienced lawyer, Alec Brno. It’s a great recipe for suspense and intrigue: a sadistic mob boss, an abused drug-addicted, a case that’s probably not a winner, and a young attorney in love with the wrong woman.

It’s out today. Check out my review at Criminal Element.

Playing Fair

An argument could made that the two most important sentences in a mystery are the first and the last: the tempting appetizer and the satisfying, if not necessarily sweet, dessert. In my own writing, I’ve sometimes been lucky and had that last line come to me early on in the process. I might not see beyond the headlights (thank you, E.L. Doctorow), but that last line offered hope that I wouldn’t be wandering in the dark forever.

Depending on the kind of crime fiction we write, we’re either going to end by assuring the reader that justice has been served, or that it hasn’t. In both cases, we face the challenge specific to crime fiction: In order to create suspense, we intentionally mislead the reader; at the same time we have to play fair.

So here’s the question on the table: When does necessary deception become cheating?

Years ago I read a mystery by a very well known writer in which the trusted narrator turned out to be the killer. That was the last book of his I read. More recently, I watched a five-part British crime serial that was, for the first four parts, beautifully done. The scripts were intelligent and suspenseful, the characters believable, and the small town setting appealing. Then came episode five, after which one of us left the room in disgust while the other said rude words to the screen.

That reaction was inspired by the fact that the killer turned out to be the Least Likely Suspect, a common enough device in crime fiction, but in this case I felt cheated. Yes, the LLS has to appear innocent but not to the degree that it’s inconceivable that s/he would commit the crime—in this case the murder of a young boy. That kind of twist presumes that anyone is capable of murder, a premise I don’t buy. I might accept the white-haired old lady knitting in the corner as the serial killer, but please don’t expect me to believe that if you’ve made her as loveable as your grandmother and told me she spends her days volunteering at a homeless shelter.

Agree or disagree? Ever feel cheated? Please share.

6 Sleeping Beauties: Briar-tangled Folklore

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent, a retelling of Sleeping BeautyI recently saw the film Maleficent (enjoyed it!), another adaptation of the Sleeping Beauty folklore, especially of Disney’s famous animated version from 1959. Maleficent is told, contrarily, from the point of view of the “evil” fairy godmother, much like Wicked revisits Oz from the point of view of the misunderstood and ill-treated Wicked Witch of the West.

These reboots are fun, but sometimes it’s unremarked, amid criticism of the many, many remakes of stories Hollywood now produces, that this reconception of stories has been ongoing ever since the printing press was invented. Actually since long before then, but it’s harder to tell how the bards changed each other’s work where we don’t have copious recordings from the firesides.

(The following theory may be covered extensively elsewhere, but I haven’t seen it. Serious scholars employ classification systems to group folkloric tales, and I believe this one is ATU-type 410, under Tales of Magic, Supernatural or Enchanted Wife (Husband) or Other Relative, 400-459, but there isn’t any ATU number for the story elements I’m discussing here, at least, I think not, being a non-scholarly story hobbyist.)

When Disney created its animated film, it springboarded (pun intended, as you’ll see) from the well-known fairy tale of a sleeping beauty by the Brothers Grimm, “Little Briar Rose.” Well, those German brothers were re-telling it themselves, after hearing the French tale of Charles Perrault, “La Belle au bois dormant” or “The Beauty Sleeping in the Wood,” which was part of a collection published back in 1697.

Henry Meynell Rheam (1859-1920) The Sleeping Beauty

The Sleeping Beauty by German painter Henry Meynell Rheam (1859-1920)

But Perrault was not the original author of his tale either. And going back is where we re-discover the real meaning behind the story. Regardless of what Disney fans might attest, L’Aurore isnt the name of the sleeping princess, but actually the name of her daughter, otherwise Aurora or, more tellingly, Dawn. She is the twin sister of a boy named Le Jour or Day. Dawn and Day are the sleeping princess’s children, and Perrault’s own inspiration for his tale was most likely Giambattista Basile, an Italian, whose tale was published even earlier in 1634, and was called “Sole, Luna, e Talia, or in translation, “Sun, Moon, and Talia.”

Now it gets good.


Are fairies really the stewards of the wheel of the year?

When considering the “sleeping” princess’s birth, she’s a golden child of exceptional beaty, for whom there’s usually a party with 12 fairy guests, going around in turn, each with a unique blessing to gift her. Combining this with the sleeper’s children, overtly named Sun and Moon (or Dawn and Day), the astrological underpinnings of the tale become apparent. The tale is perhaps analogous to Persephone’s disappearance into the underworld of the dead (like a wakeless sleep) during winter, the fallow season. The 13th fairy guest to the glorious young princess’s celebration, the uninvited one who curses her, is bad luck in number and deed, breaking the previous harmony of the twelve signs of the zodiacal year. In fact, hopping briefly into Norse mythology, the much-maligned Loki also plays 13th guest in a similar legend as well. He, too, arrives uninvited and wrathful to a banquet and arranges the death of the most beautiful golden hero of the world, Balder, and at the point of a mistletoe-tipped arrow no less. At this mournful event, the earth falls into darkness. Sounds wintry, doesn’t it?

I mention such low treachery now, because all of these older versions of the Sleeping Beauty tale have similarly awful acts in them that will horrify a modern reader if taken as straight reportage and not metaphor.

"Sleeping Beauty" by English painter Edward Frederick Brewtnall (1846-1902)

Sleeping Beauty by English painter Edward Frederick Brewtnall (1846-1902)

For example, the sleeping princess is usually raped by traveling royalty who find her irresistible while unconscious. This maintains her “innocence,” but she becomes pregnant and usually bears twin children to her attacker, later her contrite husband in some accounts. That happens to poor Talia before she bears Sun and Moon in Giambattista Basile’s tale, but if we go back even farther, the assault features in the earlier-still version of the Sleeping Beauty tale, “Histoire de Troïlus et de Zellandine” from very popular collected volumes of romances called Perceforest, most likely composed in France between 1330 and 1344.

Increasingly tipping the nod as to the underlying meaning and the solar/seasonal connection, the medieval story from Perceforest in which poor Zellandine delivers a child of rape from within her coma was, apparently, even performed at Catholic Masses in Germany as part of Shrove Tuesday. Well, that very date will soon be celebrated on February 17th of 2015 as Fat Tuesday or Mardis Gras, when we buckle down to the last forty gray days of Lent before Easter or the spring equinox, depending who’s counting. It’ll be helpful to know, for the next gruesome part, that “lambing season” is said to begin at this same time.

So, what of the sleeping beauty’s twins? Well, often it’s one of them, a hungry newborn infant, who suckles the splinter of flax, or what-have-you, from the sleeper’s finger, and that‘s what wakes her from her curse. No romantic kiss as such is involved. It’s the relentless drive of burgeoning new life. The sleeper awakens, not knowing what’s happened to her, but now a mother to delivered babies, suddenly appearing as do other chicks and foals and lambs and calves at this time of year.


Painting of a medieval sheep market, Norwich, c. 1300

We can tell the sleeping beauty’s twins may also be metaphorically related to the springtime’s new livestock arrivals, because they’re–yes, it’s horrible again–usually ordered to be slaughtered. In Perrault’s tale, they’re actually ordered cooked and served with mustard sauce (sauce Robert). Horrors aside, that sounds a lot like the ritual Passover sacrifice of a lamb or the traditional Easter feast, the culturally widespread sharing of the “first fruits” of the year in spring rites. Anyway, the sleeping beauty’s child or children are saved (whew) by a kind-hearted cook or servant, who swaps out their prepared corpses with, you guessed it, lamb or even kid goat. And the evil queen who’s ordered the slaughter, in these early tales either the king’s legitimate wife or his ogress mother, is satisfied with the substitution. Is it a kid or a kid? She can’t seem to taste the difference. Hmmm.

Battista’s sleeping beauty’s name, Talia, is said in baby name dictionaries to be an old Hebrew or Aramaic name that has the meaning “heaven’s dew” or “lamb,” indicating the blessing of divine abundance. Well, dew is found at the birth of the day, and lamb at the birth of the year. Easter, a very lamb-riffic holiday with plenty of nods to abundant new life, occurs during the sign of Aries, the ram. Aries is a cardinal sign, meaning the beginning of a new season, and as the so-called first house, it’s also known as the youngest sign or “the baby of the zodiac,” which kicks off the year gamboling at the spring equinox. You may note that in Battista’s tale, the innocent lamb Talia is also supposed to be sacrificed with her children to be fed to the royalty.

Sure, there are many shades of Medea and other culinary child-servers in the earliest of these tales, too, but don’t let me sidetracked on that, or the twins Romulus and Remus, or their mother the Vestal Virgin…I’d be here all day. Unlike a clapped-out modern movie franchise’s sextilogy (I’m claiming it as a word), each one of these 6 sleeping beauties remains fascinating to me. I adore the way layered legacies of traditional storylines continue twisting and looping upon themselves while remaining relevant and compelling.

Helen MacInnis, Spy Mistress

I’ve always had a secret desire to be a spy. (I think I may have confessed that here once or twice.) But since that profession didn’t readily present itself when I was ready to choose a career, I had to settle for reading about them.

John LeCarré, Eric Ambler, Len Deighten, Ian Fleming, all captured my young imagination with their daredevil characters and exotic settings. But no one more so than Helen MacInnis.

A Sunday New York Times Book Review Critic’s Take article “Spies Like Her” brought it all back to me. As the writer, Sarah Weinman, suggests Helen MacInnis, Spy Mistress, was ahead of her time, writing about such events as Israel bombing Gaza and the Russians invading a part of the Ukraine years before the recent events.

She was married to Gilbert Highet, a classics scholar who was also a MI6 British intelligence agent. And, it was generally thought she might have used classified information in creating some of her 21 books. In fact, according to a biography of the writer on Wikopedia, her third novel, Assignment in Brittany was required reading for Allied intelligence agents who were being sent to work with the French Resistance against the Nazis.

Her novels took me all over the globe and painted a vivid picture of a world very different from mine filled with more intrigue and adventure than a girl from the Bronx could expect. A world I would love to have been a part of, and I like to think, that I’ve captured in my own writing.

I checked my bookshelf before writing this and found two of her novels, Agent In Place and Message from Malaga, both of which I plan to reread as soon as possible.

51lvZbTY-QL._AA160_Agent In Place
When the idealist is duped to reveal sensitive information, when the ‘agent in place’ is forced into the open, disaster strikes.
The NATO Memorandum, classified Top Secret, is the lethal prize sought by Soviet Intelligence in the deadly game that continues relentlessly beneath the dubious veneer of détente. A cryptic telephone call to a Russian ‘sleeper’ in Washington, a mugging-murder of an unidentifiable man in New York’s Central Park, an anonymous Memorandum—and Helen MacInnes’s new adventure is launched.

51hZgAgV7kL._AA160_Message From Malaga
Sunny Spain, sudden death!
Ian Ferrier, on vacation from the U.S. Space agency, would not have believed his reunion with a trusted friend would lead to murder, or that he would hold the key to expose a vicious conspiracy for assassination, or that he would be plunged into a desperate pursuit in which he was as much the hunted as the hunter. Yet that is the opening of this spellbinding tale set in the deceptively serene and vividly picturesque cities of Malaga and Granada.