Hidden Things

I’m at the most difficult part of writing my next novel: imaging a deadly crime and how someone (almost) gets away with murder. There’s much work to be done off the book, work unknown to all but the writer, at this stage of the game. Maybe that’s why I’m consumed today with the idea of hidden things.

Most of what is observable in the universe is hidden, so it shouldn’t be surprising that large chunks of our lives and our world are unknowable, too. Astronomers say that 95% of the universe is either dark matter or dark energy, neither of which they know much about. Almost everything in space is a mystery to us here on earth.

Our own corners of the planet can hold hidden secrets, dangers of which we aren’t even aware. Hiding places are everywhere, just ask the tiny ants that come from nowhere into my kitchen. You might think, well these are tiny ants, so sure, they can hide in cracks in walls or windows not observable to the naked eye, or so my exterminator tells me.

Yet right outside my home, there’s danger lurking in the bayou. My husband, Al, likes to walk the nature trails on the shore of the bayou. I shudder when contemplating joining him on these hikes. There’s a sign saying “enter at your own risk” and another further on with a picture of an alligator and the word DANGER. Those gators are hiding just under the bayou surface, waiting for the unaware, for the less vigilant hiker.

This week I finally consented to take a walk with Al, something I hadn’t done for several years due to my fear that a gator would rush out of the water, grab my ankle with his sharp teeth, and chomp. It happens. We all know it. Somehow we convince ourselves we are safe. We are the lucky ones who can enjoy nature without colliding with its evil elements.

On our walk, Al told me the hilarious story of another time he’d been hiking and gradually became aware of a six foot long snake walking beside him. Al said the snake was bobbing along, maybe three feet of him raised tall, as if they were pals out for a stroll. When Al flicked his eye toward the snake, it went belly-flat and slithered away. Snakes are really smart about hiding in plain sight. And that will be my last walk on the nature trail for awhile.

I’ve got a crime novel to write.

Writing seems to me much safer. Yet, crime novels, too, feature plots that are hidden behind the surface of the words, action, setting and characters. The hidden plot, the one the reader will never see, is that of the murderer. His motives, machinations and methods may never be fully revealed, but the author must write a complete hidden history in order for the visible plot to flow.

Character Building

Still in Florida. Had a lovely visit with family and will be heading back to Michigan in a day or two. Don’t want to go. But don’t want to be without Al at Christmas more. All the while down here I have been thinking about my story and especially my main character. It’s like an old-fashioned flash bulb going off: click, click, click.

Each click, another part of her personality fits into place. Or a plot point. Or an important setting, like where the murderer came from and how he got into a secure gated community with a 24 hour guard. All this is happening like it always does at the start of a new project, without effort. Effort will come later. There’s so much to writing novels that requires work. I love this part, when things are first taking shape.

It feels like anything can happen. The story is wide open.

Those story clicks happen in all sorts of places. Having coffee at the clubhouse, sitting watching a sunset, strolling through the Dali. While the guys were off on a pirate ship, my daughter-in-law, Jessica, liked the museum option. My main character is involved in the art world, so going to the museum with Jessica and Julia produced a whole slew of clicks. Jessica was an art major in college, so I explained a little about the character and said “I may be calling you with questions.” She’s fine with that.

Meanwhile, I listened to the docent for the entire Dali experience for the first time. When I couldn’t quite see what she meant, Jessica helped me see those double exposures and things. Third trip to the museum, first time really getting into Dali’s art. (Those other times I was just consumed with Frida. I still am.)

Dali’s paintings remind me of tarot cards in the way that they are dense with symbolic images that a casual observer might miss. The docent and Jessica were there to answer questions and point out all the stuff I hadn’t really seen before. Dali’s an interesting artist and the museum is lovely but I’m not particularly drawn to his work. That’s okay. He’s inspiring to me for so many other reasons. Click.

Creative Dilemma Solved

After I finished my most recent manuscript, I spent a fair amount of time worrying that a new book idea was not presenting itself for my consideration. Usually I have to beat back the ideas before I’m halfway through writing the current one. I scribble notes and I see my main character and I know what she wants. I catch glimpses of the whole, and they fill me with excited anticipation.

That’s the way it’s always been but it didn’t happen like that this time. This time I had to sit in my writing room and just start somewhere. I thought maybe a short story. One member of my writing group wrote a whole book of stories while waiting for the next novel idea to appear. And it worked. He’s writing a longer piece now. Maybe it will be a novella, he says.

I can write a story. Even if it’s crap, I can do it. I’ve done it plenty of times before. I primed the pump by reading the best mystery short stories published in 2015. Some of them, although they were good, did not seem at all like mystery stories, but then what do I know? Maybe it would be easier that way. Not to have any of the rules that kind of had my creative side in jail. Just go for it.

When I sat down that first day to write, I had something on my mind. It was personal. So I ranted for a couple of pages. Caring about your conflict is excellent. Then I spent a few days thinking about how I’d resolve things. It felt imperative to solve this problem, which as I said, started out as a personal kind of rant. In fact I thought it was too personal. Then my friend read it and said “Why don’t you change the gender? That way it’s not you.”

Wow did that open up a world of possibilities. I basically wrote that story in two sessions over a week or so. After I changed the personal part of it, and allowed my imagination free choice, it all came together in a very satisfying way. Nothing about it was real anymore, which was a relief, because it had started out as something so private and not something I was inclined to share. I’ll share now, because I hate when people write but remain obscure.

So here’s the story behind the story. My husband has a hard time getting rid of things. Our basement is a hoarder’s paradise. We moved a few years ago and for a long time if we needed anything we’d go down there and find something that worked. But now, it’s just stuff we don’t need. Like the 15 year old sofa bed my husband kept insisting we take to Florida for our new place there. It’s a nice piece of furniture. I chose it. But it’s not practical to move an old sofa to Florida.

That was the conflict. He was holding on to the old, I wanted to let go and seek the new. In the story I made the female in the marriage the one who held on to stuff. My friend suggested lots of Christmas trees. I threw that in there. So that crabby rant of mine turned into a husband mulling over the many ways his wife irritated the hell out of him. He’s mad because she’s working late (again) and he has to microwave a frozen dinner. The microwave won’t work, but there’s another one in the basement. He goes down the stairs.

Then I switched to the female pov. She’s doing her best in a bad situation. Caught in the storm from hell, she can’t get home. She can’t get in touch with her husband, either. She’s too exhausted to worry so hears nothing until early in the morning when a police detective comes to her hotel room to inform her that her husband has died of electrical shock. She discloses to the detective that her husband had wired the basement himself. So, suicide by DYI.

That was the plot. Of course the plot is not the whole story. There’s character and dialogue and description and tension and subtext. I really liked the female character. I thought she might be good for the Florida setting I wanted to use in a new series of amateur sleuth mysteries. I’d had the setting idea for almost a year, but no characters. No plot. No juice to get me going into the other stuff. Now I had her.

Instead of immediately leaping into the new book, I wrote another story. I got this idea from watching Out of Sight, a movie based on an Elmore Leonard short story starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. I’d seen it before but I wanted to watch it again. I knew my husband would like it. Elmore Leonard was the inspiration for my Detroit crime novel, so I thought, you know, maybe he’d help me again.

In the film, George Clooney was a charming criminal. I thought it would be fun to try to do that. So I thought about it for awhile and then I wrote that short story in another couple of days. It doesn’t have as tidy of an ending as the first story, but that’s okay, by the end of that story I knew my character (I named him George) could be the secondary character my main character plays off. He’d be perfect. And there was another female character in his story who could easily come into play.

This morning I figured out the first scene and the inciting incident, the thing that sets the plot in motion. And that is good enough for me. I am ready to write my next book. The short stories are pretty much my characters’ back stories. At least for now. If you’re looking for story ideas, find a location or a character or both. Then write a backstory. I think both of my short stories together were probably 20 pages. And no actual husbands were killed in the writing of those pages.

Sisters in Crime

A few years ago, I went to Sleuthfest. Was researching a subplot, which mostly my subplots have suspense, some even murder. So I needed guidance specific to mystery. I met a friend there and she was surprised I didn’t belong to any mystery writer organization. She encouraged me to join Sisters in Crime.

Time went by. I wasn’t sure if my suspense plots were cutting it. Then my editor, after I turned in my last book, said “this is a mystery, you’ll be on our mystery imprint now.”

Wow. It helped that I was actually trying to write a thriller/noir/gritty city type murder mystery. Validation, somehow. And I remembered my pal who suggested Sisters in Crime. When I found out Sara Paretsky of V.I. Warsharski fame was a founding member, I was hooked. Also Mystery Writers of America did not recognize my publisher, so I’d come in as an unpublished author, which is difficult on the ego after half a dozen novels published.

Sisters in Crime welcomed me as a published author of mystery novels. So I took the plunge. Now I’m contemplating a police procedural workshop this August. I need it. My private eye has a cop friend and I know almost nothing at all about how the police work. I need to step up my game. Sisters is just the next logical and totally exciting step.