I planned to write a blog post about truth being sometimes stranger than fiction and true crime podcasts and real-life stories that inspired crime novels. (I was yesterday years old when I learned that actress Gene Tierney’s tragedy inspired Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Cracked from Side to Side.) I would have had the post up around lunchtime for you to enjoy with your midday meal. Then I stepped outside…Read more
TRACEE: As writers we have stories floating around in our heads all the time. Sometimes I feel like everything I see during the day spurs a little “and then what if?” moment where I spin the action, dialogue, character into something darker. I’m sure that some of those thoughts do make it into a story as an expression, or phrase or setting. Perhaps even as the seed for a character. However, it is a far cry from fleeting interest to formation of a plot that will become a project that occupies my mind for at least a year. Those of us who write a series are looking for plot – we know the broader sense of our story (continuing characters, setting and some on-going themes). If you aren’t writing a series – or if you are, and think to break away – then all ideas are on the table. Action, mystery, romance, historical, literary, comic books. You name it, and it is possible. How do you know that ‘this is it!’ This is the storyline that you will commit to. SUSAN: There are few better feelings than that shiver of excitement you feel when you know you’ve hit on something good. (Then I ask Paula and she tells me if I’m right.) A lot of times it just comes down to knowing I have enough to say about the plot to spin it out. If it’s interesting, but I don’t have that much to say, then I write it as a story. I wish it was scientific, but it’s more like falling in love. PAULA: When I know who the characters are–and what challenges they face. When I can “see” them in action in my mind…then I have the beginnings of a plot. CATE: I think my stories choose me like the wands in Harry Potter. An idea just takes hold and magic happens…;-) ROBIN: Ideas are constantly percolating. When characters becomes as real to me as my friends and family, or situations start to seem less like a “what if” and more like a memory, that’s when I know I’ll give the ideas life. I mean, heck, at that point, they’re writing themselves. All I have to do is pick up a pen or fire up my laptop. Like Cate said, it’s like magic. TRACEE: So… to the ‘magic happens’ among you. Is there still room to start an idea and then say, no, it didn’t work out? Or once you have it in mind, it’s a “GO!”?? I have several (but not tons) of ideas that became starts but then I decided no or the fates tempted me away. ROBIN: I leave room for experiments and surprises. Ideas that started life in one way have evolved into something else, like a subplot. If it’s not working, I don’t force it, though. Sometimes when I make cuts, whether they be characters or scenes, I save them in a separate “cuts” file. Only the characters/scenes that haunted me to begin with. The cuts that are pure crap get left behind as unallocated space on my hard drive, ready to be overwritten. In other words, deleted. 🙂 MICHELE: I know it when my fingers hit the keyboard and seem to have a life of their own. It’s like the story is in me and has to be told. The characters just won’t shut up until I’m done. ALEXIA: Ooh, good question. I start with a subject that fascinates me, something I want to learn more about in real life, a something I’d be “into” even if I wasn’t writing a novel. Then I try to combine my characters and a murder (or three) with my chosen topic. If I can figure out how to combine, for instance, rose gardens and growing roses (hint, hint) with Gethsemane and the gang and a credible crime, that’s my story. Sometimes I’ll find a topic that grabs me but I can’t figure out how to work a dead body into it so it goes into the “maybe someday” pile. TRACEE: Now I’m going to be hesitant to follow Alexia into her rose garden or any flower garden for that matter. ALLISON: For me, I need something concrete intersecting with something theoretical. With this first book, I became obsessed with an enormous house that had been empty for years because of the housing bubble in Utah. The house plays almost no role in the story now, but it was the jumping off point for thinking about greed, secrets, and people who do very wrong things for what they believe are very right reasons. Like Alexia, I enjoy research. I’m an eternal student and love reading primary source material. My Mormon history is a great place to find strange and disconcerting ideas for murders. I have started projects that seem to peter out around 20,000 words. Those are stories where I have the physical component–people and places–but haven’t found the right theme. I keep them; believing one morning I’ll wake up with just the right reason for murder. TRACEE: Thanks everyone! I’ve decided that if I turn burglar or hacker I’d want to peek inside the dark reaches of computers and read the lost idea and chapters waiting patiently to be reinvigorated. Bet there’s some good stuff among the detritus! Wonder how other writers decide the time is right to start the story?Read more
I struggled to come up with an idea for a blog post today. I mean I had nothing. Nothing struck me as new or blogworthy. I didn’t feel I had anything to say about anything, at least nothing that hadn’t been said countless times already. No new spins, no new twists. Until I decided to get dinner and went out for a sandwich.
My town boasts a lovely cheese market. They sell more varieties of cheese than I imagined possible. Cheese made from milk produced by every animal except yak, I think. Cheese from more countries than you can find on Google Earth. Plain cheese and cheese with add-ins ranging from berries to nuts to nettles to bourbon. Pure cheese nirvana. The market also sells deli meats, salads, pastries, beverages, and heat-and-eat meals. And sandwiches. Which is why I was there. As I waited for my panino (which I just learned is the singular of panini) to come off the grill, a man approached the counter with a tub of grated parmesan cheese. The cashier rang up the cheese and asked the man if he wanted anything else. “No,” the man said. He swiped his card to pay for his cheese and left.
Grated parmesan. That’s all he bought. No pasta, no bread, no wine. Just a single tub of grated parmesan. Who goes to the store and buys only a tub of grated parmesan? What’s he going to do with it? I looked him over—unobtrusively, I hoped. Middle-aged. Handsome. A bit of gray flecked his dark hair and beard. His beard fell into the scruffy category—too heavy to be five o’clock shadow, too scant to be called full. Neat and trim enough to suggest he worked to keep it that way. He wore a nice suit and carried a stainless-steel travel coffee mug. The lid was on but he held it sideways, suggesting he’d finished the contents at some earlier point in his commute. It also suggested he’d just come from the train. If he’d driven, he’d have left the mug in his vehicle. In other words, he looked like an average businessman, no different from some zillion other average commuters. Nothing sinister about him.
But, because this is how my brain works, I immediately started to attribute sinister motive behind buying only a tub of grated parmesan cheese. I decided he was going to mix poison in it and swap it for an unadulterated tub. A regular brain would assume he was planning a spaghetti dinner and simply forgot the parmesan so stopped by the store on the way from work to get some. Or someone was fixing spaghetti for him and called or texted him to say they were out of cheese and please get some on the way home. A regular brain would assume these things. My brain is not regular. My brain writes murder mysteries. A friend once asked me if I spent all my time imagining ways my friends would die if they were characters in my novels. I told him my “friends” have nothing to worry about. But, yeah, I kind of do. Every place I visit is a potential crime scene in some future novel. Every person I see is a model for a fictional victim or suspect. Every overheard conversation becomes the basis for potential dialog or a plot. It’s been said that authors steal lives. Authors steal entire worlds. Everything, even the most mundane situation (and, really, what’s more mundane than buying a tub of cheese?) is fair game for future fiction. And, you know what? I’m not sorry. No apologies. As an introvert, I’ve lived in my head my entire life. I enjoy the stories swirling around in there. I’m not hurting anyone. I don’t shout at strangers, “Hey! Who are you going to poison with that cheese?” Making up stories satisfies my urge to create, fulfills my God complex. The world in my head operates the way I want it to. Good triumphs over evil, the bad guy never gets away with it, repentance and redemption are the rules, not the exceptions, chaos becomes order, wrongs are made right, justice prevails.
So, Mr. Cheese, if you happen to read this, don’t worry. I don’t really think you’re a mad poisoner. My assessment of your food choice may have been influenced by the advanced reader’s copy of fellow Missdemeanor, Cate Holahan’s, new domestic thriller, The Lies She Told. A good domestic thriller makes you suspicious of all things associated with domestic tranquility. You give every mundane action, every scene of commonplace life, the side eye, wondering what darkness lurks beneath the Norman Rockwell-esque veneer. But, please, enjoy your pasta or whatever you plan to sprinkle with parmesan. I’ll keep my thoughts about your purchase to myself. Unless I come across a breaking news headline about the Spaghetti Murders.