Monday, November 26, 2007

On ideas: And then the phone rang, and then...

Things come to me in driblets. and when the driblets come I have to work hard to make them into something coherent.
...Aldous Huxley

HALLIE: Taking off on a question that Mike Draper posted on Mystery Writers of America's listserv (EMWA) last week: Suppose a chapter of your book has just ended with your hero being told that a friend is dead and the authorities are saying it's suicide. How would you open the next chapter?

Does the room spin? Does your character dissolve into a tearful puddle? Is your character angry that, once again, her drama queen friend has made herself the center of attention... I know, I know, it all depends on the relationship between the two characters.

Here's one possible next-chapter opening:"At least now I wouldn't have to shoot her myself."

Anyone else want to take a few potshots at this??

HANK: How about: "Stella was murdered. Absolutely. No way she'd kill herself before the last episode of Project Runway. Plus, I knew she just paid off her Visa bill. If she were going to kill herself, why bother to write a check?"

Okay, I know I'm the fun-light one. Let me think of something else. Darker. Back soon.

HALLIE: See, this exercise is actually a kind of Rorschach.

RO: My character, Paula Holliday is a wisecracker, and if it was not a friend I can definitely hear her saying something like "Suicide? If it was, it was the only thing she ever did herself. Her servants had servants." But a friend...ooh, that's a bit different. My plucky protagonist would probably refuse to believe the death was suicide, would find the bad guys and beat the crap out of them.

JAN: Protagonist X would immediately charge over to the police/doctor/mother of the deceased friend to find out what she drank/inhaled/injected and whether the champagne/crack/steroid came from a suspicious source.Later, after Protagonist X obtained some stimulating, yet frustratingly ambiguous clue that could lead her in any number of directions, she'd see something on the drive home that reminded her of her deceased friend. Protagonist X then has a vivid, meaningful memory. She doesn't quite collapse, but emotes deeply, yet in an intelligent way that allows her to maintain control of the car, so she doesn't tragically veer off the road, way too early in the novel, and end up as a fatality before chapter three.

HALLIE: Okay, I wanna read that book. Especially the *emotes deeply yet intelligently but not tragically* part.

HANK: Said I'd be back. Hallie, I think this is a fascinating exercise. On the face of it, it seems like an off-the-wall idea. But I now think it's actually very, as you say, revealing. I've been experimenting all weekend (between reheating stuffing and deciding how long is too long to keep sweet potatoes) with openings for the next chapter.

And some I write (in my head) don't seem like me. The dark, writhing-in-pain ones, or the bitter self-blaming ones. The ones I COULD write are questioning, certainly, like:
"I tried to list all the reasons Stella would kill herself. Just like Stella did. She made lists, for everything, while she was alive. Maybe, somewhere, she left one last careful roster of pros and cons."

I could also go the conspiracy route. "I dashed for the kitchen.For my recycling bin. I suppose I could have gone on line, but all I could remember was where the article had been on the newspaper page. I had to see how it looked. I knew I had read articles about two other suicides of thirty-something single women, just in the last week. That seemed like too many."

And looking at those ideas, I guess you can tell I'm a reporter.

HALLIE: I can see it now - BREAKING NEWS: The first serial suicide novel!

So, folks, please chime in with your response to this challenge: Suppose a chapter of your book has just ended with your hero being told that a friend is dead and the authorities are saying it's suicide. How would you open the next chapter??

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Based on a True Story

RO: Some years ago I read a book called An Inconvenient Woman by Dominick Dunne. I thought it was pretty good and was surprised to learn after the fact that it was based on the true story of Alfred Bloomingdale (as in "would you like a sample of Daisy by Marc Jacobs?"...that Bloomingdale)and his longtime mistress Vicki Morgan.

I wasn't so naive as to think all fiction sprung full-blown from the author's head - even Shakespeare ripped things from the headlines - but I was a little surprised that there weren't legal ramifications in creating a story so close to an actual event.How close do you tread to that line? And does the line move as you get more involved in a story?

JAN: I once wrote three quarters of a fictional book based largely on a true story. I worried that even though I had the protagonist's okay on the book, that I might get sued by one of the more minor characters. It also started to make me feel a little queasy about what I was doing with a real person's tragedy.(The victims, not the perpetrators), but I don't think there's anything wrong, ethically or creatively, with it.I don't know how Dominick Dunne, who I believe has based more than one novel on a true crime event, avoids a legal suit. Especially since he is a bestseller and thus, a potentially profitable target. But I'd guess that he knows what he has to change, character-wise, to avoid liability. And he's an awesome writer, so ripping that closely from real life creates some great books.

HALLIE: The legal issue for the writer is 1) are the characters recognizable and 2) if they are, is what you tell about them the truth. As I undertand it, if you create a character recognizably based on a real person and defame them in your characterization, you can be (successfully) sued. So, if you write a character based on an ex-friend and disguise that person's identity by making her horrendously ugly, only people still recognize her, she could sue you and win.

My first book was based on a true case. I decided not to pursue publishing it for the same reason Jan said so perfectly above -- because I got queasy about what I'd be doing to the survivors. Everything I've written since is 150% made up, though news stories do inspire. Anyone see that story last week about a wealthy relator who was bludgeoned to death with a yoga stick (whatever that is) by her assistant who said she was provoked because "she wouldn't stop yelling at me." Truth is often stranger than fiction.

Ro: Do any of you Beantown babes know if Gone, Baby, Gone was based on a true story?

HANK: Hmm.. Don't know. And a quick Google search did not produce any clues. Google aside, though, I did hear that the movie's release was delayed because the plot was too close to the story of Madeleine McCann, the little girl who vanished from her parents' hotel room in Portugal.

As for real vs fiction. Well. I must say my closest brush with disaster in that realm is how angry my mother was (briefly, but unpleasantly) about the portrayal of Charlie McNally's mother in Face Time. Seriously. And the more I insisted it was fiction, the more she insisted I was being absurd. Now THAT was just about as close as I want to get to the line. Now that's she's read it of course, she's delighted. Although she still thinks she's Mrs. McNally. Even though she isn't.
The more I write fiction, the more careful I am not to get anywhere near reality. Everyone always thinks it's them.

Plus, I had someone say to me--oh, you're so lucky to have a husband who's a lawyer. It makes it so easy for you. You don't need to make up plots, you can just get them all from him.
Snort. Thanks lady. Straight to the moon.

RO: I just had a friend tell me that she couldn't recognize anyone in my if I was going to describe all my pals in excruciating detail. Cheesh.
OTOH, Hank, I'm very disappointed to learn that your own mom is nothing like Charlie's. I think she's a riot! Haven't finished the book yet, but hope we haven't heard the last of her.

Monday, November 12, 2007

New England Crime Bake 2007

"Think Die Hard without the smirk." —Playboy on Jack Reacher

JAN: This conference just keeps getting better in every category. Better panels, better hotel (this year the Dedham Hilton in Massachusetts) and better turnout. So good, in fact, that maybe, just maybe, we can overlook certain liberties taken with the criminal justice system.

As always, the organizing committee secured a great guest of honor. This year’s host, Lee Child, charmed the audience, not just with his panel appearance and guest interview, but with his performance as his protagonist Jack Reacher, who was put on trial for murder at the dinner banquet.

Our own Hallie Ephron introduced the cast, which also included Hank Phillippi Ryan as the television reporter (gee, what a stretch), Michele Martinez as the prosecutor, Julia Spencer-Fleming as the defense attorney, Lee Lofland as the police witness, and Judge Ken Freeman as the judge.

Despite a preponderence of evidence to premeditation and excessive force offered by the prosecution, Reacher got off on a lame self defense argument. And why? Because certain jurors (we all got to vote) would not listen to reason, and argued that Reacher was too likeable, too enduring as a mystery protaganist, or simply too hot to go to jail.

Yes, the "hot" defense. This from our Rosemary Harris, who could not be swayed.

In legal terms, it may have been a travesty, but in entertainment terms it was a hit.

So thanks and congrats to the Crime Bake Committee members who worked so hard to pull it off: Catherine Cairns, Lynne Heitman, Ruth McCarty, Leslie Wheeler, Paula Mello, Roberta Islieb, Hans and Judy Copek, Jeff Cutler, Paula Munier, Kate Flora, Vaughn Hardacker and Hallie Ephron.

Ro: Busted by my own blog sister. I tried to convince the defendant that it wasn't me, it was the short guy with the mustache (who voted Hot), but I don't think he bought it. Among the panels I attended was the one on Amateur Sleuths, given energy, humor and sex appeal by the glam Jan Brogan. (Since it's impossible for me to grow another three inches or get your tennis player's bod, can you at least tell me where you bought those cool earrings?)

Had a great time, connected with some old friends, made some new....already thinking about next year, too.

HANK: Yeah, RO, Lee Child totally knew it was you who voted hot. And I think, actually, he was delighted.

RO: Are you suggesting I was less than subtle?

Hank: You? Anyway, yes it was terrific. And so inspirational to see and hear from other writers who have the same hopes and fears and goals and thought processes.

To hear Lee Child and Bill Landay and Joseph Finder and Julia Spencer Fleming admit they have moments of total despair about their work--yikes. I mean, if those icons of perfection have doubts, then we're all fine, right?

Now--more photos. I know the amazing Mo Walsh was everywhere with that camera of hers, and so a shout out to Mo--if you're out there, can you email me some of them? And we'll have a wonderful MO Show right here on JR.

Here's a lovely one of the panel of the trial of Jack Reacher...Judge Ken Freeman, Detective Lee Lofland, starstruck me, Lee Child, Prosecutor Michele Martinez, Julia Spencer-Fleming, and Hallie (the mogul of the operation.)

And a hilarious one of Bill Landay, me, Lee Child and Ro (And Dear Miss Manners, anyone know who this other person is?) that I think I might make into a poster. Cutting out everyone but me and LC. Sorry Ro and Bill. Love ya lots, but bye.

You're seeing a theme here. We don't deny it.

HALLIE: I agree, it was great-great-great. I was so wiped when I got home I took a two-hour nap and then was asleep for good at 9. The hotel was absolutely the best yet. We all already have our agents, but for those new authors attending, the AGENTS this time were particularly strong. And the Friday night events a blast.

I knew JR would get off...he did at Thrillerfest, too. It's the HOT factor, but it's also the 'victim deserved to die' and distrust of official powers that be. It was so great to have a real judge, Ken Freeman, who talked seriously after about things like "jury nullification" and how in a real trial Reacher would never have been called to testify.

A great time was had by all.

Sunday, November 4, 2007


Connect, connect, connect has brought us to a place where we feel overwhelmed, overstimulated and unfulfilled. We're under constant stress because our orientation is: ‘I don't want to miss anything.' " Linda Stone, former executive for Microsoft and Apple
Multi-tasking. It's so last week.

I think I can do three things at once. Maybe four. I can check my email and talk on the phone at the same time, certainly. And have lunch at that same time. If someone holds up a piece of paper with a question on it, I can nod yes or no without losing track of the rest of the goings-on. ANd if there's a breaking news pop-up on my computer, I can read that, too.
If I'm on the phone and have to answer an email at the same time, I'm very careful to type quietly so the person on the phone doesn't know I'm doing it.

I used to think this was a very supergirl accomplishment, cool and competent and efficient. Now it's just beginning to drive me crazy.

My producer Mary, colleague and pal, is even better/worse at it. She wears one of those earheadphone things so she has two hands to do other stuff. And so it happened one day recently, I was trying to tell her something important.

And she was "listening" to me, but she was also checking her email. I stopped talking. A fraction of a moment later, she said--What, again?" And that was the moment my life changed.

You're not listening to me, I said. Maybe in more snippy a tone than absolutely necessary. She insisted she was, but she wasn't. Okay, she was, but only half her brain, if that. And that was so annoying.

So, I've stopped checking my mail while on the phone. And I feel better about it. I still eat lunch at my desk. But if you're talking to me, I promise you'll have my full attention.

Multi-tasking. It's so last week. For me. Maybe. Do you multi?

JAN: I meditate every morning for fifteen minutes just so I WON'T multi-think, let alone multi-task. Stay in the moment and all that. Very this week. Or maybe next week.

But the truth is I'm not efficient enough to multi-task with any aplomb. My children make fun of me because I make everybody stop talking when I make a left turn. And if you were talking to me while I was also checking email or paying bills, you can be 100 percent sure that my brain will screw it up.

So simply to maintain quality control standards, I don't multi-task. And some days I have to concentrate, real, real hard just to task.

RO: There's a certain level of activity where I happily juggle four or five things - e.g., checking emails, talking to my 85 yr old aunt on the phone, watching the game, paying bills - but, as the importance rises, whether it's personal or professional, I like to limit it to two or three. When I'm writing that's all I can do.

I multithink all the time - Africa, promoting Daisies, writing book two, my weight, gardening, my friend who needs a job, oh yeah, my husband, it's all there, all the time. The quiet time comes when I garden or row.

HALLIE: Multithink. I like that. But really, that thing where you talk to someone and they start doing something (filing nails, reading the paper, answering the cell)? That's rude. And you know, great for that moment in writing a book where you're looking for the TELLING gesture to show DIS-R-E-S-P-E-C-T. And how come all the great ideas come when you can't possibly write them down (in the shower, driving)?

HANK: It's supposed to make you more efficient. Multi-anything. When it makes you LESS efficient, then there's a problem.

Although we all have our different ways of looking at the world. If I have to make 2 turkey sandwiches, I put out 4 pieces of bread. Mayo on 2. Then, lettuce on each sandwich. Tomato on each. Turkey on each. Close. Result: 2 sandwiches. When my husband does it, he makes one whole sandwich. Then the other whole sandwich.. Neither of us can fathom why the other would do it their way.
That's maybe off the point. But it does show brains are funny things.
Do you multi? Are you a one sandwich at a time? Or two?

** P.S.
Breaking news (you can read this while doing something else)
A very nice article about me and the Charlie MCNally Mysteries.