HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Where do you get your ideas? Is it not the BEST question? Yes, yes, it’s complicated, and sometimes unanswerable. But sometimes, you get to hear the BEST answers.
And here, from the real-life forensic scientist and CSI (and crime fiction author) Lisa Black, is a “where do you get your ideas” answer I’ve NEVER heard before.
You’d think Lisa would get them from her everyday real life--after all, she’s analyzed crime scenes and tracked down real-life criminals.
She gets her ideas--and lessons in point of view, and character development, and motivation—from a place you might never have predicted.
We all know that why our characters do what they do is much more interesting than what they do. It is also much more difficult to explain, to express to our readers, and yet is absolutely vital to the proper telling of a story.
A year or two ago, as part of a self-imposed cultural enrichment program and trying to Be a Better Person and whatnot, not to mention getting my husband to turn off the television for a whole half hour, we started reading the Bible. I had heard readings all my life, of course, and with my husband’s upbringing he had actually had fairly extensive schooling (I say ‘actually’ because if you met my husband, the presence of any sort of religious experience in his background would come as a stunner), but neither had ever read it cover to cover. And, speaking now strictly as a writer, I’m so glad I did.
I knew, of course, that the western world tends to reference a Judeo-Christian heritage, but again, speaking strictly as a writer, I had no idea how much.The basis of our entire justice system is in there. The idea that lying in wait to kill someone is somehow more repugnant than simply killing him—today that specific phrase is one of the aggravating factors used to determine eligibility for the death penalty in many states. Also mentioned is the idea that if you are forced to commit a crime and could do nothing to stop it, then you are not guilty of it. If, however, you could do something, then that’s a whole ‘nother stretch of road.
There are so many phrases and figures of speech still used today—by the skin of his teeth, at wit’s end, as old as the hills, the blind leading the blind—to name the merest fraction. And then there are the stories. If we thriller writers seek tales of deceit, treachery and betrayal, as well as passion, love and selflessness, they’re all there.
I often complain to my husband that you can tell the books were written by men. Moses and Jeremiah note every battle fought and every meal ate, but leave out the obvious things like why? And how did he feel about that? I know many books were written long after events occurred and the writers had to work with what they had, and I don’t mean to male-bash, but honestly—isn’t this just like when you come home from a dinner party and your husband has noted every option of Bob’s new car, but never asked Bob why he and Janice are divorcing?
For instance, King Solomon had an older brother, Adonijah. Being the elder, Adonijah, reasonably enough, thought he should be king and isn’t happy when dad David promoted little brother Solomon instead. After a scuffle he seems to accept his fate and is a model citizen for forty years. He then tries another coup, this one equally unsuccessful.
Why? Did he think he could handle his lot in life, really tried to be happy being the Fredo of the David dynasty, did a slow burn for four decades and finally couldn’t stand it any more? Or did he actually bide his time for half his life, until he figured (wrongly) he had enough pals in the city to overthrow the palace?
And in a ‘here’s the rest of the story’ incident, after this second coup Adonijah knows he’s in deep trouble with his brother and goes to the only person who can help—Mom. She relays to Solomon that Adonijah knows he did wrong, he’s sorry, he’ll be a good boy again, but he wants a favor—to marry a particular woman. Solomon, who’s been surprisingly sanguine about the whole matter up to this point, not only says no but then executes Adonijah, apparently not for trying to oust him from the throne but for having the gall to ask for a wife on top of it.
Why? This woman is not mentioned before or afterwards so it wasn’t some sort of love triangle. Was asking for a favor when you’re lucky just to have your life spared simply the straw that broke the back of fraternal sentiment? Or did Solomon believe that anyone with that kind of arrogance hadn’t learned a thing and would continue to plot coups? What? Why?
She had been born a princess and then, just as every princess up until the last century or so, traded like a live pawn to a stranger in a foreign land in the name of political expediency. Yet in no time at all she has her new husband in her hip pocket.
Among other things a kerfluffle with Elijah ensued when that prophet had a smackdown with her priests of Baal, seeing who could get whose god to light a fire. The Baal camp failed. Elijah even stacked the deck against himself, soaking the wood with water to make it really impossible, then prayed and it burst into flames.
Having thoroughly trounced the other side—and here is another why? moment to me—he kills them all. Which, let’s be fair, could be seen as a trifle unnecessary. Certainly Jezebel thought so, and sent a message to Elijah that essentially said “what you did to them, I’m going to do to you—by this time tomorrow.” Elijah is so frightened of Jezebel, this female, foreign-born political pawn, that he hides in the forest for forty days.
As befits a good story, Jezebel comes to a bad end. With Ahab dead and an army advancing on her city, she does her hair up, puts on her makeup, and stands in a window. Let me point out that Adolf Hitler crawled into a bunker and shot himself, and they found Saddam Hussein hiding in a hole.
But Jezebel fixes her hair and stands there and watches them come. Like Bonnie, maybe like Evita, maybe like Leona Helmsley, I don’t like her, but I can’t help but note her almost superhuman strength. But where did it come from? Was she simply playing the hand she’d been dealt, being the best queen she could be using the Machiavellian training of her parents’ court? Was she proving to the world that women could rule with a hand more iron than any man? Did she really think she was Baal’s specially selected sales rep? Or were the forces in her darker, more deep-seated, swirling and growing since birth?
The whys fascinate me. So what this writer learned from the Bible other than phrase origins and some fabulous prose, is that the motivations of our characters are their most captivating, and difficult, quality. Without a thorough examination of the insides of their head, their actions and trials and plots are as bones lying scattered on the desert sands.
HANK: I am sitting here, still picturing Jezebel at the window. Wow. And it also proves, no matter, what or where, it’s all about telling a good story.
Did you read Bible stories as a kid? As an adult? Is there a character in a Bible story you think about? Job? Lot’s wife? Noah?
Close to the Bone hits forensic scientist Theresa MacLean where it hurts, bringing death and destruction to the one place where she should feel the most safe—the medical examiner’s office in Cleveland, Ohio, where she has worked for the past fifteen years of her life. Theresa returns in the wee hours after working a routine crime scene, only to find the body of one of her deskmen slowly cooling with the word “Confess” written in his blood. His partner is missing and presumed guilty, but Theresa isn’t so sure. The body count begins to rise but for once these victims aren’t strangers—they are Theresa’s friends and colleagues, and everyone in the building, herself included, has a place on the hit list.
Lisa Black spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue. As a forensic scientist in the Cleveland coroner’s office she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she’s a certified latent print examiner and CSI for the Cape Coral Police Department in Florida. Her books have been translated into six languages and one reached the NYT mass market bestseller’s list.