Wednesday, August 17, 2022

What We're Writing: Rhys Down the Rabbit Hole

RHYS BOWEN: It’s interesting that Hallie has just written on research and how you discover weird and amazing things. When I wrote Murphy’s Law, (the first of the Molly Murphy books, over twenty years ago now!!! ) Molly is accused of a murder on Ellis Island and at the end of the book steps ashore in Manhattan a free woman. And I realized this was to be a series and that I knew nothing about Manhattan in 1901. I realized I was doomed to research on every single page. 

 This has turned out to be true, but you know what? The research has turned out to be the fun and surprising part of my writing. In the early days I went to New York and walked every street that Molly had walked. Browsed photographs at the New York historical society and amassed a collection of books, menus, timetables etc etc. The one trouble with research is knowing when to stop. I find a fascinating fact that leads to another fascinating fact and before I know it I’m off somewhere quite different and a whole morning gone. 

 When I write the Molly Murphy books (and now Clare writes with me) I always check the NY Times to see what really happened on those dates. If there was an event, a catastrophe, an election at that time, Molly would know about it, react to it. Sometimes what I find becomes an important part of the story: when I was writing THE EDGE OF DREAMS I discovered that there had been a horrific crash of the elevated railroad. A train had been routed onto the wrong track, come around a bend too quickly and plunged into the street below, killing 42 people. So I thought that Molly should mention this. Then I thought…. What if Molly was on that train? And it became an important development in the story. In my book it wasn’t an accident. 

 These days it’s Clare who does all the early research reading and comes across wonderful things. For our upcoming ALL THAT IS HIDDEN she got all the facts on William Randolph Hearst and his run for mayor of New York. Also on the corruption at the docks at that time. Our current book is set in the Catskills, at a fledgling bungalow community. Thanks to Clare I can tell you the railroad and steamship timetables, all the most popular Yiddish songs of the time, The history of the Jews in Poland. So the story is a murder at a small resort in the Catskills. Thus the suspects are all staying in the resort. However… Clare discovered that there was a bluestone mine right there–open pit mining with loud blasts disturbing the tranquility of the mountains. Not good if you want to build a hotel nearby. Also there was a brand new state park next to the mine and a clash between environmentalists and miners when they wanted to transport stone from the quarry to the boats down the Hudson through state park land. So we now have outsiders and more complex motives for murder. 

Here is part of a scene of the protest against the mine, using our serendipitous research:

Almost an hour had passed when we heard two horses cantering back along the road. They rode past the mine carts and drew themselves up in front of our protest. Two men swung down from the saddle. One was dressed in denim pants and a blue denim shirt. The other wore a brown suit and a derby hat. He spoke first.
                “Hello little ladies,” he took off his hat and gave a little bow. He sounded like a Scottsman. “I hear we have a bit of a misunderstanding, so I have come to clear it up. “I’m Ronnie Fitch and this is my foreman, Mitch Doherty.”
                “ And I’m Alice Haskin,” Miss Haskin said stepping forward. “You have illegally felled trees to create this road on state land. We are here to protest your actions.”
                “Now Mrs.,” he said with what he thought was a charming smile. “These matters are best decided by the business men. I suggest you let your husbands handle the political matters. You are all far too lovely to trouble yourselves.”
                “Do you see these chestnut trees that your men felled to make this road?” Miss Haskin continued. “You have cut right through a grove, destroying the infrastructure and spreading the blight. You must know that chestnut trees up and down the east coast are being destroyed by this blight. Do you wish a world with no more chestnut trees? Everywhere your men’s axes cut you will spread it more.”
                Doherty stepped forward. “I think we know a bit more about trees than you, little lady. Who do you think you are anyway, come out of the city with your do-gooding?”
                “I’m a researcher at Department of Agriculture studying plant pathogens,” Miss Haskins said coldly. “And I’m including your illegal behavior in our report to Congress.”
Whodunit? You’ll have to wait until March to find out. So who has a serendipitous research story? 

 And sharing a tidbit of good news. My new stand alone WHERE THE SKY BEGINS was #7 on the Wall Street Journal bestseller list of ebooks last week!

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

What We're Writing: Hank Takes A Risk

So. I took a risk on THE HOUSE GUEST. Yes, a risk.

I decided, drumroll, that I would try something I have not ever done.

I would try, I challenged myself, to write this story from one point of view, in past tense, in chronological order, with no flashbacks or befores or fancy structure.

Just: tell Alyssa’s story the way Alyssa is living it. We know what she knows and we know it when she knows it. We know what she sees, and hears, exactly when she does. We know what she decides, for better or for worse.

Easy peasy, huh?

No way, Reds and readers! It was the most difficult book I have ever written.

No “earlier” or “before” to create a history. No other points of view to offer information or brand new settings or insight or dramatic irony.

We go where she goes, see what she sees.


So difficult.

Here’s a bit of it. There are no spoilers, and nothing that will alter your reading of the whole book. And by February, you'll have forgotten this, anyway.

In this chapter, Alyssa is coming home from having a solitary drink in a hotel bar. And She’s met a woman called Bree. A woman who is running from something. Here's just a part of it.

Chapter 3

Alyssa fished her house keys out of her jacket pocket as she climbed the three brick steps to her red-lacquered front door. The forsythia flanking Alyssa’s flagstone front walk had gone from bare branches to flowering yellow almost overnight, and blooming crocuses made a ribbon of white along each edge, some blossoming brighter in the sudden glow of the motion-activated security lighting. The front steps, cleanly swept caramel-colored brick, were as pristine as when she had left them. 

One forsythia flower, the one she had carefully positioned on the center of the second step, was still there, as perfectly formed as when she had placed it. No one had stepped on it.

Sometimes, when the lights came on, she imagined that Bill had actually flipped the switch, welcoming her home. She imagined his eyes lighting up, too, when he saw her. Sometimes the loving memories of Bill emerged unbidden, the good Bill, and they threatened to engulf her. She would tamp them down, stomp them, destroy them. She could not allow that.

Those days were gone.

She thought about the woman in the bar. Bree. Whatever else Alyssa had to complain about, it was nothing compared to what Bree Lorrance had described. Hounding bill collectors, a harassing boss, and an abusive boyfriend who used the phone as a weapon.

Her key turned in the front door, and she clicked it open, the lights now on and the alarm clamoring. She tapped in the code. She’d changed it, in case Bill tried to sneak in. It had been his idea, the separation, so now he had to live with it.

He'd signed a legal agreement promising he’d only come to the house if he called in advance. Promises. As if Bill knew the meaning of that word. As if he cared about a piece of paper. As if he cared about an alarm. It was still, technically, his house.

She felt the silence. There were some times of day ––and night, especially night––when the house seemed to have a life of its own. Sixty-five hundred square feet, Bill had proudly told her. And anyone else who would listen. Which was everyone of course, he was Bill Macallen. They even laughed when he said size matters, as if that stupid joke was funny to anyone but a 14-year-old.

Those little things, things she had forgiven him when they were happy, seemed teeth-grittingly annoying now, pompous and even embarrassing. She’d never corrected him, though. She’d seen what happened when someone crossed her husband, a thing that once impressed her and now repulsed her. That was power. Only impressive when it was on your side.

Sixty-five hundred square feet. The living room, the movie room, the extra party room, and what Bill called the reception room, where long tables covered in white damask often served as bars or dinner buffets or arrays of fountains gushing dark chocolate with chefs creating dessert crepes to order, stuffed with fresh raspberry or lemon curd or brandied peaches.

Bill’s office-study, all dark rainbows of immaculately shelved books, with mahogany paneled walls and elaborate furniture. Bill thought it showed strength. Alyssa thought it showed arrogance.

Her glorious kitchen, restaurant-worthy and shiny with stainless steel, then the screened-in porch and redwood deck and, upstairs, an array of bedrooms and bathrooms. The pool in the back, randomly shaped like a shimmering turquoise island. Gardens, a changing cabana, and the guest house in the back. All that, and now it was just her, alone, in this expanse of terrifying excess.

She set her bag on the slim hall table, an act of defiance. Bill never liked her to put it there. Said it ruined the ambience of the entryway.

It was always Bill’s house, though he told her he’d bought it for her. For them. But, she thought now, more accurately, it was for Bill and his possessions. As it had turned out, she was one of them.

The ambience of the entryway. Bill words. So many things in the house were described by Bill words, Including herself.

She’d been Alice until the night they’d met—but he’d whispered she was “more like an Alyssa,” and persisted, even teasingly, intimately, introducing her as Alyssa, and soon she’d felt like Alyssa, too; glamorous, beloved, to the manner born Alyssa. And eventually she’d embraced her Bill words: her names, first and last. No longer Alice Westland. But Bill’s possession, Alyssa Macallen.

She’d loved it, once, as she’d loved him. Until the division. Or again more accurately, the subtraction. Her mother had warned her, in the days before she died. “Be careful,” Mama said as she’d clutched her daughter’s arm. Alyssa could hear it now, an evil queen’s menacing admonition. “If he leaves you, you’ll have nothing again.”

HANK: The House Guest comes out February 7, 2023. With blurbs from Lisa Scottoline and Tamron Hall and Lisa Unger and Wanda Morris–and more!--on the cover.

I am dying of nervousness.

Reds and readers, what do you think about this just-plow-ahead structure?

Monday, August 15, 2022

Accessing the astral plain in What Hallie's Writing


I’m still getting started on a novel with three generations of woman, the eldest of them a psychic. She’s into auras--seeing them and taking pictures of them. Interpreting dreams. She holds meetings in her apartment and channels spirits from the astral plain.

I’ve been trying to make her meetings less cliched (hold the seance-y Bell, Book, and Candle), thinking about original ways that she might channel spirits and access their memories… Which got me thinking about Dumbledore’s pensive (in the last year I’ve read and reread the Harry Potter books, the ultimate comfort reads) and the strands of memory he could pluck from its waters with his wand.

And in my imagination, that wand turned into a long metal tuning fork. Strike the fork and apply its vibrating tines to the side of your head and conjure the consciousness of a dearly departed soul.

Sounded reasonable. Original, even.

But before I started writing I thought I’d better check on just how original this is. Lo and behold, I immediately came across an ad on Amazon for a set of Psychic Tuning Forks, five for $120. (Buy one and get a 20% off coupon for a “Tibetan Singing Bowl” (offered by the OHM store…) you can’t make this stuff up.)

Not only that, turns out when I Google TUNING FORKS CHAKRA, I get more than a million hits. Tuning forks are apparently a big deal in the self-help world. They’re peddled for “balancing body’s energy,” “reducing tension,” and “promoting emotional harmony.”

My idea is not in the least bit original: it turns out people do use tuning forks to communicate with the dead. According to an AMAZON ad, tuning forks can be “set to the brain waves of someone proficient in psychic abilities.” To do this, the ad contains this useful advice: “Always balance the Chakras and the Organs before tuning the Psychic centers, and always close the session with the Kundalini Tuning fork (included) to seal in the frequencies.”

I have no idea what a Chakra or an Organ is, how many Psychic centers there are, or what frequencies they’re talking about. Nor am I interested in finding out. But on I read to the how-to.

Apparently you bong the tuning fork, and while it’s vibrating place it where the base of your skull meets your spine. Then wait as the vibration carries the frequency to the brain. There’s more about how to manipulate the ends to activate the brain waves in the frontal lobes.

How do you know when you’ve done it? The ad provides this sage advice: “You will know when you get there."

The forks in the set each have their own names:
- Third Eye Tuning Fork
- Total Knowing Tuning Fork
- P.S.I. Tuning Fork
- Change Matter Tuning Fork
- Kundalini Tuning Fork

By now I’ve realize I’m realize I’m way out of my depth and I have wasted far too much time researching psychic tuning forks. No matter how good they are for “awakening” one's “third eye,” they are far too complicated and easy to get wrong. I’d hoped I could just make stuff up.

Did you ever think you were making something up, only to discover the thing exists?