Tuesday, September 2, 2008

On Surprise

"Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain." Carl Jung

ROBERTA: I hope you all will indulge me today as my new book is out and I can't help wanting to talk writing actually how our writing can surprise us. When I began writing Deadly Advice, I needed a sidekick for Rebecca Butterman; for reasons unknown, I chose a sandplay therapist. As sometimes happens, that character moved forward to take a leading role in the new mystery, ASKING FOR MURDER. Since I was basically ignorant about sandplay therapy, I ordered a book on the subject and began to struggle through it. Le crap, I said to myself before long. You know nothing about this and one book isn't going to answer your questions.

So I Googled sandplay therapists and found one in New Hampshire who was very interested in helping me portray this kind of treatment accurately. She spent several hours on the phone walking me through what her office looked like, how a session would be conducted, and then how the therapist would help the patient understand the arrangement she'd made in the sand tray. And then I wrote the book. This summer, months after the book was in production, I went to visit this therapist. WOW! Her walls were lined with shelves carrying thousands of figurines. I desperately wanted to study them, choose the ones that called to me and place them in the sand, and then have Sally help me understand what I'd done. Oddly enough, Rebecca had already done this in the book! What I mean is, I'd written the scene and now I was living it as my character had.

So that's the question for today, Jungle Red Writers, what's the most interesting surprise you've come across lately in your writing or your reading?

RO: That's a timely question for me since I just had a lengthy meeting at my publishers and have been talking about my second book a lot. I thought I was writing a fun and frisky book about a missing woman, some fake native Americans, and Ukrainian mobsters with a few health-conscious bikers thrown in, and what I really did was write a book about three female friends. It seems I've done both, quite unintentionally.

On the reading side, recently I was surprised by the ending of the latest Lee Child, Nothing To Lose. It was more overtly political than I expected it to be.
Not that I minded, or was shocked by his position..just surprised.

JAN: In the life-imitating art category: When I researched A Confidential Source, I needed help on how criminal law worked in Rhode Island. I got it from a lawyer named Patrick Lynch. When I created a prosecutor love interest for Hallie Ahern, my protagonist, I carefully steered away from any "P" names.

After much deliberation, I chose Matt as the perfect name for Hallie's boyfriend, and made him ambitious to become the head of the Criminal Division. Then, my source, Patrick Lynch ran for Attorney General -- and won. When I began researching Yesterday's Fatal, I didn't want to take up the AG's valuable time asking my tedious fiction questions, so I asked him if he could introduce me to a willing prosecutor who worked for him.

Well, as it turned out, the prosecutor's name was Matt. We had a few lunches, and he was so incredibly helpful, he became essential to my storytelling. Not only that, he was soon promoted to chief of the Criminal Division.

I had to warn real Matt that everybody in Rhode Island would mistake him for fictional Matt -- especially after I mentioned him in the acknowledgements. But he was a really good sport about it.

HALLIE: Of late I’ve been reading about con men. In the news, Clark Rockefeller with his string of aliases and missing former landlords. Two books just out about Han Van Meegeren, a successful painter who got back at art critics by forging Vermeers. A riveting New Yorker article about of Frederic Bourdin who repeatedly passed himself off as a homeless teenager, inventing scores of identities in more than fifteen countries and five languages. He goes too far when he tries to pass himself off as a family’s son who disappeared years earlier and stumbles into what may have been a murder. Shades of Josephine Tey’s wonderful “Brat Ferrar.”

Art imitating life or the other way around? You couldn’t make up more fascinating characters.

HANK: I so agree, Hallie. The "Clark Rockfeller" story is incredible. I just met someone who had talked with him at length--she said he was charming,well-spoken.But for some reason, when she went home, she looked up some stuff he had said about his education. It was all a lie.

What surprised me? I'm so sorry to bring it up, and I know it's old news, but I'm still not over John Edwards. How pitiful, of course. But here he was, running for president. What if he had won the nomination? He risked--pulling the entire election out from under the Democrats. He had to decide--which was more important, the future of the country? Or what he wanted to do. And he decided: what he wanted was more important.

The "Most self-centered person on the planet" award gets retired, don't you think? Awarded to him forever for lifetime achievement in selfishness?
It still surprises me.

ROBERTA: Ro, we can't wait to read that book! And Jan, has Matt gotten comments about his new fictional self? I'm still astonished about John Edwards too--maybe he was imitating some art and we just don't know about it yet. I'm never surprised when people do dumb things--we have so many layers and we wander through them half-aware. But it is astonishing that someone in a position that high could convince himself none of it would come out. Maybe he could have used a few sessions with my friend Sally, the sandplay therapist, and saved himself a lot of embarrassment and his family a lot of pain.


  1. Congratulations, Roberta! Can't wait to read the new one.

    The oddest occasion I've had was when I was halfway through writing Through a Glass, Deadly, and had kind of run out of plot (I hate middles). The back door of my protagonist Em's studio opens, and in walks an Australian uncle of the woman Em is trying to help. I hadn't known he existed until he showed up. I certainly hadn't planned an Australian connection. He turned out to be a very useful guy, and now he's coming back in the third book.

  2. love that story Sheila! I see a trip in your future...

  3. Roberta, I look forward to your next book--for its own self, of course, but also for the peek into sandplay therapy, which I know *nothing* about, (but I bet I'd want to try).

  4. What I can't bear is NOT to be surprised in my writing. I've been toying with a particular story idea for almost a year--but since I sat down to put it on paper, I've found that it's all played out in my head and it doesn't feel like there are any surprises left. It's the process of discovering the story that I love. Probably goes without saying that I never outline....

    Can I mention that you and your fabulous new book will be at Notes From the Handbasket tomorrow?! Yay!

  5. Surprises in my books? Oh, yes, exactly--and that's one of my favorite things ever. Like Sheila, I had a person answer the door--of a place I had planned to be empty. She opened the door, said her name and her position, and announced her intentions.

    I burst out laughing. And like Sheila, the character, Poppy Morency (wherever that name came from!), turned out to be key. SO much fun.

    Another surprise was when I wanted Charlie, my main character, to do something. And she just would not do it. Refused. So I changed the story. Or actually, I just wrote the story she dictated.

    Laura, I agree. It's when the surprises dont apear that I begin to worry. But just like Roberta's quote from Jung--I just wait. ANd they appear. That's why they call 'em surprises.

  6. Hello to all, as I'm new here.

    My biggest writing surprise was choosing character names back years ago while writing a series completely in my head that's now being released. The close correlations I'm finding with those names, and somewhat with the story line, is a bit embarrassing because I know it'll be taken wrong. I suppose I'll have to shrug and say, "It's fiction."

  7. Congratulations, Roberta, on ASKING FOR MURDER! I'm a big Dr. Butterman fan...and I confess, the first thing I read every morning in my beloved newspaper is the advice column. (One of my favorite novels (novella actually): "Miss Lonelyhearts" by Nathanael--the truly dark side writing advice to the lovelorn.)

    And welcome "lk" - we'll be looking for your book...let us know your authorial name and the book title!

  8. Congratulations on Asking for Murder. It's a great book and I learned about sand therapy. Not only did I not know how it worked, I'd never even heard of it.

    One thing that surprises me is how a character can drag her feet when I try to get her to do something mundane. Seriously, it's like pulling her through cement, so I finally give up and let her take the lead.

  9. Oh now this is starting to feel like a party--I'm cracking open the champagne! Suzanne, I know you would have loved visiting the sandplay office with me--it was amazing. And yes, please come to Laura's blog tomorrow and chat some more. In fact, go today--you'll be very impressed with what she's up to: on a panel with A Very Famous Person. And LK is a writer too besides being a sandplay expert. She very generously reviewed Asking for Murder (even though she doesn't read mysteries!!) http://sandplayvoices.blogspot.com/

    And hey Helen! Helen has a great blog on writing, with a wonderful title--straight from Hel!

    I'm telling you--it's a party! Now if only my characters would write my next book the way some of yours do...

  10. I knew nothing about sandplay either (well, except in cleaning litterboxes... eewwww) so that was all very interesting. I can well imagine sandplay therapists have their work cut of for them in the credibility department. Doesn't mean it's not an effective tool, though. I LOVE where this story is going... especially the romance. ;) Nice job, Roberta!


  11. And everyone, meet Dani! She's an astonishingly good marketer--and she's out to help authors keep their cars off the road while keeping books in people's hands. If you have a book coming out, check out her blog and new Yahoo group--you'll learn a ton about blog book tours!

  12. Dear Roberta,

    Congratulations! Sounds like your new book is a winner. As a writer and therapist myself, I appreciate how smoothly you've blended both your talents. All best wishes for continued success with the series!


    Dennis Palumbo
    Psychotherapist and author, "From Crime to Crime: Mind-Boggling Tales of Mystery and Murder"