Friday, November 6, 2009

Where does Carolyn Hart get her ideas?

RO: Today Jungle Red is honored to welcome Carolyn Hart. Winner of numerous Agatha Awards and nominated for a Pulitzer (for Letter From Home) Carolyn is one of the most-respected and best-loved writers in the mystery community. I have to say just uploading Carolyn's picture made me smile! She's also one of the warmest and most generous people I've ever met. I was lucky enough to have dinner with her at Bouchercon and was thrilled when she agreed to write a guest blog for JR.

At just about every bookstore and library event I've ever done, someone asks the question "Where do you get your ideas?" I couldn't resist asking her the same question.

Here's Carolyn's answer..

"Where do you get your ideas?"

Some authors dismiss the question, but I like this query.
We may not pick up ideas at the grocery as one author replied, but book themes and many scenes often flow from a remembered event, emotion, person, or place. I’ve taken inspiration from sources as varied as a heartbroken cat, a lousy movie, and Yellow Birds.

Some years ago in late afternoon on a winter day, I sat in a chair warmed by a Southern exposure. I’d finished work for the day. Suddenly I heard a frantic mewing. Outside, I found a terrified kitten in the middle of the street. A boy rode up on his bicycle and said, "I saw the lady throw her out of the car."

The January day was balmy, but a cold front the next day would drop the temperature into the twenties. I took the shaking black-and-white kitten inside. Patch, a large gray-and-orange cat, immediately hissed. I told Patch the kitten would die if we didn’t keep her. Patch said, "Good."
I kept Sophie. My adored Patch was desperately, passionately, irrevocably jealous. Patch never stayed in the same room with Sophie. Patch hated Sophie until the day Patch died. Patch was a heartbroken and bitter cat, though I tried my best to assure her that I loved her.

Deadly Valentine describes what happens to lives where love is absent, lost, or betrayed. I took Patch’s heartbreak and wove it into the story. Agatha, the bookstore cat, is distraught over the arrival of Dorothy L., a white kitten.

That winter afternoon gave me Sophie and re-emphasized the poignant truth that everyone needs love, including cats.

The lousy movie was Pearl Harbor, which came out in 2001. During WWII, I was a child, but even a child realized that the war dominated our lives. After the war, as a junior and senior high school student, I read widely about the war years. Several of my early, long out-of-print books have WWII backgrounds.

My husband and I attended the movie. Instead of the riveting true story with all its heroism and heartbreak, the film created characters not even remotely attuned to the nineteen forties. The director and actors applied early 21st century manners and mores to a period that was sharply different. The movie was absurd and ridiculous.

I felt strongly that those to whom WWII is several paragraphs in a history text deserved better. My outrage prompted me to write Letter from Home, a standalone novel set in a small Oklahoma town in the summer of nineteen forty-four. My hope was to offer readers a glimpse of the attitudes and culture of the home front during those tumultuous days.
I would never have written Letter from Home, a book that will always be very special to me, if I hadn’t gone to a perfectly dreadful movie.

And those Yellow Birds . . .

Sometimes we use our memories. Sometimes the memories belong to others. In my husband’s second grade class, the teacher divided students into three reading groups, Blue Birds, Red Birds, and Yellow Birds. My husband, an excellent reader, was a Blue Bird, but he never forgot the demoralized Yellow Birds, their ineptitude revealed to all.

In Dare to Die, Buck remembers Iris, the murder victim, when they were in school. Buck and Iris were Yellow Birds, miserably aware that school was hard for them, that they were second-rate. He squinted his eyes in a puzzled frown. "I hated being a yellow bird in front of everyone. I knew I wasn’t very smart. But one day, something wonderful happened. Mrs. Blake wanted us to sing ‘The Bear Song.’ . . . She asked Iris to stand up. . . . And," wonderment shone in his face, "it was like we heard an angel. Iris’s voice was high and clear and sweet and perfect. We all sat there and stared. Nobody knew Iris could sing. Mrs. Blake looked stunned. She was kind of a horsefaced old gal, gruff, impatient, demanding. It was so quiet, Iris looked scared like she’d done something wrong. She started to cry. Mrs. Blake went over to her and put her arms around her and said, ‘Thank you, honey. That was beautiful. I should have known a yellow bird would sing the best song.’ For years after that, Iris and I picked each either up when we down. She’d look at me and say, ‘Yellow birds sing the best songs.’" . . .

More than 65 years after my husband was a Blue Bird, that memory became a part of Buck and Iris’s lives.

A heart broken cat. A lousy movie. Yellow Birds. Whatever we’ve done, whoever we are, wherever we’ve been, the sum and substance of our lives combine to provide a treasure trove that is ours for the taking.

Carolyn will be checking in on Saturday, please stop by and give her a warm welcome. And if you live in the Boston area please check Carolyn's website for a list of appearances she'll be making in December to promote her latest book, Merry Merry Ghost.


  1. Wonderful essay Carolyn--no mystery why you love being asked that question! My husband's family is extremely competitive when it comes to sports. They try to be nice to those of us with lesser talents, but I've always resented being assigned to the Blue Birds on the ski slope:). Thanks for being our guest at JRW!

  2. Hi Carolyn
    Welcome to Jungle Red. A World War II buff, I loved the story about the idea for Letter from Home. I hated Pearl Harbor, too. It was just too glitzy and TOO LONG. Although my husband, another WWII buff, can watch it over and over. (although I think that might have something to do with Kate Beckinsale.)
    I'm curious if there is a WWII movie that you do think does justice. (aside from Schindlers List, which tops every movie in my mind.)

  3. Welcome to JRW, Carolyn.
    What an interesting essay. It always amazes me that it takes the smallest kernel of an incident or a moment to plant in the imagination and turn it into a book.
    Good luck with your Christmas Ghost

  4. Your essay brought tears to my eyes. Thank you. Is there a pattern? The heartbroken cat, the disrespected survivors of WWII, and the humiliated Yellow Birds; perhaps your ideas come from witnessing how people (creatures) endure a negative experience.

  5. Dear Roberta, I'm honored to offer a blog on a site created by authors I admire and enjoy. Thank you very much for inviting me.

    Jan, I am not enough of a film buff to be familiar with the newer movies. My hope is always that a film does not treat WWII as if it were a video game created to entertain. I still remember Bridge over the River Kawi.
    Thank you, Rhys, for your good thoughts for Merry, Merry Ghost. I would love to know the impetus for Her Royal Spyness, which is sheer delight and highly original.
    Jane, I think all of us are prompted to write because of particular wrongs we observe in our world. Almost all of my books focus on the abuse of power in relationships.

  6. What a lovely answer to the question. I know that I will now see more of you in all of your wonderful books.

  7. Abuse of power in relationships. I'll be thinking of that for a long time. No wonder I love your books, Carolyn!

  8. Oh, what a lovely essay. Thank you, and it's such a treat to see you here.

    As a reporter, I've spent my life looking for stories--and those, too, can start wth just the tiniest nugget, or throw-away word, or piece of paper.

    And, so interesting, since entering mystery world I've thought a lot about what would drive a person to kill somone. YOu know? What emotions are stong enough to cause somone to kill. And I went through the list: lust, greed, control--but the essence of all those, I decided, is just as you said: a twisted quest for power.

  9. How interesting! Thank you so much, Carolyn, for reminding us to look into our pasts and present lives for ideas for our books. I love yours!

  10. Lovely essay, Carolyn. Best of luck with the Christmas Ghost!

  11. I appreciate all of the kind and welcoming comments. As writers, we understand and appreciate each other. We are like spiders, spinning out the stuff of our hearts to create a web of our own truth that we hope will snare readers. Carolyn

  12. I'll read anything Carolyn writes. She is a wonderful writer and a warm person.

  13. Thanks so much for visiting us Carolyn. Hope to see you at some of your events in the northeast.

  14. What a beautiful post. What an amazing writer.