Friday, March 11, 2011

Carolyn Hart! And Her Guilty Secret

"Carolyn Gimpel Hart, author of 39 marvelous novels, author of the Pulitzer Prize nominated Letter From Home, upholder of the Malice Domestic faith, champion of the amateur sleuth, devoted Sister in Crime, mailing list compiler extraordinaire, winner of more awards than anybody ever gave me, wife to dear Philip, mother to sweet Sarah and Philip Jr., grandmother to adorable Trent and Adrienne, I crown you my official heir designate. Long may you reign, preferably at the top of the bestseller lists!"
"Agatha Christie" on Carolyn Hart
--By way of Nancy Pickard's Malice Domestic Tribute

HANK: Whoo hoo. I get to introduce Carolyn Hart. (And she's gonna read it. How do I do that?) I was sitting at a table at Malice Domestic last year, I think it was? And she came and sat next to me. I remember the moment--because I (cleverly) thought: holy goodness... Carolyn Hart! I'm sure she thought my bit of choclate had gone down the wrong pipe from the goofball expression on my face. It wasnt goofball, Carolyn.

It was awe.

Welcome to Jungle Red!

(Carolyn is the (ta dah!) Guest of Honor at this spring's Murder 203. Congratulations! And more on that in a minute.)

But first--like all mystery stories, Carolyn has a secret. And right here, right now, she'd going to reveal it.

A Foggy Road

by Carolyn Hart

Recently I changed publishers after many years at one house. During that time, it became standard for editors to request an outline of a proposed book. Moving to a new house revealed my guilty secret.

I can’t outline.

I will confess - I am unable to envision a coherent path to a finale. Yes, I have a general sense of
a book, but when I start on page one, I have no idea how I will reach page 300.
My new and wonderful editor Natalee Rosenstein mildly remarked that in high school English the teacher spent a full semester instructing them how to outline, thereby making the writing of an essay efficient and predictable.

Oh, Natalee, I would if I could.

In a perfect world, an author can glibly summarize each chapter before writing the book. I do not live in that perfect world. Instead, I start each book knowing these things: the protagonist(s), the victim, the murderer, the reason for the crime, and I have a working title.

The identity of the protagonist determines the background and sensibility of the book. Is the heroine a big-game hunter, a Wall Street lawyer, a Southern belle, a small town single mom? That decision creates the world in which the story occurs.

The victim is the second most important decision. Is he or she admirable, despicable, a bully, a near saint? Whoever the victim, that person inhabits a specific world with particular members. It is this circle around the victim that provides the cast of characters.

The reason behind the crime must match the enormity of the act of murder. Trivial passions will not suffice. There must be a compelling reason for murder to occur and for the murder to occur at this time.

Finally, I cannot write a book without a working title. Often that title will change because my story changes over the course of its writing. Minor characters become major characters. A character intrudes in the action and becomes essential to the plot. A fact included in chapter three lays the foundation for an important scene in chapter ten.

Efficient? Nope. Predictable? Not by me. But I am convinced that when the story twists in a fashion that surprises me, the scene will also surprise the reader.

I wish I could outline. It might possibly diminish the despair that sweeps me when I face a blank wall halfway through a ms and fear that never, ever will I be able to finish the book. Somehow, by grace and by God, the book continues and triumphantly one day I type - 30 - on the last page.

Finding my way is never easy, but once years ago I heard Tony Hillerman talk about writing.

He said that writing a book is like walking up a foggy road. The farther you go, the clearer become the objects in the foreground. I have taken comfort from Tony’s comment for many years.

Soon writers will gather at Murder 203. They will talk about writing. We will learn from each other and we will walk up that foggy road together.


Carolyn Hart is the Guest of Honor at this spring's Murder 203 in Connecticut--one of Jungle Red's favorite conferences. Wanna go? There's still room!

Register Today!

Here’s what this entitles you to:

- Two full days of author panels and talks for readers and aspiring writers
- Book signings
- Giveaways and free raffles
- Silent auction and live auction (including an opportunity to “buy your way”
into someone’s next mystery)
- Two breakfasts and Saturday lunch
- Our fabulous Cocktails & Crime reception on Saturday evening

Oh, and tomorrow? One writer's reinvention of herself--with wild success! How'd she do it? She'll let you in on it--on Saturday.


  1. I am so thrilled to add that Carolyn Hart was one of my first friends in the mystery community. She was so kind to me and so supportive - I actually printed out a few of her first emails to me telling me that I was going to have a fine career!
    There is still room at Murder 203 - happily I've had a change of plans and I will be going too, and there is a special discount for MWA members so make sure you say you're a member when you visit the website

  2. wonderful post Carolyn--thanks for visiting us today! (and thanks to Hank for bringing her:). It's very comforting to know that someone who's written 39 books and had an enormously successful career has to flounder through the fog to find her story!

  3. I'll echo Roberta's words. As someone who starts each book knowing next to nothing and founders through to the end, it give me great comfort to know a writer of Carolyn's skill and accomplishments STILL has to get through the awful middle-of-the-book panic (I call it the Slough of Despond.)

    I hadn't heard of Hillerman's foggy road before, Carolyn. The metaphor I've seen (and I wish I knew to whom it should be attributed) is that of driving at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make it across the country that way.

  4. Wow! How lucky we are to have Carolyn Hart at Jungle Red.

    Guilty secret? I think you should be proud and relieved that your brain is doing all that planning without you even realizing it!

    A form of brilliance!

  5. It's one of the (many) amazing things about writing a things happen when they happen...and it's sometmes difficult to know in advance. (I wrote a BIG LONG ELABORATE synopsis-like thing for my new book--after much complaining and procrastinating--and, turned out, the reality is very different.

  6. Carolyn, how lovely to have you here on Jungle Red!
    And I am the same--I never, never outline. Luckily my publisher trusts that I'll come up with a book in the end and doesn't demand to see a proposal. If they did, it would say "and then she goes somewhere and exciting things happen."
    I'm glad we have the same publisher now. See you at the Berkley dinner!

  7. Great post, Carolyn.

    I wish I could attend Murder 203, but it's my granddaughter's birthday weekend. Party at American Girl Doll store on Saturday and family cake on Sunday.

  8. This is a plotting lesson! Thanks, Carolyn and Hank.

    Carolyn doesn't remember it, I'm sure, but she's been very kind to me on a couple of occasions and I hang on her every word. No one deserves her success more!

  9. Hi, Carolyn - looking forward to seeing you next month in... is it Irvine?

    Ah yes, foundering. It turns out that outlining doesn't keep that from happening. I feel like outlines are the training wheels I need to get started writing.

    I do update my outline to show what I ended up writing, and find that very helpful in revising.

  10. Hi Carolyn! It's always such a treat to see you, virtually or in person. You've always been one of my icons, not only for the delight your books have given me as a reader, but for your professionalism, kindness, and dedication to your craft. You were one of the first people in the mystery community to give me encouragement, and I've never forgotten that.

    But I never knew your guilty secret, and I must confess I find it comforting that a writer with thirty-nine books to her credit faces the same terror of the blank page, or gets bogged down in the middle-of-manuscript morass.

    I do write a synopsis, and I do outline, but I do it in chunks. And while I start a book knowing how I mean it to end, getting there can be very different from what I imagined. But then that's half the fun, isn't it?

    Thanks so much for being with us toda, from your fan!

  11. Hi, Hank --
    I was at your table the night of the Malice banquet when you got to sit next to Carolyn Hart. I could hardly believe my luck to be sitting close to both of you. But sit nearby is all I can claim. The sound system was so loud that I couldn't talk to Carolyn across the table from me, so we just smiled and nodded. So now I can tell friends that I am a nodding acquaintance of Carolyn Hart and Hank Phillippi Ryan.
    Grace Topping

  12. I count all of you as wonderful writing friends and as amazing and gifted writers. Each of you create vibrant books that only you could have written and that is what makes them special. Thank you for a warm welcome to your great site. I am hugely relieved to find that many of you also walk a foggy road when you write.
    My best - Carolyn

  13. I have a guilty addition: I'm helping a home-schooling friend by working with her teenager on writing. And I make him do an outline EVERY SINGLE TIME.

    I figure it's good for him. Like eating 5 servings of leafy dark greens a day (another thing I don't do myself.)

  14. Oh, Grace..thnaks you! That WAS a lovely evening! (And I still think about your beautiful jacket...)

  15. Julia - my daughter was just telling me how she WISHED they'd taught her to outline in high school. It made writing the truly dreaded essay so much easier.

    And besides, that's for expository prose -- a very different kind of writing and you really do need to outline because you are trying to ** persuade** the reader of your viewpoint.

    This whole question brings out the teacher in me. And the great pedagogical axiom: do what works, deep-six what does not.

  16. Thanks for sharing! So nice to know that one of my favorite authors doesn't outline. I can't for the life of me.