Thursday, October 2, 2014

Tales as Old as Time

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.

 But nope.

She gets her ideas--and lessons in point of view, and character development, and motivation—from a place you might never have predicted.

                 By Lisa Black

         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?
 Then there’s Jezebel. Jezebel and her boyfriend King Ahab were the Bonnie and Clyde of the Bible, sociopathic, violent and voracious. She is truly evil—she destroyed a man just to cheer up her pouting hubby with the guy’s vineyard—but I can’t help but catch a tiny glimpse of her point of view.
      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.



  1. Oh, I really enjoyed reading this, Lisa! One truly has to wonder what in the world Adonijah was thinking and, oh wouldn't it be great to know the reasons for Jezebel's actions?

    I have to agree that the "why" of things is often woefully absent in many of the stories . . . and there are times I'd really like a peek at the motivations; but it's all still good reading.

    It does seem as if there's a lack of understanding when it comes to how much the Bible influenced our founding fathers.

    Yes, I read the Bible stories as a child and still do read them as an adult.
    I've always had a fondness for the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego . . . .

  2. As a Christian, I've been reading the Bible all my life. And yet I missed some of those phrases originating in the Bible.

    I've heard that the reason Solomon killed Adonijah is that the woman Adonijah wanted to marry would have given him a claim on the throne based on old culture and the fact that she'd been David's concubine. There is also speculation she was the woman from Song of Solomon so there was a love triangle involved. But neither is spelled out specifically in the text, and it does make a weird story if neither of those are true.

  3. Not as a child. No. The bible wasn't read in my house. My father was atheist, and my mother thought it was a Protestant habit. So of course I grew up and went to divinity school. You could say I rubbed it in my father's face by by studying biblical theology and history.

    I didn't know it at the time, but my 8th great-grandfather went to the same school that I did and was in the same graduating class with Increase Mather, a peculiar object of my interest. I often find myself wondering what kinds of conversations they had about the bible and how it was, they justified their own biblical theologies to become involved in subjecting the populace to the terror of the witchcraft trials.

    I naturally took up studying and writing about Salem (where my 8th great-grandfather and I were born) through the religious history of the area. I stayed 5 years for a three-year program, because it was the only way to get all the courses in biblical theology and the history of religion in New England that I wanted.

    I became a glutton for biblical theology as it played out in the daily lives of the biblically oriented people of 17th-century Massachusetts. I read as many personal narratives as I could get my hands on at the school libraries and even followed their paths back to England trying to get a feel for the family origins that might have influenced them.

    I extended my studies back to the Dead Sea Scrolls, a great opportunity I couldn't let get away from me. Probably the most difficult course I had but hugely interesting and much like the writings of the bible in the types of stories and the fervor of the writers.

    The most fun thing I learned in that course was when we read one of the legal scrolls and commentary. Even back then, while people relied on law and dedicated themselves to its study as a religious instrument, the people had a distrust of those who used the law. There is an ancient Hebrew word in that scroll that is a play on words, as in literal translation it is "seekers of smooth things" and was at that time their word for "lawyer."

  4. You're so right: "If we thriller writers seek tales of deceit, treachery and betrayal, as well as passion, love and selflessness, they’re all there." (Can't wait to hear what Julia has to say on the topic!)

    It's also all there in ancient Greek drama. Which I know a whole lot better than I do the Bible.

  5. JOan and Mark, I wonder if the reason the "why" is left out is that it's for the reader to discover.. the content of everything form SUnday School classes to Bar Mitzvah talks to discussion groups! Who'd a thought it'd be fodder for mystery authors!

    (oh, wow--my captcha is 1620!)

  6. Reine, you are endlessly fascinating. And I am off to tell Jonathan about his "smooth" origins!

    WHich reminds me--another thing we get from the bible--is names!

  7. ALso all there is Shakespeare, right? But the bible discussion proves how things do not change--and how people behaved the same way they do now--from the very beginning.

  8. Hello, Lisa! Great post. I went to Catholic school and was constantly questioning (to myself) why Mary Magdalene wasn't given more prominence.....

  9. My grandmother always used to say that it really is true that there's "nothing new under the sun". She said people have been committing the same crimes and sins since the beginning of time. They're just finding new ways to do it with the technologies of their own age. I wonder what she would think about cyber-crimes; she was born in 1886 and died in 1969.

    I do read the Bible. As a child I did it occasionally for school but as an adult I read at least a few passages a day. My all-time favorite person is Jonah: NOT because of the whale story but because of all the troubles he went through due to refusing to obey God's instructions to tell the people of Nineveh to repent. He just did NOT like the idea that God wanted to forgive them! Tis is a man who apparently had direct access to God's ear, and basically told God "You can't make me do that!"

  10. Also, I think Reine needs to write a memoir.... : )

  11. I so agree, Susan! Or we can just talkie all of her comments and put them together.

    Yeah, Jonah. It's fascinating to this--what would you have done? xxoDebRo!

  12. With a background in archaeology, not theology, I have to agree with Deb Romano's grandmother--there truly is nothing new under the sun. Read any of the texts, graffitti, poems, literary works from ancient cultures, and you'll find betrayal, petty grievances, litigation, as well as the more positive, strong emotions of love and honor and faith.

    My favorite 'story' from the bible is the scene where Jesus walks among the outcasts, they kiss his hem, and his followers are outraged. But I wonder at the stories of those so desperate to receive a blessing that they dared to approach this holy man amidst his caretakers.

  13. And Lisa, howdy!! Cleveland rocks!!

  14. Lust, violence, greed, gluttony, vanity - it's all right there in the scriptures (well, at least the Old Testament - not so much in the Gospels).

    I love stories that explore the "why" of some of these characters. And I do think it's up to find the "why" and understand why it just didn't work (aside from the whole God told you not to do that, side).

    And yes, nothing new under the sun. The Bible, Greek tragedies, Shakespeare - they all have the same themes.

    I went to Catholic university, so I read quite a bit of the Bible, but not cover-to-cover. I've always intended to do so, but Leviticus and Numbers really bog things down. =)

  15. Yes, a memoir Reine! your fans are clamoring...

    Lisa, fascinating post. And who knew we had so many biblical scholars in the Jungle Red group!

    I love this line: the motivations of our characters are their most captivating, and difficult, quality.

    The motivations are so critical--otherwise our stories become author-created cardboard. thanks for the reminder--and your book sounds terrifying...

    How do you keep from scaring yourself to death?

  16. I'm glad you enjoyed the blog!
    As for scaring myself to death, I guess I'm too busy trying to keep the words concise, compelling, revealing character and moving the story forward etc. etc. etc.--all those things we're supposed to do--to get the creeps about what is actually happening. Besides, my life is so boring, I can't picture any of it happening to me!

  17. And even Leviticus and Numbers give us a lesson right ? Leave out the boring backstory !

  18. Hank you are too funny. Yes, and show don't tell!

  19. Hank said
    "I wonder if the reason the "why" is left out is that it's for the reader to discover."

    Well,I dunno. I've always had the impression that to ask Why about anything biblical could be tantamount to blasphemy. Never mind why, just take it as read.

    So of course, Why is the best question.

  20. This is fascinating stuff. And yes, one of the reasons I read crime fiction is because I want to understand the psychology behind these folks. Why do they do the things the do, is so much more interesting then what they do, how they do it, or to whom they are doing it.

    Lisa, you book sounds great. I am going to add it to the teetering To Be Read pile.

  21. Being a lover of history, the Bible I own is an "archeology study bible". It includes additional articles of the history/culture and has photos.

    I also love that in the New Testament there are the "epistle" books. They knew how to write letters. :)

    And regarding the Bible in general, the best way to remember things and to pass along lessons is through story. We still do it but shy away from the "holy" of it.

  22. I was going to point out when I originally commented the Biblical book of Esther. One of the best "plotted" stories I've ever read. Seriously, authors could definitely learn a thing or two from it as it starts with random things that appear to mean nothing but come into play later in the story in major ways.

  23. With respect to Biblical stories, perhaps understanding the "why" is directly connected to the faith of the reader?

    In any event, as Mark has pointed out, the "plotting" is absolutely amazing . . . .

  24. Lisa, I must say that I enjoyed your discussing the Bible for its myriad of stories and characters that are full of deep-seated motivation and intriguing plot. Such a nice change from having it thumped over one's head to prove a political point. We had Bible readings when I was growing up using The Upper Room as a guide (we were Methodists), and I remember it fondly as a time when the whole family--father, mother, and my three siblings--sat down together to listen to my father read. I think it was probably the beginnings of my love for listening to someone tell a story.

    I think it's interesting how the characters who are "bad" are so fascinating to us, too. Just like in mysteries, we love to examine the why and processes of these aberrant figures. I guess the going from what to why is what keeps us reading.

    I do want to read Close to the Bone, Lisa. Your fascinating background can only lead to amazing reading.

    Reine, I agree with others that we would love to read a memoir of yours. As I said to you in a comment on FB, you just constantly amaze me.

  25. I grew up with a red leather-bound Bible tucked into the bookshelf next to Jung's Man and His Symbols. Guess that pretty much says it all. :-)

    So, as a total biblical outsider, I was fascinated to read your post, Lisa. The stories are so fun -- fun! -- full of everything we like (except the "why" -- I'm with you on that one). I guess we're supposed to take teachings away from them too, huh? (hehe)

    I'm also with Susan--I'm a Mary Magdelene fan too. And a fan of the gnostic gospels for that reason.

  26. Lisa!! A new book! I'm downloading the e-book since I'm on the road, and will buy the hardcover when I get home. You know I am such a big fan!

    And I'm envious of your reading of the Bible. Fascinating, and something I have always wanted to do. We didn't read the Bible at home when I was growing up--my parents were barely nominally religious. (Although they did give my brother and me biblical names; Stephen and Deborah...)

    Now you've inspired me.

    PK thebookiemonster, who publishes the archeological Bible? Would love to have that.

    And dear Reine, put that memoir on your writing "list." :-)



  28. I so agree PK--we're still all about story-telling!

  29. And speaking of stories, Debs, tell us the story of how you found out about the LIST!

  30. From one Deborah to another: Deb Crombie, congratulations on the Best Seller List!

    (Oh, and I should have mentioned that I was named after the biblical Deborah.)

  31. Oh… Hank, Susan, Lucy/Roberta, Kathy, Debs… I don't know what to say. I always think I write too much. I've just been around a long time, and I've never been afraid to try something new. When I have to let go of something I do it quickly and move on, and I've never done just one thing at a time.

    I think you all are much too kind. I'm not sure I know what a memoir is. One of the books I am working on is probably like a memoir in many ways in that it comes out of the family local history I know and feel intimate with. I think it is taking me a long time to finish, because I keep discovering new tracks. It should probably be a series, but I'm reluctant to think that big. I do want to write it. More as a novel, though.

    Thanks everyone. xoxoxoxo


  33. We are ALL thrilled!

    Tomorrow..something completely different. i mean--completely! Still stories, yes. Still imagination and time, yes. But whoa.

    See you then.

    And thank you, dear LIsa, for a wonderful and thought-provoking day!

  34. And I learned so much about you, too, Reds commenters! That was another treat of today!

    YOu are beloved and amazing.

  35. The Bible as a resource, what a great idea!! A friend of mine who’s a Jesuit leads retreats for people in recovery, and also gives talks about church history. He believes the Bible isn’t just one book, but a library, and I tend to agree with him. The title of one of his history talks was, “Catholicism: Sex and Violence Through the Ages,” which fits perfectly with your theme, Lisa. Can’t wait to read your book.

    And Deb, I’ve already started yours, and as usual, I’m head over heels in LOVE with it!! Congratulations and Thanks!!

  36. So glad you all enjoyed it! And I hope you enjoy Close to the Bone as well!

  37. Deborah:

    The Archaeological Study Bible is published by Zondervan and features over 500 insightful and accessable articles, many including full-color photographs, covering the following five general categories:

    Archeaological Sites
    Cultural and Historic Notes
    Ancient Peoples
    Lands and Rulers
    The Reliability of the Bible
    Ancient Texts and Artifacts