Monday, November 15, 2021

Hallie takes Writing Step 1: What-iffing

 HALLIE EPHRON: I know I’m coming out of my long writing drought because I’m starting to have ideas. See possibilities.

In last week’s Boston Globe there was an article about two guys who tow sonar equipment underwater, looking for stuff. Meet New Hampshirites Hans Hug and Bruce Stebbins. They use Edgetech side scan sonar equipment which they describe as “ultrasound on steroids.”


With the permission of local police, they set out in a boat, towing their sonar torpedo, searching for a 1972 Dodge Dart Swinger that might have gone into the Concord River 40 years ago. They were hoping to find the remains of 17-year-old Judy Chartier who drove off from a party late one night and has never been seen since.

Sure enough, the pair spot a mass underwater about 30 feet from the river’s embankment. Hug suits up and scuba dives into the river where he says visibility is barely a few feet. He’s able to confirm that the mass is, in fact, an old Dodge.



Police divers take over.

The story is fascinating, and the pair of amateur detectives towing sonar equipment through bodies of water immediately brought to mind one of my favorite TV series, THE DETECTORISTS. In that show, a pair of eccentric metal detectorists search for buried treasure the UK.

I began to imagine fictional versions of misters Messrs. Hugs and Stebbins and a series in which their personal lives interweave with quests to solve waterlogged mysteries. (As in: What in particular caught which one of their attention about Judy Chartier’s disappearance? Did he know her or her family? Did he have a sister who is long missing? Writers will recognize this story-spinning process.)
It’s not a story I feel at all equipped to tell. But I feel sure it’d be a slam dunk with a publishing house looking for a quirky mystery series. Underwater sonar? All kinds of stuff that they might or might not be expecting to find on a river bottom. Mysteries to solve. Bad guys who might want to get in their way. What’s not to love! Lends itself to all kinds of catchy book titles.

Or maybe I'm ripe for this idea because I just read Sharon Ward's thrilling debut (IN DEEP) featuring an underwater photographer as the hero. Stay tuned: Sharon visits us next Tuesday!

So I am hatching ideas! Which, as anyone knows, is Writing: Step-one.

Does reading the news give you story ideas or merely indigestion, and is there any recent news brief that caught your eye?

67 comments:

  1. Wow . . . what a story. Only now I’m left wondering what happened to the girl after the car went into the water? And, forty years after the fact, how in the world did they come up with the idea to look in that river? Didn’t anyone think of that at the time?

    The mystery remains . . . .

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    1. I think the river was the close by the place where she was last seen. Guessing maybe they DID look back then but in the wrong spot. Interesting to speculate. The good news is that her family at least knows what happened to her. I can't even imagine what they went through. Best not to imagine...

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  2. HALLIE: I have definitely heard other authors say that seeing/reading a news item has sparked their creative juices. The unsolved Judy Chartier case and the use of that side sonar technology to search for that Dodge are great pieces for a story.

    RE: News items. I do get the daily headlines from the Ottawa Citizen. It's the weird/fun stories that catch my eye, not the ones related to a crime. This morning, there was a video about a solo Antarctic penguin being found 3000 km away on a New Zealand beach.

    https://ottawa.ctvnews.ca/video?playlistId=1.5663730
    How did he get there? Where is his family?
    Since the NZ conservation staff released it back into the water I now wonder if he will survive!

    I am sure there are similar news stories about someone being found clear across the globe with no idea how he/she got there. Amnesia, lost identity, a head wound... sounds like the start of a thriller to me.

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    1. LOVE the story of that antarctic penguin. And it's not like penguins are prodigious flyers. It's got the makings of a great children's book.

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    2. A children's book is a great idea!

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  3. What-iffing, indeed, Hallie! I must have missed that story in the Globe.

    This isn't a news story, but last night I was in a hot tub with three close friends. Deb, our host, turned on the jets and the light show. The under water light changed colors on a cycle. Every time it turned red I was off what-iffing a story about someone being stabbed in a hot tub. Gruesome, I know, but...writer's mind.

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  4. Yay Hallie! I especially like the background question about why these special detectives are drawn to this story. I know you will find exactly the right story line and we are waiting to read it!

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    1. Yes, it's always always always about the back story that makes the writer and readers care about the mystery.

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  5. It is fascinating! Go for it, Hallie! I already want to read that book!!

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  6. Congratulations, Hallie, on getting your writing juices flowing again. I often spin story ideas from headlines I read, or develop character traits from something I stumble across that seems intriguing. I recently found a book about learning to recognize and understand small details about your local microclimate that can clue you in to big changes in the weather. It struck me as the kind of knowledge Sherlock Holmes used to wow his doubters. It's based on science and keen observation, but it looks like magic from the outsider's perspective.

    The other thing I keep thinking must lead to a story sometime is the whole online amateur detective community. Like Michelle McNamara did with her book, "I'll be Gone in the Night," amateur sleuths investigate cold cases, pulling in experts, brainstorming ideas, and searching the internet for new information about cases long unsolved. It can be a hobby, but it can become an obsession, and it seems to me a character like that might be a good subject for a fictional mystery.

    There's a cold case like that here in North Texas, from several years back. A well-respected wife/mother/fitness instructor was teaching an early morning boot camp type fitness class out of her church when she was murdered. The killer was caught on video, roaming the church well before the woman arrived to set up for her class. Because the killer was wearing a ninja costume with face mask, he/she could not be identified--not even by gender. The investigation did not turn up evidence of the victim's husband having an affair or any other obvious factors that might lead to her death. Still unsolved. Go figure.

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    1. GIGI: Richard Osman's brilliant debut mystery, The Thursday Murder Club, has that exact premise. A group of 4 70-year olds in an English retirement house meet weekly to try and solve cold cases. But then they find a real-life murder mystery unearthed near their property and decide to "help" the police detectives solve the crime.

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    2. Putting book titles in my TBR list... and this reminding me once again how hard it must be to write true crime with really missing people...

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    3. Osman has a new book out in this series--The Man Who Died Twice--in case anyone else is interested!

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    4. FLORA: Yes, I heard that Osman's second book is another winner.
      Just waiting until my library gets the audiobook version so that I can enjoy the foursome's latest hijinks.

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    5. I really enjoyed The Thursday Murder Club, and plan to check out Osman's second book soon.

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    6. Grace and Flora,
      I finished listening to The Man Who Died Twice (Richard Osman)and I thought it was just great! The character of Elizabeth really warms up in this second novel. Actually, I just love the whole ensemble. There's always so much to read. . .
      -Melanie

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  7. Hallie, I think I need to revisit The Detectorists. Great show. And I'm glad you're moving into writing again.

    Much love

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    1. I confess, I haven't watched the latest episodes. Am I the only one who finds I can OD even on good shows?

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    2. HALLIE: I started (binge) watching ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING this weekend and am loving it.

      I don't normally binge watch anything but I signed up for a $1.99 30-day trial of Disney+ which has this program. Canada does not have HULU so I had thought I was out of luck but it looks like I can watch all 10 episodes and some Marvel movies/shows this month before I cancel the subscription.

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    3. Hallie, I can. Even shows that I've LOVED I intersperse with different series or movies. But I'm the person who can come to loathe even the most beloved song if I hear it play too many times.

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    4. LESSON: Too much of a good thing is not good!

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  8. Oh, I saw a story this weekend about secret WW I bunkers in caves that were covered up and frozen over and now that the climate is changing, they are being revealed with all the contents inside preserved. WOW. PERFECT for someone. (And, like you, I floated to myself that what if the "someone" was me? But...no....)

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  9. Here's the beginning of he real story from the Wash Post:

    Tucked within an icy mountain lies a meticulously preserved World War I bunker.

    Climate change means we can now see it.

    The intact cavern-cum-barracks contains munitions, books, cigarette holders and animal bones, and it was once teeming with Austro-Hungarian troops. They staked out on Mount Scorluzzo, almost 3,000 meters (about 9,800 feet) above sea level, on the Italian-Swiss border, now part of Italy’s Stelvio National Park territory.

    “These places were literally frozen in time,” Giovanni Cadioli, a historian and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Padua in Italy, told The Washington Post.

    WOW. Is that cool or what?

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    1. WHOA, that is an historical treasure worth writing about!

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    2. Absolutely brilliant! I see two timelines. A forensics lab. Imagining what unexpected things they could find... yes, a terrific starting point. Esp for a writer who knows a thing or two about WWI.

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    3. The permafrost is melting, too, revealing all kinds of historic and prehistoric things--one of those things could easily be a body. Who was he? She? And how and why did they end up where they were found?

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    4. The TV sci-fi series Fortitude deals with exactly this plot: ancient animal carcasses thaw and flying insects emerge...and all hell breaks loose north of the Arctic Circle.

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  10. Underwater sonar. Perfect! I'm fascinated by cold cases solved with forensic DNA. The bank teller/robber living in plain sight in Boston is classic. And the penguin who swam 2000 miles to New Zealand and was revived with a "fish smoothie". However, the cautious follow-up comment from a scientist was on point: if more penguins turn up, we'll have to assume something in the ocean has changed, and not for the better.

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    1. ..."And not for the better" - the murder mysteries we put in our books are almost always more tolerable than the scope of disaster facing us in real life.

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  11. I do occasionally get story ideas from the news. Of course, I carefully select what news I consume these days.

    This one reminds me of a thing I saw on YouTube. There's a guy out in Colorado who goes out with his boat and equipment and searches the river for things people have lost. The video was all about how he found an iPhoneX, was able to dry and turn it on, and reunite it with the owner (it had a lot of baby photos on it). But imagine the story possibilities!

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  12. Yes, indeed, the stories I read in the paper help spin endless possibilities in my head. I have a favorite that I really wanted to do something with but I couldn't get very far. I have tried to find out more about the actual case but apparently I have not looked in the right places or I just don't have enough to go on.

    This happened 20 or so years ago. As I remember it a couple from VT drove their car over a frozen part of Lake Champlain to go to a bar in NY. Evidently people did that sort of thing all the time. But this couple was never seen nor heard from again! Neither was their car.

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  13. The men doing underwater detecting sounds like an absolute winner. Go for it! Even if it does not work out, the writing muscles will start working. (As you know very well. Just trying to be encouraging.) Yes, to your question, my mind is often spinning with ideas from odd news stories. A story, remembered for years, about theft of valuable stained glass from now-deserted churches and cemeteries was irresistable and the inspiration for my Brooklyn Bones. Right now? Well, a real life prominent business has been under various, very public criticism for several years. A setting I know well. And the stack of news clippings on my desk grows and grows and I put the fictional pieces together....

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    1. It's a form a farming... I call my folders like that COMPOST.

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  14. Criminals should be on notice. With technology like underwater sonar, infrared heat cameras (like the one used at the Nairobi airport to check our body temps), and other cool stuff, it is harder and harder to get away with crime.

    When we were in Venice I asked our gondolier how many thousands of cell phones must be dropped in the lagoon every year. He said, "Thousands of thousands". That tickled my imagination.

    Grace, the topic of amnesia should have come up on the day we discussed quicksand. That's another thing that doesn't happen nearly as often in real life as it does in the movies.

    One of the units of our Citizens' Police Academy was about the local auxiliary crime units, made up of experts from each of the three dozen or so local police departments around here. The dive unit gave us a talk, including a description of training exercises in the Ohio River. They found some 30 cars in about a 15-mile stretch.

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    1. Wow! But don't you think a fair number of them got driven in deliberately? Cheap way to get rid of an old car, or one with damage you wouldn't want anyone to see.... or

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    2. So many reasons! At least a couple were so their owners could vanish, I suspect.

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  15. 'Forty million dollars worth of cocaine seized at a border crossing!' And I start thinking about how much that is--what if a small amount went missing? Who would notice if it should have been 45 million? 'Individual finds wedding band lost for 50 years and returns to family!' But what if it wasn't lost in the first place--but thrown away? Why? What happened in the life of that couple?

    I imagine these back-stories all the time. And, yes, Hallie, you will find your way into a story--if not this one, then one will pop up that gets your seat in the chair and your fingers on those keys!

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    1. Could marry this with a psychic who can hold the ring and close her eye and channel the spirit and soul of the person to whom it belonged...

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    2. And what if the person who is psychic is a granddaughter, who gets these images without having known (or accepted) that she was psychic? And she's contemplating her own upcoming marriage to someone everyone thinks is the perfect match for her. But is he?

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  16. So glad you are ideaing again! As for news stories - oh, yeah. Very fertile ground for what iffing.

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  17. Oh, constantly! I have a huge e-file of ideas from news and non-news, sorted into many many categories, including Lost & Found Objects, Family Secrets, A Case of Identity, Begging to be Murdered....

    99.9% will never be used. But it's fun--and productive--to go digging there when I'm looking for a short story idea.

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    1. Under the "Begging to be Murdered" category, there's always the unsolved murder of Ken Rex McElroy in Skidmore, Missouri. It's a sort of real life Murder on the Orient Express, where everybody did it, but nobody was ever indicted.

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    2. Going to have to look that up...

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    3. Gigi, I remember this! He was the town bully--not a decent bone in his body, according to everyone who was interviewed.

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    4. Oooh! Looking that up. I wonder where they got the idea...

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  18. I definitely get ideas from the news - the plots of my first two books came from massaging news stories, and several more have been influenced by "things people are talking about," like the (false) vaccine-autism link and immigrant workers in northern New England. The best idea-starters are local stories, I've found, because those usually involve the sort of real life characters and circumstances I can imagine populating one of my novels.

    I also get sparked by science and technology news, as Hank and Karen pointed out. The planet's loss will be the novelist's gain, as climate change uncovers more and more dramatic possibilities.

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    1. Julia I just had to tell you *I had a dream about you last night. We were discussing life in the military. You had been in the Navy and thought that was the best way to go! (I almost signed up for that branch when the recruiter was at my college. They were promising flight lessons to all grads who joined up. Oh, wait, ha-ha, not women! That ended my military dreams.) But in my dream I told you that if I had the chance to do it over again I would choose the Coast Guard. I don't know what caused me to have that particular dream although I enjoyed our conversation.

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  19. What a great adventure! And yes, the story-spinninng...

    The local newspaper in our little town of Yellow Springs (you remember us, Hallie!) publishes a weekly police blotter, the strangest of which were compiled into a cute little volume for a fundraiser. My writing group used those snippets of "crimes" ("Police assisted in removing a cow from the bike path"!) as prompts for short stories with the goal off publishing our own anthology. Sadly, the collection never came to pass, but we shared some great stories! I use those blotter reports now as prompts in workshops I teach.

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    1. One of my favorite stories, back when I wrote for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, covered the day sheriff's deputies went to a house out in the country to serve an eviction notice and found a Bengal tiger chained to a tree out back. The tiger got his own cell at the county jail until the Humane Society could take charge of him.

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    2. Hi, Cindy! Of COURSE I remember Yellow Springs. I was just talking about it yesterday to "Jess Montgomery" who's here for the Crimebake. And saying how much I miss it. That book sounds like it would have been a winner.

      Gigi - I read what you wrote a bit too fast and imagined the Bengal tiger talking to his lawyer on a cell phone ("got his own cell")!

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    3. See? You could write fantasy, as well as mysteries!

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  20. The possibilities. Glad to see you are finding them again.

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  21. Hallie, I'm so glad that you're hatching ideas. That means we readers have a great story to look forward to. The underwater sonar story is intriguing. I had to look it up, of course, to search for updates on it. The remains found are those of Judy Chartier. Here's the NPR article. https://www.npr.org/2021/11/05/1052577023/judy-chartier-case-vanish-1982-massachusetts-river-missing

    I do extend newspaper articles into stories in my mind, especially murders or missing people ones. I have one true story that I have never been able to shake, one from when I was around 13 or 14. One of my father's friends, Bac (pronounced like bacon) Worthington's wife was shot and killed in their home. Bac wasn't there, but his daughters and his mother-in-law were. The MIL was bed-fast, from all accounts. The three daughters ranged in ages 15-19. The story the daughters told was that their grandmother shot their mother when the mother came into the grandmother's room. Puzzling questions were about how she got the gun. It was supposedly kept on a shelf in the closet, and the grandmother (Bac's MIL) was supposedly bed-fast. There was no trial, the grandmother was taken to a facility somewhere after deemed a full-on dementia case. Bac always supported his MIL after the shooting, caring for her, and the daughters were enraged by his support of her. A rift developed between Bac and his daughters. Now, the question in lots of people's minds was who really shot the mother. Did one of the daughters either accidentally or on purpose and it was agreed to let the grandmother take the blame? Is that why Bac stood by the grandmother, his MIL? How did the grandmother get the gun? It's now been over 50 years, and I still wonder about it. At one time I thought I might write about it, but my hometown is a small one, and some things are best left buried.

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    1. What a fascinating story, Kathy. You do have to wonder about those daughters.

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    2. Wow, lots of possibilities... Did Bac remarry?

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    3. Hallie, Bac never did remarry. I think he and his daughters were pretty much estranged until he died. Debs, I did wonder about those daughters.

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  22. Reading the news definitely gives me indigestion...and also, sometimes, ideas.

    Hallie: I'm so glad you're finding yourself what-iffing again these days, and I'm hoping it leads to renewed energy for story telling.

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  23. Hallie, so happy to see your writer's gears are turning! I love the sonar detecting guys and of course am inventing all sorts of back stories as to how/why they got into this. Lots of material here--and now I want to watch The Detectorists again. I don't think I've seen the last season either.

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  24. I love the feeling of my brain bubbling with possibilities. I really love the one you've found, Hallie, and I know you can write anything you set your mind to.

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  25. Hooray, Hallie! SO glad to see your writing juices starting to flow again!

    ~kc

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