Fiction as a Mirror

As crime writers we often get our ideas from the news. Remember newspapers? You still read them, I hope. Where else can you find in-depth stories about the world, where you live locally or the wide world beyond your circle? Sometimes as a writer you don’t know where your ideas come from exactly, they just pop out of the ether or the news cycle, and percolate in your mind.

new-jump-cut-8-14That was the way it worked for me when I wrote a book about heroin, sex trafficking, and TV news. I majored in broadcast news in college and although I didn’t work in the field I am an avid observer — not that difficult in this day of 24-hour news. Although sex workers and drugs may seem like dark subjects, and they are, I made the center of my story a funny, struggling young woman, very much a career girl of today.  I wanted to write about an ethical but hapless television reporter whose ambition to get away from her ex-husband, now her boss, leads her into trouble. That novel, Jump Cut, reference to a ‘jumpy’ editing transition, was published in 2011.

As writers we often are immersed in our subject but then we write the book and go on our merry way, writing on some other topic. So when this story about the new heroin problem in the US popped up on the New York Times I stopped. And read it. All the way to the end.

“So we are at a strange new place. We enjoy blissfully low crime rates, yet every year the drug-overdose toll grows. People from the most privileged groups in one of the wealthiest countries in the world have been getting hooked and dying in almost epidemic numbers from substances meant to numb pain. Street crime is no longer the clearest barometer of our drug problem; corpses are.”

Read the NY Times piece here.

The article is about the dramatic increase in suburban heroin addiction in the least likely places, and the new distribution strategies Mexican growers are using, without the big cartels. In Jump Cut three prostitutes overdose on tainted Mexican heroin in Seattle. They are Russian-speaking women (how they arrived in the U.S. is part of the story.) Unlike the Times story they aren’t suburban teenagers who are replacing their Oxy addiction with cheaper heroin, but they are addicts. Their story is the catalyst for Jump Cut. Reporter Mimi Raynard has her own journey first, bungling their news story, looking for a new job, ultimately on her own except for the help of narcotics detective Shad Mulgrew. They both have to redeem themselves and solve this triple homicide.

The events in this Seattle story are fictional. But heroin addiction and human trafficking are still problems in this country and around the world. For research I didn’t, as one fellow writer suggested, try heroin. I did a ride-along with the Seattle narcotics detectives — great guys in a brutal business. I interviewed them and watched them do a take-down of a drug buy at a suburban shopping mall parking lot. By the time I wrote this novel heroin had ceased to be a huge epidemic in Seattle. But it didn’t just stop being a problem. It moved somewhere else, with new victims, new dealers, new addicts.

But there is hope. We could learn a lot from Portsmouth, Ohio.

Some places have gained ground on the epidemic. Portsmouth, Ohio, was among the first to see a generation addicted, and pill mills — pain clinics where doctors prescribed pills for cash and without a proper diagnosis — were virtually invented there. Portsmouth, like a junkie who has hit rock bottom, has found within it a spirit of self-reliance that has helped kindle a culture of recovery. The town shuttered the pill mills. Narcotics Anonymous meetings are now everywhere; recovering addicts are studying to be counselors. And after years of watching jobs go abroad, in 2009 townspeople stepped in to save one of Portsmouth’s last factories — a shoelace manufacturer, which now exports shoelaces to China, Mexico and Taiwan.

Like Portsmouth, we need to take accountability for our own wellness. There is a time and a place for pain pills, of course. But we need to question the drugs marketed to us, depend less on pills as solutions and stop demanding that doctors magically fix us.

It will then matter less what new product a drug company — or the drug underworld — devises.

Read more about Jump Cut here. Download a free sample on Amazon.

In which we discuss ‘Kick Ass’

This post is about writing so is for writers, mostly, but many readers of mysteries and thrillers will possibly be interested in the way characters are formed. The way they interact with the plot and mirror society and the authors who create them.

I read Chuck Wendig’s blog this morning, called Terrible Minds. He writes boldly (in case you’re squeamish) about writing tropes, comics, thrillers, movies, and lately quite a bit about strong female protagonists. In this age of mass media, movies that are mostly shoot-em-ups or just silly, and idiotic reality television,  finding the right balance in books with your female characters isn’t easy. How “real” should your characters be? Are they pros, policewomen like Cody Byrne in PLAN X? Are they lawyers like Merle Bennett? Does their job make them do things that mere mortals do not, like examine dead bodies or climb into a space capsule? Or are they an “everyman” or a housewife or a waitress? All these choices that you make as a writer inform the type of story you write.

So what do you like to read? (The best test of what you should write, you know.) Do you like books that challenge the status quo, that take the reader somewhere new with someone you might like to be in another life, or do you prefer the reading equivalent of ‘easy listening’ where the plot and characters are so comfortably familiar you can guess how it will end? If you like to read (and/or write) about smart, savvy women who, while caught in circumstances they may not have planned on, manage to figure out a plan of action and willfully execute it, well, you’re my people, people! I love to read about women’s lives, I admit. Women I think are somehow more complicated than men. (Ask your spouse.) I need some reality attached but also something that takes me to a new “world” where I can see possibly making those choices if only I were braver.

There are many types of readers and a million kinds of books. Reading choices are so personal. Even if you’re my best friend I may not like the book you recommend to me as ‘awesome.’ My advice is always Read What You Love.

There is this thing in the writing world called ‘narrative thrust.‘ It’s the urgency of the plot to move forward, as expressed by character action, suspense, tension, and the unexpected. If the unexpected comes from your main character, that is ideal. I don’t want people to predict what my characters will do. But there must be a balance there as well: the actions of the character must come from motivations that you the writer have built into them.

Chuck talks about “agency” as a character trait. This isn’t a term I was familiar with but he describes it this way:

Character agency is… a demonstration of the character’s ability to make decisions and affect the story. This character has motivations all her own. She is active more than she is reactive. She pushes on the plot more than the plot pushes on her. Even better, the plot exists as a direct result of the character’s actions.

This is an excellent  — a kick ass — way to test your character’s strengths as you’re building a character from scratch. In PLAN X Cody Byrne, a policewoman, is tasked with finding a bomb victim’s next of kin. But her own motivations for finding them are much more important to her, and thus to the story, than the task. She feels a kinship with this man without family. In this way the “lost family” becomes the theme for the book, both in the external plot and the internal plot. The external plot is the actual events of the story: stuff that happens. The internal plot is the journey and motivations of the main character, where she goes from the beginning of the story, what happens to her psyche, her mood, her reason for being, by the end of the book. Many writing pros think this internal plot is much more important to the success of the story than the external one. This is where the story magic is birthed, where readers connect with characters. If you want external plot, read a comic book. If you want an emotionally moving experience that helps you look at your own life with fresh eyes, read a great novel.

Read more about external and internal plots in Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story.

As to strong female (or male) protagonists, this internal plot again is most important. Does she shoot bad guys? Does she know martial arts? Does she punch first and ask questions later? Not that important. A character can be strong and quiet, strong and loud, strong and aggressive, or strong and determined. She doesn’t need to hurt people or be physically violent. Like Merle Bennett in Blackbird Fly she takes action to save what’s hers and those she loves. She may not have asked for these problems but she doesn’t shy away from solving them. She doesn’t cower in fear. She has courage in the face of fear. She may be afraid of mice but she isn’t afraid of bad men.

So I agree with Chuck. Here’s how he ends his post:

Forget about kicking ass.

That’s not the metric you need to worry about.

The only ass that your female character need to kick is the ass of the story — that’s the power you want to give them. The power of agency. They can be sexy and sexual without being sexualized or objectified. They can kick ass or not kick ass or have Power or Not Have Powers as long as you elevate them above mere action figures (“Look how poseable she is when she does her sexy high-kicks!”) They can be vulnerable or flawed or unlikeable as long as you treat them like real people, not like video game characters or a list of abilities or dolls or lamps or The Reason That Dude Does The Thing He’s Meant To Do. They’re not proxies, they’re not mannequins, they’re not mirrors, they’re not Walking Talking FleshLights, they’re not princesses in towers waiting to be saved, they’re not emotionless ass-kicking chicks who still don’t kick as much ass as the hero. I’d even argue that calling them “female characters” has its problems because it sounds clinical, distant, a characteristic, a check box, a footnote.

Think of them as women or as girls.

Think of them as people.

Then give them agency within your story, within its world, and equal to the other characters.

Read the entire post over on Terrible Minds with lots of great comments on favorite strong female protags.

Celebrating a Life

The death of a mystery writer: it sounds like the title of a novel (and has been used.) But in this case it is Real Life. It’s a sad but expected part of living, part of knowing lots of people a little over the years as well as having your own close clan. Illness, accidents, and tragedy, well, they exist. Like it or not.

Last week a writer I knew took his own life. A heartbreaking part of the human story. I wasn’t close to Jerry Healy – who wrote under his own name, Jeremiah Healy and a pseudonym Terry Devane – but he was outgoing and friendly and like many newbies he befriended me somewhere along the line, at conventions and conferences. Among other things he’d been an MP in the Army and didn’t mind if you gave his bicep a squeeze. He liked everyone and had a big booming voice and a laugh to match. Once a law professor (always a law professor…?) he could lecture on topics he loved, crime writing, lawyering, and tennis.

In 2006 I was in Europe for an extended time and my husband and I joined the International Crime Writers in Zaragoza, Spain. It was a small group, about 25 or 30 writers plus spouses. We had a great time on that trip, visiting Goya’s childhood home and looking at his etchings, eating traditional Spanish food at a fancy winery, and being feted by the governor in the fabulous capitol building with its trumpeting valets and painted ceilings.

It will surprise no one who knew Jerry that he made a few impromptu speeches during that trip. After awhile the Bulgarian crime writer who bore a striking resemblance to Boris Yeltsin would raise a glass and call out, “Jerry Jerry USA,” with a twinkle in his eye whenever Jerry stood to speak.  Jerry led the IACW for some five years and was known to crime writers from Iceland to Bulgaria, Italy to Cuba. Naturally his last name sometimes became ‘USA!’ He would have liked that, the old Army MP in him, I think.

BluntDarts-small-97x150In celebration of Jerry’s life and work I am giving away a copy of his first book, the one that introduced him and his private eye, John Francis Cuddy, to the world. Of Blunt Darts the New York Times said, “Mr. Healy writes so well that he tends to transcend the cliches…The plotting is impeccable, and everything comes together to make BLUNT DARTS one of the outstanding first mysteries of the year.” Booklist said, “Healy offers a hard-hitting plot full of clever twists and turns. For readers who like the hard-boiled style shorn of any nouvelle flourishes.” 

Jerry will live on through his books. I can’t wait to read them all. Sign up for the mailing list to enter to win BLUNT DARTS. Everyone on the list as of September 7 will be entered.

Spring cleaning, writer-style

Run AWAY quoteSpringtime!? It’s almost here. In my office it’s a time to regroup, plan, and finish up projects. As I wrap up The Girl in the Empty Dress and before I start my next novel I want to share a little of my writing process for other writers.

This book took me less time to write than most of my other novels in recent memory. (I have written a good handful that have never seen the light of day, including that one where I tried to write ten pages a day. What a mess that one was.) Anyway, I got organized this time. Experience with the process is a big help of course. Every time I write a novel I learn a little more about what works and what doesn’t. I can more swiftly recognize when I’m off track or something is just plain boring. More often I write something off-base that is GORGEOUS and HEARTWRENCHING. That doesn’t mean it makes the cut. Usually the opposite.

This time I uScreen Shot 2014-03-28 at 10.13.53 AMsed two tricks. The first is a software program called Scrivener. You may have heard of it or used it yourself. I know I’ve tried to use it before. It looks like this, an on-screen bulletin board with index cards for chapters, files for characters and settings on the left, and so on. So far, so good, right? I’m pretty visual and looking at it on the computer screen, being able to quickly shift back and forth between outline and manuscript is helpful.

I admit, I am a pantser. In the past I have written rough outlines of novels and mostly knew how they were going to start and how they were going to end. The middle? The dark, murky unknown. But guess what? It’s harder that way. One of the problems that comes up is the sudden appearance of a new character, small or large. What is their name? What do they look like? What is their agenda? (Every character has an agenda.) Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 10.19.06 AM

Scrivener helps you by getting you to think about these characters, name them ahead of time, or at the very least describe them. Here is a sheet I did called “Bad Guys and Secondaries.”

Okay, so I’m getting organized, thinking about all the possible characters, how they interact, what they want. But how is this helping with the plot? In a crime novel especially the plot matters. It matters as much as the characters. Well, almost as much. In some thrillers the plot matters more than the characters. Plotting and structure is the first big hurdle for most beginning writers.

My second trick: using a Scrivener template. Yes, they are out there, templates that use the program but overlay it with story structures based on certain authors or genres. My template is from one of my favorite writing books, Larry Brooks’s Story Engineering. His website,, is also a wealth of information.

Someone else has developed a Scrivener template based on his Beat Sheet. (Here are a number of useful Scrivener Templates.) I do recommend reading the book first but in case you want to jump in with both hands on the keyboard, here’s the short version. Beats are where the story changes, similar to plot points. There are small beats and large beats. The basic structure is shown in the first screen shot: Set up, Response, Attack, Resolution.

Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 10.18.11 AM

Seems simple, right? Well, structure looks simple from the outside but putting it into practice, making your story work the most effective way it can, is both simple and incredibly nuanced. And, just like the old plot outlining you may have done, things go awry. Those chapters you stuck in for part three because you really had no idea how things were going to go? They get changed. Many scenes changed and clarified for me as I went along. That’s called creative writing. But because I knew how much time I had until the next Story Beat, what needed to happen before that Beat, I stayed on track. That’s what these tools do for you. They don’t tell you how to write your book, they make it easier to see your goals, what your story needs to do and when it needs to do it.

Here’s how my Attack section, part three, looked when I finished. The Attack section, a reaction to the problems set forth in the first two sections, is full of short, punchy chapters, lots of action, comings and goings. The board reflects this with all 14 cards full. In other sections I didn’t have 14 chapters that Scrivener gives you (you can add more.)

There are all sorts of writing tools that help you outline and organize. Finding one that works for you can be a struggle. But after using Scrivener and the template this time, I think I’ve found a winner. But who knows. Maybe I’ll reinvent myself for the next book. (Oof. What a thought!) No, I think I’ve got a system now. Time to get going on the next book!

What happens after

As a crime writer I often have to deal with death — fictionally. But as most of us have, I also have experienced the loss of a loved one. John Haddaway McClendon, my father, would have been 91 today. I miss him, of course, and wanted to do a memory piece for him today, nearly eight years after his death. There are many things he missed these last years, college graduations, a wedding, the birth of his great-granddaughter. He would have enjoyed them all, in his quiet way. He was a shy man although life made its requirements on him and he adapted. His father was an academic and 40 when he was born. His mother died when he was 16, of cancer, which must have made a mark on him. He followed his father into university life (my grandfather, Jesse F. McClendon taught physiology to medical students at the University of Minnesota) and was above all else a student, a researcher. He graduated from high school as World War II broke out in Europe, and joined ROTC at Minnesota. After college he was in Army Intelligence (maybe that’s where I get my love of intrigue!) and spent six months learning Japanese in preparation for the invasion that never occurred. He had a lifelong love of Japan after spending a year there with his parents and older brother when he was 11. After the war ended he was sent to Japan for the Occupation, where he met my mother, a secretary from Texas who worked in his office. They knew each other for six months before tying the knot, and were married for 57 years.

Those are the basics. John taught and researched plant physiology his entire career and continued his interest in the origin of species in a book he wrote after retirement — we still have to get that book together, sisters! (Grandsons?) It sits on his computer, waiting for us to rediscover it. John had three daughters, none of whom followed him into science, a consequence that never seemed to bother him. Or if it did, like many things, he never mentioned it. He ended up with four darling grandsons to make up for the lack of sons. They often remind me of John. They are tinkerers and thinkers, conjurers of brew, hands-on builders of stuff,  outdoor adventurers, and computer whizzes — all things he loved.

My father had to teach freshman biology every so often at the University of Nebraska. It makes me squint just thinking about. I never took a course from him, but now I wonder why. I should have. I had friends who took classes from him. I’m sure he wasn’t the best lecturer in the world and public speaking was low on his favorites list but I’m also positive that his students felt his genuine love of pure science and the way it relates to the world we live in. (Zero Population Growth was one of his passions.) I can hardly remember one thing my father ever said about his teaching. He wasn’t one to discuss his work, successes or not. Like many academics he felt his work spoke for itself, or maybe that none of us would understand. A family story — when I was about six or so and wanted to be noticed by my father (middle child, what can I say: I always wanted to be noticed) I climbed on his lap, stroked his cheek, and said in a vampish voice: “Tell me about your enzymes.” I still have no idea about enzymes, not really. So if you, blog reader, want to tell me about your enzymes, go ahead.

My father named me Lise after a physicist he admired, Lise Meitner. An Austrian physicist, Meitner helped develop nuclear fission. The spelling is often a problem, people never know how to pronounce it (lee-za) but I will never change it. (Yes, I am still daddy’s girl.) He loved to sail, a consequence of growing up in Minnesota around all those lakes. He had a sixteen-foot sailboat on the Chesapeake Bay when we were young, and made us a little yellow bathtub sailboat with a polka dot sail to learn on. I’ll never forget sailing with him around the Bay, and the time the wind knocked the boom into him, he tumbled overboard, and lost his glasses! Fun times!

In 1999 my parents came out to Montana for a vacation in our ski house at Big Sky. My book, Nordic Nights, had just come out and I was going on a little tour around the state to bookstores. I piled the kids and the grands in the Suburban and hit the road. I love so much that we were able to share that time together. Like my father I don’t like to boast about my work. Writing, like research science, is a pretty private affair. My father loved to read and would often pass me mysteries he loved, like Tony Hillerman or P.D. James. He particularly liked James, whose books include brainy characters like himself. At a reading in Whitefish someone asked me if I was Norwegian like my character, Alix Thorssen. My father popped up in the back of the room (so much for shyness!) and said: “The Scots are just shipwrecked Vikings, you know!”

He had a great sense of humor. Mostly he loved a good pun — “the lowest form of humor.” I will always remember his laugh — even if I have forgotten all those puns. I hope you’re enjoying a pun and a dram of single malt with Darwin, Daddy, wherever you are. Love you always, Lise.