Behind the Story: “Problems Aren’t Stop Signs”

I like writing about problems. As in, you know, their problematic nature. It’s the stuff of a great story. And I had this idea for a writing challenge: take one self-inflicted problem and make every next sentence add a specific complication. Why, transgression zero’s blowback would mount and mount and surely hit a sublime ridiculousness. In the end that’s what crime and punishment often are, aren’t they? Sublimely human things we did to ourselves.

To be clear, I’m not meaning that each next sentence would deepen a plot element or characterization (or both). Such writing craft proven over the millennia would’ve made too much sense. No, I would daisy-chain every next sentence with a direct new complication to or consequence of what came before. 

The set-up: A small town mayor (eventually our Tori) embezzled taxpayer money as a down payment on snatched-up Panhandle scrubland she believed would skyrocket in value. There’s a water management project set for state funding that will keep her land high-and-dry from the rising Gulf levels. Well, state revenue shortfalls nixed discretionary waterway plans. Open then to Tori in her swamp and hatching a skunk ape craze bound to draw in beaucoup sun seekers and cryptozoologists. She’ll flip that land to resort developers yet. Tori, though, can barely keep her half-brother in the shaggy costume (she’s in charge of whipping up media interest), and mud and snakes and owls abound, and her local paper contact wants to investigate the town finances.

Problems stopped the works. Not Tori’s. Mine. Oh, I Continue reading “Behind the Story: “Problems Aren’t Stop Signs””

Behind the Story: “Book of Hours”

So I had this idea for a novel.

There was this gentleman thief, see, and he needed to steal something. Wait. There was more. This something, see, was hidden in the pit network underneath the Colosseum. The hypogeum, if you’re into archeology. A caper in front of ten thousand tourists. Say crooks or spies did drop exchanges there, payoff money or hacked secrets. Glam Rome, high stakes, chases through crumbling passages. Toss in the yucks. It sells itself, right?

Some ideas know better than to come together. I worked on the first draft, got 15,000 words in. And froze. Several times. Even with the leeway of a comic premise, story problems kept clogging the works. No thief, see, could get past modern security, polizia squads, and ten thousand smart phone cameras. And why the hell would any mobster anywhere choose the Colosseum to stash diamonds or jump drives? The pits where tour groups flock through all the Italian day? Out of a million less complicated alternatives? No, my idea wouldn’t be selling itself.

But the first chapter worked. It stood alone more or less, no Colosseum-sized plot problems. Our hero, see, just had to steal something stealable from a place such things get stolen from. A super-valuable book. The scene zipped like a Bond movie opening, a slam bang action setpiece launching into the main plot.

We’d last left our hero in a bad way. Ed, our once-brash gent, had been outfoxed by a mademoiselle high on Holmesian deduction and low on morals (“Aix to Grind,” AHMM September 2014). Now a few months later, Ed is in crushing debt to the Corsican mob for his Aix sins, and worse, he’s in the cold, cold clutches of the Marchesa Isabella Ruggieri. In “Aix,” Ed bragged over stealing a haul from her. The haul, it turns out, Continue reading “Behind the Story: “Book of Hours””

Behind the Story: “Queen and Country”

Lesson one on writing a spider story: Never write a spider story.

Don’t do it. It’s been done. Since mythological times. Spider women. Tangled webs we weave. Innate fears and phobias. The built-in burdens alone will wrap poor writer you in literary silk. See what happens with spider stories? The metaphors have started already.

Lesson two: If you’re going to write a spider story anyway, have a plan.

A better one than I did, when in 2013 I started on something called “Orb Weaving in Wonderland.” There was this professor guy Nick, and he was using a field trip in the French Camargue to romance the fetching young Rachel. The story, soon retitled “Nephila Rachelis,” had it all, if all means an uncentered blech of sci-fi, Western, morality play, and mixed message. 

Lesson three: If you’ve started a spider story, know when to de-tangle and walk away.

The thing was, now “Nephila Cassandris” (Rachel/arachnid, too on-the-nose, that metaphor problem again) had Continue reading “Behind the Story: “Queen and Country””

I Have No Idea if There Were Communist Go-Go Parties (or, Balancing Research with Creative License)

I have written Communist go-go dancers. Not in a comedy, either. Technically, they were recruits among honors-level university students, but they broke into go-go dancing as the Party’s party night deepened and the drinks mounted. The setting was early ’70s Budapest, and the Happiest Barracks in the Iron Curtain reveled in its post-crackdown decay.

Our POV Helena takes it from here:

For the next hour I danced with every man who asked and every man who cut in, a parade of faceless political officers with tobacco and vodka on their breaths. Some were bolder than others, but none too bold. When the folk music stopped and the newer records began, we changed to whatever fast dance went with the song. I twisted, I ponied, I did the loco-motion, I thrilled at the heat of it all, and when the men tired the other girls and I go-go danced for them.

It was after the go-go dancing that Typhon approached. He brought with him two coupes of sparkling wine.

“You must be thirsty,” he said over The Byrds. He reached out the wine as if completely certain of my accepting, kissed my offered hand, and said, “The Socialist Workers’ Party appreciates your contributions to dance.”

–“Sparks to the Bear’s Hide” (MWA’s Ice Cold, Grand Central, 2014)

Now, I have no idea if such recruiting events ever devolved into Marxist Laugh-In cutaways. Mine did. For good reason: Continue reading “I Have No Idea if There Were Communist Go-Go Parties (or, Balancing Research with Creative License)”