Behind the Story: “Star of Zoe”

I just have to see her.

How “Star of Zoe” first got going, well, it was without Zoe. Not technically, I mean. I was riffing on this idea, this phrase: I just have to see her. So right there comes a She Who Must Be Seen. A proto-Zoe in the mix. My first riff, though, opened with our point-of-view “I” in the equation, our man-on-a-mission. Jimmy.

He’s banging at a door, desperate. In love, still in love. Being denied entry. What door? Who’s blocking it? Didn’t know, but questions like that are why we riff.

I just have to see her.

A relationship. An enduring attachment, however one-sided. Of course, he can’t see her straight out, right? Never give ‘em what they want. The door-blocker formed up as a family member, a protector of an estrangement, and the idea took off: an in-law, which made Zoe a wife. An ex-wife. And Jimmy had to see her.

I liked writing Jimmy. He’s not especially clever but not especially dumb. He’s a petty thief but still an identifiable guy. A big heart, a sense of how to push his luck. And damn, he wanted to tell this story. I turned on that cold riff, and Jimmie started talking and talking and talking. About himself, sure. But about Zoe, too. He spoke of her with real tenderness. As I found his voice, it became clear he didn’t know her. It was like his words formed a loving filter of Zoe, her shape without her inner self.

Anyway, while Jimmy is telling me about the Zoe he’d held onto, what hadn’t formed up yet was Inner Zoe. She waited silently on the other side of that door. Draft one went along with Jimmy trying to jive or bust his way into her hospital room, to no luck. And no reaction from Zoe. Eventually, it occurred to both Jimmy and I why she kept quiet. Zoe was dead.

Say what you will about finality, but it has a way of focusing a riff. The story had a compass now, loss and our reasons for losing. And it found its evitable ending (an essay all its own, but no spoilers for now). Other characters could step forward and eulogize the lost Zoe, even if their own grief painted her a shade too-saintly. In that space Jimmy had to confront how he’d really lost his wife a long time ago. How it she’d never been the better for having met him.

“Star” borrows a caper’s structure, if flipped some. Jimmy’s big plot and grand gesture of love is to give (not take), the Star. He’s breaking into an unusual and well-guarded spot at some risk to himself: a funeral home full of angry in-laws and one mint-dispensing, truth-telling mortician. A trespassing arrest he can’t afford. In the end, like a good caper, Jimmy fails right at the critical moment (again, no spoilers), though I’ll say Jimmy profits by his failure. As a human being scoured of his misconceptions. He can move on, maybe. This editing (and more editing) took a year to riff, write, and edit. Problems solved? All but one. The central one. Dear Zoe.

Four thousand words. Those re-focused drafts ran four thousand words, and we only saw Zoe in her coffin at the very end. I’d held her out as Jimmy’s prize for getting past her family guard. When he got there, it fell flat. The thing was, I’d made the same mistake as Jimmy. In putting her on a pedestal–literally–those drafts only ever showed that shape around Zoe. Yes, people would empathize with Jimmy. We all have friends going through loss. It hits harder when that loss hits home. When it’s family.

So. Zoe. What if she actually participated in the story? We wouldn’t just hear the characters mourn their projection of her. We could meet Zoe for ourselves and judge if she was worth the mourning. I wrote her in via flashbacks timed to the caper’s inflection points: how Jimmy picked her up, how a one-night stand blossomed, how Jimmy’s thieving sent their love story south. And Zoe the actual character burst onto the page, a match for Jimmy. It turned out she had a closetful of pattern nursing scrubs, horrible taste in cocktails, and excellent taste in Elvis impersonators. Zoe became Jimmy’s loss to bear, not that shadow of his loss.

We just had to see her.

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“Star of Zoe” is proudly featured in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, March/April 2019.

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””