Hamilton Shmamilton — when your own project is Dead in the Water

I may be the only New Yorker who has not seen Hamilton.

Correction: I may be the only New Yorker who has no intention of ever seeing Hamilton. It’s not that I think it’s an unworthy effort – I’m sure the world was waiting breathlessly for a hip hop musical about one of my favorite founding fathers. And with the help of a little Krazy Glue, I could probably sit through two hours of rapping colonials.

The reason I probably won’t see it is that a few years ago I wrote Treason, a musical about Benedict Arnold. Since Arnold himself was a notorious traitor, he was an unlikely protagonist. So, in the style of Evita, I have the young Alexander Hamilton serving as a Che Guevara type narrator who takes the audience on the journey, commenting on the action and appearing in key scenes – as he did in real life, being the aide-de-camp to General Washington at the time.

However, being a white woman who writes somewhat traditional musicals, I realize the show that absorbed two years of my life is now dead in the water. I would never be able to convince anyone that I was writing Treason long before Hamilton break danced onto the scene – I have no doubt the word “derivative” would surface with any producer I was foolish enough to approach.

More power to the creators of Hamilton for their fresh new take on an important time in American history – I too believe immigrants “get the job done,” yada-yada-yada. Most of us are immigrants, and one job we got done very efficiently was the slaughter of this land’s only rightful occupants, the Native Americans.

I’m sure Hamilton is an important teaching tool for people who knew little of that time period or the truly fascinating title character. But having done countless hours of research, I’m not in that target audience, so I’ll save my $400, or whatever the outrageous price of a Broadway musical is these days, to see Book of Mormon, thanks very much. Mormons are still a mystery to me.

So what’s a girl to do? Just what you do after a bad breakup – move on, get over it, write a new show. I’m thinking about a rap version of the Trump Administration. I really think Sarah Huckabee Sanders deserves a hip hop dance number, with the Washington press corps as the chorus. I’ll keep you posted on how it’s going.


Mystery Novel Writer’s Primer: Part 1

So, you want to write mystery novels, eh?

You might well be an excellent writer, but each genre has particular methods and techniques, and mystery writing does, too. So, let’s start with some simple tips.

First, though, I’m going to assume that you’ve been studying how to write by taking classes, going to workshops and generally trying to educate yourself about writing’s art and craft. Preparation is the critical first step. Learning how to write is the most important thing you must do, and it takes constant practice to be good.

For instance, while at a cocktail party, I overheard a conversation between a writer and a surgeon. The sawbones said, “Oh, so you’re a writer. I’ll be retiring soon and am seriously considering writing as a second career.” The writer replied, “My how interesting! It’s funny you should mention that because, when I retire, I was considering becoming a surgeon.”

Moral of the story: There is no substitute for training and experience in any field. If you are dedicated, you are always writing, learning and seeking new information and ideas about your craft.

Who’s your favorite character?

Have you read lots of mystery novels? Every writer develops plots and characters differently, and reading a wide range of authors gives you ideas about how to approach your novel. If you have read many of them, pick out some that you most remember or enjoyed, then re-read them with a critical eye. If you’ve only read a few, get busy reading.

When you return to your chosen books, try to view the stories from a 1,000-foot view and see the arc of the plot, characters, and so on. Try as best you can to re-read them with a somewhat detached view and, when you find passages that excite or fascinate you, ask yourself what moves you. Take notes about them, and perhaps sticky flags and a highlighter are in order, too. This is not an invitation to copy, but learning how to build your own style.

Who do you love, or love to hate?

Next, do you have a main character or characters? As you read, notice how the authors develop and expose the facets of their characters. Often in mystery writing, they are a policeman, detective, private eye, criminal investigator, or perhaps amateur sleuth. Don’t be bound by those, though, because maybe a lack of skills or training can serve as part of your character. For instance, they could be a genius, autistic savant, son of a famous detective, a master analyst, or anything that you can weave into a plausible character.

Your main character is pivotal to your reader’s interest. Does the reader experience your story through them in first-person, or do you write in an observational style, or … ? What is their personality like? Their morals? What drives them to seek answers, take risks and make personal sacrifices?

The more questions like those you ask, the more interesting your character, and the more ways you can develop your story. Character inspirations are everywhere. Do you have particularly interesting persons in your life? Perhaps you use them as a platform from which to build your characters. How about crimes in your area, present or past? There are story and character springboards everywhere – go find them.

Okay, now we’ve scratched the surface. These first few installments are to get you thinking about preparation before you write. Go start reading and, please, include my works in your list. Go here to see them:   http://www.celawrence.com

Ruth’s reading list of my books – nice list, great blog

On her blog, Turadh, Ruth posted a list of my books, and she is working her way through the whole list. As an author and a human, I am honored that she’s taken such an interest in them. Thank you so much, Ruth.

Beyond my works, she has a wonderful selection of other topics. Quite the interesting blog with a variety of topics besides books. You should visit by clicking here.

Praise from the UK – The Eloquent Page’s review of “Edinburgh Twilight”

eloquent-pageI am particularly thrilled with this review of my newest murder mystery thriller, Edinburgh Twilight, by The Eloquent Page.

The site’s owner, Paul (@pablocheesecake), has been blogging since 2010 and has compiled an impressive and wide-ranging site filled with reviews on books of all kinds. It’s a delightful reader’s paradise filled with info and thoughtful reviews on a very wide variety of books. I am entirely grateful for his appreciation of the historical crime genre. As someone well familiar with Edinburgh, his insights are much appreciated. And he is absolutely correct, one should visit there if you can. It’s a fascinating and beautiful place.

Edinburgh_cover_SM(This is a synopsis, not his review.)
As a new century approaches, Edinburgh is a city divided. The wealthy residents of New Town live in comfort, while Old Town’s cobblestone streets are clotted with criminals, prostitution, and poverty.
Detective Inspector Ian Hamilton is no stranger to Edinburgh’s darkest crimes. Scarred by the mysterious fire that killed his parents, he faces his toughest case yet when a young man is found strangled in Holyrood Park.
With little evidence aside from a strange playing card found on the body, Hamilton engages the help of his aunt, a gifted photographer, and George Pearson, a librarian with a shared interest in the criminal mind. But the body count is rising. As newspapers spin tales of the “Holyrood Strangler,” panic sets in across the city. And with each victim, the murderer is getting closer to Hamilton, the one man who dares to stop him.”

You can find Edinburgh Twilight at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and through GoodReads affiliates.

This is the first in the Ian Hamilton Mysteries, available now.
Look for the second installment, Edinburgh Dusk, releasing in January, 2018.

Digging Into a Plot

You probably know the answer to the question, “What’s the most important thing in real estate?”  (Answer: location, location, location.)  Okay, what’s the most important thing in crime or mystery writing?  Answer: plot, plot, plot.

Anyone who says they find writing plots easy is either a liar or a fool.  It’s gritty, sweaty work, and it’s what separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls, and the professionals from the wannabes.  It goes by other names – structure, story, narrative throughline, storyline – but it is the single most important element in the commercial (and often critical) success of a book in the crime genre.  (Remember The DaVinci Code?)  To paraphrase Vince Lombardi, plot is not the most important thing, it’s the only thing.  All the pretty prose, marvelous metaphors, and captivating characters in the world will not make up for the lack of a good story.

So what makes for a good plot, and how do you get one?  If that answer were easy, we’d all have as much money as Dan Brown and Michael Crichton combined.  (When asked where he got his ideas, Harlan Ellison used to answer, “Schenectady.  There’s a swell Idea Service in Schenectady; and every week I send ‘em twenty-five bucks; and every week they send me a fresh six-pack of ideas.”)

A really good premise helps – a lot.  But a great premise is only a small part of the battle.  Even a great premise can be ruined by bad execution, and a mediocre premise can be transformed into a brilliant story.  If you have both, of course, you’ve hit the Story Jackpot.

He Who Suffers

Every story must have a main character, or protagonist – which, by the way, is Greek for “he who suffers the most.”  Ignore this linguistic hint at your peril.  By all means, make your protagonist suffer – and if others suffer along with him, so much the better.  It has been said that we long to read stories about things happening to people that we would never, ever want to happen to us or the people we care about.  The irony, of course, is that stories only work if we do come to care about the characters – especially the long-suffering protagonist.

Some stories have what is called a “group protagonist” – a group of people acting as one, wanting the same thing, working toward the same goal.  A good example of this is Caleb Carr’s intriguing historical thriller, The Alienist, as well as its sequel, Angel of Darkness.  Both books have a small band of folks who work together to identify and capture the serial killer prowling the streets of 19th century New York City.  No one person stands out in either book as being the central character, even though both books have a first person narrator who is close to the action.  Of course, a potential drawback of using a group protagonist is that the reader can end up bonding rather weakly with several characters instead of bonding strongly with one – thus decreasing his emotional involvement.  (This is true in both of Carr’s books, in my opinion, but no worries:  the real star in both books is the setting, which Carr brings to life masterfully.)

And emotional involvement is a key element in any genre.  The word “emotion” means “movement,” and when people read stories, they want to be moved.  So it’s our job to deliver not only thrills but chills – not only to engage our readers, but to move them.  So give your protagonist something worth struggling for, and then, by god, make him struggle.

plot2In the old fashioned version of the classic murder mystery, there may not be a terrific amount of emotional involvement on the part of the reader, but that lack of emotion is replaced by the pleasure of trying to solve the puzzle.  This would be especially true of the so-called “cozies,” which engage the reader not by terrifying or moving them, but by presenting them with charming characters, picturesque settings, and a jolly good puzzle to solve.  Though P.D. James is a novelist of terrific intellect and keen insight, some of her Inspector Dalgleish novels teeter toward the cozy end of the spectrum.  In Death Holy Orders, for example, Dalgleish travels to a quaint seaside theological college to uncover the mystery behind the death of a student.  The reader is given a lot of historical detail about the area, the setting is both picturesque and appropriately spooky, the characters are eccentric in the way only the British can be, and eventually the criminal is brought to justice.  But it is a “closed society” killer – the threat never widens out into society in general, and Dalgleish himself is never truly in danger.  It’s a good ride, but it’s not an edge-of-your-seat page turner.

Please, Sir, May I Have Some More?

When young Oliver approached the dour cook in Oliver Twist, he really wanted some more porridge – no, he needed it, because he was starving.  Who among us can’t relate to the plight of a starving orphan?  He’s starving, for god’s sake, and he’s an orphan!  Give the kid some more gruel!  That’s one of the many ways Dickens draws us into the plight of his characters – the stakes are high, the situation dire, and his poor characters are in terrible, life or death situations.  In his day, he was the equivalent of J.K. Rowling – people lined up at the docks of New York to wait for the ship bringing the next installment of The Old Curiosity Shop to see if poor Nell lived or died (I hate to break it to you, but she died.)

In order to have a story, you need a character who wants something – no, who needs something.  In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade really needs to know who killed his partner, Miles.  In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov at first needs to kill the landlady (or feels he does, which is the same thing from his perspective), and later he needs to evade the police (until he feels the need to confess, which is another brilliant twist in Dostoevsky’s masterpiece of a novel).

And then you have to put as many obstacles in his way as you possibly can – the more, the merrier.  Janet Burroway has a neat little formula:  Drama = Desire + Danger.  And the greater the desire, or need, the greater the possibilities for drama.   But to make the story work, you have to add the key element of danger.

Danger, Will Robinson

I have my own mantra to spur me on to gripping storylines:  the greater the danger, the more you interest a stranger.  In other words, your readership is in direct proportion to how much you make your characters struggle to get what they want.  The kicker, of course, is how do you do that?

Well, first of all, it is key to create a situation in which the character has something to lose if he or she fails.  In other words, raise the stakes.  And, as I mentioned in the first lecture, the more there is to lose – the more people who might be affected if your protagonist fails – the better.  

In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade will lose both his self-respect and his professional reputation if he fails to find the killer.  There is also a good chance whoever killed Miles will come to kill him.   In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov’s sanity and self-image are at stake before he murders the landlady – afterwards, his liberty and perhaps even his life are at stake.

This is wonderfully clear in the premise of The Andromeda Strain.  What is at stake is simply the survival of mankind.  Either the virus wins, or we do; it’s as simple as that. Okay, you may not think we’re the greatest thing that ever happened to this planet, but if contemplating our total annihilation doesn’t send a chill up your spine, you’re probably too thick-skinned to be a writer.  And defeated by a virus?  Crichton makes his scientists struggle mightily against not Nature herself – and, as we all know, you can’t fool her . . .

Nature makes a pretty good villain in a lot of genres – certainly in most medical thrillers she is an accomplice at the very least, if not the main threat.  Of course you have to pile human drama on top of that – people struggling with and against each other, but more about that later.

This Time, It’s Personalplot1

So how do you make the reader care?  Well, the most obvious way is to make the struggle matter greatly to the protagonist – in other words, make it deeply personal. Unfortunately, this can be clumsily done, and can come across as painting-backstory-by-numbers.  In The Princess Bride William Goldman lampoons this story cliché in the Mandy Patinkin character, who, in scene after scene, intones “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die,” in an overdone Spanish accent.  Comedy trades in clichés, of course – without them, it would be a thin world for comedy writers.  

But clichés become common because there was once something vital and true about them; otherwise, they wouldn’t have caught on in the first place.  The trick to breathing life into any well-worn device is to make it fresh, give it a twist – or, best of all, imbue it with emotional truth.  What exactly is emotional truth?  Well, perhaps it is a little like pornography, in the famous definition given by the Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who, while admitting he couldn’t define it, insisted that “I know it when I see it.”

Emotional truth comes about when you write from within yourself, forging the protagonist’s struggles from elements in your own life or character or (dare I say) soul.  If you sit down to give your protagonist a backstory of say, a dead wife, and you can’t relate personally to this, having never been married or never experienced such a thing, or if you lack the imagination to experience it vicariously, then your choice will ring hollow.  You can’t just pluck a plot point out of the air because you decide you need “something,” so this will do.  If you do, the reader will smell a rat.

But since imagination is one of the prerequisites for being a writer, you can give your protagonist that backstory, even if you’ve never been married or suffered such a loss, but only if you can put yourself in his shoes and experience the loss as fully as possible.  It is no coincidence that most playwrights were once actors.  The skill set is similar: imagination, sympathy, the desire to live a character’s emotional life vicariously.  It is also no accident that many writers have one or two themes they pursue obsessively, working out the problem again and again, much as Monet was drawn to painting the Sacre Coeur over and over.  

You often don’t have to dig very deep to find the origins of a writer’s obsession.  For instance, Conrad Aiken wrote story after story about the loss of a child, his most famous being “Secret Snow, Silent Snow,” in which a little boy is lost to madness.  It all makes sense when you know that he lost his little sisters at the age of five and never recovered – though I prefer to think he recovered a little with each story he wrote.

James Elroy’s mother was murdered when he was a boy, and it colored his entire life.  His career as a crime writer no doubt came about in part because of this loss – he even wrote a fascinating memoir about her death, My Dark Places.

As to my own personal backstory and obsessions, well, I guess you’ll just have to read my work and figure it out.  And you’ll probably be right.

Three Little Words

Given the general aura of discontent and dissent now pervading our political climate, I thought the first blog post of the new year should be something positive, a paean to our possibilities, rather than a condemnation of our rather obvious flaws.  (And for those you who think I’m showing off, I had to look up the spelling of “paean.”)

So I am going to write about the British.

On a recent trip to Great Britain (or the United Kingdom, as it is now optimistically called), I came to the conclusion that in order to understand English culture, you need three key words or phrases.  They are: “You all right?” “Sorry,” and “Sorted.”man-678341_640

As an American raised by unabashed anglophiles (our family holiday dinners were Downtown Abbey sans servants), I was drawn to the island that once spawned so many generations of conquerors, a world power in inverse proportion to its size, now reduced to a toothless pet tiger.  Because whatever else the British have, they have charm.  An adorable dog loving culture – those accents, meats pies, and oh, those hats.  What other world monarch would appear at a state function wearing an inverted pink salad bowl on her head?

So I slipped on a pair of zippered boots, waited patiently while airport security X-rayed them for explosives, and boarded a plane for the land of raincoats, Wellies and sticky toffee pudding.   On my last trip across “the pond” (as frequent fliers fondly refer to the Atlantic Ocean), I found the English infinitely strange – odd, eccentric, and fussy.  They were an entirely foreign race – more remote than the Russians, say, or the Japanese.

But on this trip I sensed a deeper, more appealing aspect of our English cousins.  Shortly after my arrival, I forayed to Sainsbury’s, that wonderland where you can buy butternut squash soup and batteries, salmon croquettes and shampoo, tikka masala and thumb tacks.  I was taken aback by the greeting I received from a passing sales clerk, who looked at me kindly and inquired, “You all right?”  Her concern alarmed me – was I looking peaked?  Had jet lag left its mark – dark circles under the eyes, a tremor in my hands?  Was one side of my face drooping, droplets of drool dangling from my lips?  I muttered a reply and dashed to the bathroom – or toilet, as they vulgarly insist on calling it – to see what had prompted such a solicitous reaction.  To my surprise, I looked quite normal – chipper even, the garish fluorescent lighting notwithstanding.

I eventually learned that “Are you all right?” is the English equivalent of “Hello.”  The Brits deliver it with such earnestness that it took me a while to realize it was merely a routine, perfunctory greeting.  In New York we say “How ya doin’?” – but in such an offhand way that only the most pathetic ponce would mistake it for actual concern over his wellbeing.  But the Sainsbury’s lady seemed to really want to know how I was; her brown eyes glistened with sympathy.

I pondered over the correct response – “Doing well, thank you,” or “I’m all right, Jack – how about you?” or even “G’day, mate,” but that seemed more Hulk Hogan than Big Ben.   I finally settled on the nondescript “Fine, thanks,” hoping it was appropriate.  I trotted it out, searching for raised eyebrows; finding none, I concluded that it was.

It is the delivery of this greeting, more than the words themselves, that says so much about the English – the implication that it is meaningful, a sincere inquiry into your state of well being.  It is a hint at the deeply communal, empathetic side of British culture.  There were other signs.  Everywhere I went I saw charity shops – what we call thrift stores – run by organizations like Cancer Research and Hospice International, as well as organizations familiar to us, like the Salvation Army and Oxfam.  But in Britain there are so many of them – the little Surrey town where I stayed had nearly a dozen.  British television has a series of ads about living with cancer – not promoting a product, but simply advocating compassion and care for people stricken by the disease.  There is a culture of kindness and politeness that we can only scrape the surface of – not just people holding doors for each other, but unlikely strangers going out of their way to help.

This was brought home to me one day while walking the elderly dog I was looking after along a busy suburban street in Surrey.   In spite of his advanced age, he suddenly lunged at a squirrel, slipping out of his collar.  A boy of about eight was running by, trying to catch up with his father, who had just passed us.  Seeing my panicked look, the boy grabbed the dog to prevent him from running into traffic, scooped up the collar and handed it to me before I could speak.  As if that wasn’t enough, he proceeded to advise me about mending the collar – all as his father receded further into the distance.   Stunned by his considerate behavior, I mumbled my thanks as he sprinted off to catch up with his oblivious parent.  I tried in vain to imagine an American child behaving that way.  It wasn’t just his helpfulness – it was that a boy of his age would see a stranger’s distress and react so quickly and unselfishly.

This deeply ingrained altruism leads us to the second word of British identity: “Sorry.”  

The English apologize continuously and compulsively for everything.  I was getting a loaf of bread at Tesco (another delightful temple of food fun), and a gentleman apologized for plucking a loaf out of the same basket – even though he didn’t inconvenience me in any way, or even so much as brush against my sleeve.  A lady in line in front of me apologized for ordering a sandwich.  I was never sure why – maybe she was afraid it would take too long.  The British seem constitutionally fretful about taking up too much space; they are cosmically self-effacing.  They seem to share an existential shame at the very fact of their existence, perhaps a vestige of guilt over the power they once wielded over other cultures.

But my favorite incident was when a traffic cop apologized for pulling me over.  His entire statement was a masterpiece of English decency:  “I’m sorry, Madame, but you cut me off twice.”  I cut him off twice, but he was the one who apologized.  I dare you to imagine a New York State trooper in his crisp greys, Ray Bans and Smoky the Bear hat apologizing for pulling you over.  (I never did get a ticket – he bought my Clueless American Having Trouble with this Whole Left Side of the Road Business.  I’m embarrassed to admit it was the truth.)

In another country, this compulsive apologizing might be irritating.  But in England, it is adorable.  (Note:  I speak here only of the English.  The Scots are exempt from this trait of incessant apologizing.  They don’t apologize much, if at all, for anything.)  

Which leads to the final key word of British life: “Sorted.”

In America, you might sort your sock drawer.  Or possibly your spice shelf.  (In a spasm of desperate procrastination, I once alphabetized my entire kitchen.)  In the British Isles, however, everything and anything is a candidate for sorting.  A broken leg?  No worries.  Go to the hospital –they’ll sort it.  Political scandal, personal disaster, hurricane damage – all will be sorted.  I actually heard a woman tell her husband that the doctors would “sort” his heart condition.

This could be seen as an expression of a devotion to order, but I think it’s something deeper.  The notion of “sorting” a broken limb or an embarrassing personal scandal speaks to the famous Stiff Upper Lip, a way of downplaying catastrophe.  After all, how bad can something be if you can put it right by “sorting” it?  It’s a nifty bit of semantics – asserting linguistic control over what might otherwise be extremely upsetting or terrifying.

Those, then, are the three phrases or words of Britain (“Are you all right” may be several words, but as pronounced, it’s only two syllables: “Yawright?”)  To me they are windows into the essential decency, kindness and humility of a country that once ruled the world, the transformation of a culture that once believed the mere fact of being British conferred God’s blessing.  Now they don’t seem so righteous, and that insecurity is appealing.  As a citizen of a country only too sure of itself, whose latest president is a sexist sociopath wearing an orange chia pet on his head, I take comfort in our self-effacing English cousins.  Maybe there’s hope for those of us on this side of the pond.