Sunday, September 18, 2011


 So you want to write a story? About what? Any ideas? Pardon my impertinence, but get used to the question: “Where do you get your ideas?” Every novelist, story writer, playwright, songwriter, or screenwriter has to answer that question at some point.
I have three sources to suggest.
First let me suggest a premise: all good fiction is, at least in part, autobiographical. And by the way, that goes for historical novels, westerns, science fiction, and gritty police professionals. What may seem like flights of fancy usually have some source within our own experience, or our own dreams of glory and nightmares of disaster.
Well, perhaps this is a  conversation for another time. Meanwhile, let’s just accept that your own life is a rich source of fictional stories. Flannery O’Connor is said to have said, “Any writer who survived childhood has enough material to last his whole career.” She may not really have said that, because I’ve never seen a primary source for the quotation, and it’s been quoted so differently by different secondary sources that it may be apocryphal. But that doesn’t make the statement any less true.
I would add that the rich mine of materials isn’t limited to memories of childhood. Life is full of turning points, changes, choices, and consequences, and they’re all waiting to be exploited.
Where do we find them?

The Junk Drawer of Your Memory.
Every home has at least one junk drawer. Opening memory’s junk drawer is like opening a jar of insects, some beautiful, some with stingers or teeth. Where did this key come from? Who do I know who drives a Porsche? Why did I save this snapshot of my ex-husband trying to politely carve the birthday cake I made from scratch, when we both knew he didn’t want to be reminded he was turning forty? One joker card from the MGM Grand? As I remember, the joke was on me. My first report card. All A’s except for citizenship. Ticket stubs from My Fair Lady. I still have a Gene McCarthy button? I still have my draft card?
Every one of these keepsakes has a story, and the drawer is bottomless.
Historical novelists may want to explore that trunk in the attic. Horror writers will find Steve King lurking in the basement, sorting his bone collection and tasting Amontillado.

Rites of Passage.
Rites of passage are life-changing events common to many within any culture. Some of them are experienced in childhood: toilet training, learning to ride a bicycle, losing teeth, first day of school, being disabused of the myth of Santa Claus. Some come in puberty and adolescence: the driver’s license, the first kiss, the first heartbreak, the first drink. Some are the business of young adulthood: moving out and moving on, military service, college, first job, marriage, parenthood, traffic tickets, debts, and finding a career. Then come later life and what comes later than later life: grandchildren, arthritis, a crummy gold watch, funerals, and the chance to write your memories down for future generations. Some rites of passage are reserved for boys becoming men: learning to shave. Some for girls becoming women: buying a bra. Some rites of passage happen mainly to rich people, some to poor people; some to religious people, others to skeptics. So we don’t all experience all the same rites, but chances are that within any culture, we know people who have gone through experiences like these.
How to make a story out of a rite of passage you’ve passed through? First, it’s important to describe the passage in such a way that all readers (who share your culture) will relate to the experience. Second, and more important, it’s the goal of the story to show how your own experience of this rite was special, your own to claim, and how it changed you and made you a different person from the one you were before you went through that creaking door, that stretch of whitewater rapids, that midterm exam.

In any culture, there are stories we all know. Not only do we know them well because we learned them as children, but we’ve heard them over and over in varied and different retellings.
In the American/WASP/Judeo-Christian culture, to pick only one segment of our multicultural society (but the one I know best), most of us know a few common religious myths, such as the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, and the Prodigal Son. A lot of us know the same Greek myths, like the Myth of Sisyphus, the Complex of Oedipus, the Midas Touch, or Pandora’s Box. Then there are the fairy tales we grew up on: Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling, Little Red Riding Hood.
These stories get shamefully recycled, to great effect. East of Eden is a retelling of Cain and Abel. Pretty Woman is a combination of Pygmalion and Cinderella. The Ugly Duckling? It’s the basis of Dumbo, “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and dozens of other heartwarming stories.
And you’ll no doubt find your own personal versions of archetypical stories that you can exploit for fiction, taking these stories we all know and making them into stories you alone could write.

So this week’s challenge: Write a story using an artifact from the junk drawer of your memory. Make the plot a rite of passage that you experienced, and base it loosely on a classic, archetypical story.
Warning: don’t make the parallels too obvious, and remember that a good memory is a good thing, but it’s nowhere near as good or important as a good imagination.



I will be gone next week. This post will remain up till I return.


Preview of coming attraction

Here is an excerpt from my novel Behind the Redwood Door, which will be published in November.

            In the early afternoon on the fifth of March, 1867, the Golden Harp sailed into a sheltered cove on the wild, rocky coast of far northern California. It was a clear, sunny day, the first pleasant weather these Irish sailors had seen in weeks. They had been at sea for five days, sailing from their last port through choppy waters and a cold, drizzly wind; but now, as the ship sailed into the bay, the air felt warm on their faces and the clear, green water was calm as a lake in summer. Tall stones rose out of the bay and stood like ancient, weathered statues, and curious otters and seals swam to the sides of the ship as if to welcome the sailors home.
            One young man reached for a rifle, but the captain stopped him. “We’re going ashore, and we’re going in unannounced,” the captain told his brother. “Right, then, lads. Tie up to that big stone there and we’ll go have us a look around.”
            The Irish sailors and the sailor’s wives and young ones all cheered. There were fifty-four of them, and every one of them was named Connolly. Captain Brian Boru Connolly and his five brothers, Patrick, Dennis, Kevin, and the twins, Bill and Bob. And their half-wit sister, Katie, who could haul a rope as hard as any of them. Three of the brothers had wives, and all three of the wives had little ones. And there were Connolly cousins, too, with wives and children, and the whole lot of them worshipped Brian Connolly and obeyed his command to the letter.
            “Quiet down, you dogsbodies!” Brian shouted. “I said we’re going in quietly. Unannounced. Now every heathen savage in California is going to know we’re here.”
            “I hope they’re friendly,” one of the women said.
            “Oh, they’ll be friendly, all right,” Patrick said. He shouldered his rifle and pointed at the shore. “They’d bleeding well better be. Oh Jaysus, there they are.”
            Brian pulled out his spyglass and looked over his brother’s shoulder at the crowd of brown-skinned pagans gathering on the stony shore. Their expressions revealed nothing. “Put down the gun, Paddy,” he said. “We don’t want to frighten the bastards.”
            “Why not? They need to know we mean business, don’t they?”
            “Pull your head out of your arse, lad. We want to be able to use these sods.” Brian turned to Dennis and Kevin, who were standing behind him. “Get four cases of whiskey out of the hold. We’re going ashore. With whisky. And guns,” he added.
            The whole boatload of Connollys let out a cheer that echoed off the cliffs on either side of the cove. And still the benighted savages stood stone-faced and waited.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

WHAT MAKES A STORY? An Etude in the Key of C

I took [the letter] up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“All right, then, I'll go to hell”—and tore it up.
It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.


Rust Hills, the former fiction editor of Esquire, summed it up thus: “Something happens to someone.” That’s it. Plot (something happens) and character (to someone). For extra credit, ad “somewhere,” as in “something happens to someone somewhere”; but although highly recommended, scene is optional.
Okay, but what happens? Here’s what: change. Our someone is, at the end of the story, a different person from the one who she or he was at the beginning.
How does that come about? It could be because of chance, or an outside agent (a trolley runs over his foot, as a result of which he will never tap dance again); but more often, and more interesting, than not, it’s because the character has made a choice. As the old hymn tells us, “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide.” That “once” is what the best stories are about: choice.
The choice arises from a conflict. Remember this: no conflict, no story. Conflict resolution, which can sometimes take a long time and comes in many forms, is what results in choice, the consequence of which is change. And by the way, the conflict is often the outcome of a crisis of conscience, and results in a shift in the balance of power.
Yes, the choice itself has a consequence. The change, yes, we talked about that. But maybe a greater change. The moral center of gravity may have shifted. To make our story important, make that choice important, consequential. Write about what matters. Write about the human condition. In other words, write about love and death. Those are the two ingredients of any great story.
This critical moment of change, this catharsis, for reasons as old as the creative process, the recreative process, and even the procreative process, usually happens at the climax of the story.
If you don’t believe me, ask Huck Finn.

As we write our stories, let us remember these ingredients, listed here in alphabetical order:
Catharasis, Center of Gravity, Chance, Change, Character, Choice, Climax, Condition (human), Conflict, Conscience, Consequence, Creative Process, Crisis, Critical Moment…and I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few…

Preview of a coming attraction Behind the Redwood Door:

Louie Luau roared with a force that spun me around and flung me off the boat and onto the pier. I began walking toward land without looking back, picking up speed the farther I got from the boat, and the closer I got to the large man who was walking in my direction, the man in the black leather jacket. He seemed to be minding his own business at full throttle. I slowed back down and got my keys out of my pants pocket so I could make a fast getaway.

We met.

“Hello, big Guy,” he said.


“You in a hurry?”

“Yeah. I have to get back to the office.” I jingled my keys

“Come here,” he said. “I want to show you something.” He put his arm around my shoulder and led me to the railing on the north side of the pier. We stood between two bloody, stinking troughs full of fish guts. He pointed down into the water below us, where seals poked their noses up through a web of kelp. “See that?”

“What am I supposed to be looking at?”

I heard him say, “You’re supposed to be minding your own business.” And I felt his huge claws grip the collar of my windbreaker and the seat of my pants and lift me until I was out over the railing, looking straight down into the curious gaze of a brown seal with black whiskers.

“God damn it! Let go of me! Put me down!”

“As you wish, little brother,” he whispered.

My keys fell from my hand and hit the water before I did.

Behind the Redwood Door will be published November 20 by Oak Tree Press. 


Starting Friday, November 25 and continuing daily through Friday, December 9, I will be on tour—a blog tour (my first). Each day during the tour I will be hosting a different fine mystery writer, and each day a different blog of my own will appear on a different writer’s blogsite. The name of this tour is MYSTERY WE WRITE, and this is a fine opportunity to have a “chat” with some highly entertaining writers.

I invite you to hop aboard the tour, visit the ports, and while you’re at it, pick up some holiday presents for the folks back home!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Visit With William Doonan

Greetings, friends. This week we have a guest blogger, William Doonan. Bill Doonan is an anthropology professor in Sacramento, California. He has spent years working as an archaeologiest, and years lecturing on cruise ships. Meanwhile, he's a writer of mystery fiction. His two novels are Grave Passage (2009) and Mediterranean Grave (2011). Both books recount the adventures of Henry Grave, an octogenarian detective who solves crimes on cruise ships.

Mediterranean Grave was just awarded a Finalist medal for Best Mystery by the National Independent Press Excellence Awards, and Marc Filippelli of the San Francisco Book Review called it "the best combination of murder mystery and humor that I have ever read."

 Bill, welcome to my blog, THE JOY OF STORY. I'll now turn the mike over to you.

Thanks for the guest-blogging opportunity.  I'm an anthropology professor here in California, and for the last twelve summers, I've had the opportunity to lecture aboard cruise ships.  It's been a lot of fun, heading out to Venice with the family for another romp through the Greek islands.  But in the process, I've learned a lot about cruise culture, and that led to my Henry Grave mystery series.  Henry is an eighty-four year-old detective who solves crimes at sea.

12 million people take a cruise each year.
Most have fun.
Some die.
Henry Grave investigates.

Henry is based on several people I've run into at sea.  Cruising is primarily an older person's game, and I've had the pleasure of meeting plenty of fascinating characters, some well into their nineties.  And they’re often willing to share tales about their lives. One day I was sitting up on deck with my sons, and an old German guy sat down and started telling us about his own sons, and how he forbade them to go into the army as he had.  Then he started talking about what it was like to be a German soldier during World War II. 

So Henry Grave is a World War II veteran who spent the tail end of 1944 in a Nazi POW camp, nearly starving to death.  This defining moment of his life is something that centers him, brings him back to a point when his senses were sharp, his imagination crystal clear, and his determination profound.  As senior investigator for an organization that responds to crimes aboard cruise ships, Henry draws on decades of experience to flush out his prey.  And at eighty-four years of age, he fits right in with his fellow passengers.

As Mediterranean Grave opens, the cruising yacht Vesper is anchored off the Greek island of Thera, in the caldera of an ancient volcano when Henry comes aboard. An Egyptian federal agent was onboard to guard a valuable Minoan cup, but the agent was murdered and the cup, stolen. With the help of a Nicaraguan soap opera star, a New Age spiritualist, and a blind pickpocket, Henry draws on skills honed in a Nazi prison camp to track down a killer who might have his own reasons for taking this particular cruise, reasons unrelated to the sumptuous meals, delightful shipboard activities, and exciting ports of call.

I guess you could say what makes Henry Grave unique, is that he is still vibrant and effective at the age of eighty-four.  Back in 2009, when I was looking for a publisher for the first book, Grave Passage, my agent cautioned me to make him a little younger, in his seventies, so he’d be believable.  I didn’t, and I’m glad I didn’t.  I’ve given readings at senior centers, and received dozens of letters from people who say they appreciate that someone at least recognizes that not everyone in their eighties is infirm.  Henry’s passions include drink, good food, and flirting with women.  His flaws?  Too much drink, good food, and flirting with women.

If you’d like to learn more, check out my website at

Both Mediterranean Grave and Grave Passage are available on

Thanks for stopping by, Bill. So what’s next in your writing career?

In my next book, American Caliphate, I'll be revisiting my archaeological investigations, specifically some excavations I worked on in Peru, to explore a centuries old mystery.  What happened when Spanish Moors illegally sailed to sixteenth-century colonial Peru?  You need to know, because it's about to change the world.  American Caliphate is scheduled for a December release.