Story Ideas Part 3, The Scientist's Accomplice

Comment

Story Ideas Part 3, The Scientist's Accomplice

Three years ago I found myself driving back to Detroit from New York City where I’d been visiting my daughter. Not being a big fan of roadside motels, I’d taken my camping gear with me and pitched my tent that night at a campground somewhere in Pennsylvania. I had just finished off a couple of hot dogs and it was starting to get dark when a couple of good-sized, late model pick-ups roared up to the cabin at the next site over. A guy stepped out of one and a gal stepped out of the other. Both middle-aged, both wearing checked-flannel shirts and jeans.

The gal, Cindy, raised her hand and gave me a nice ‘howdy neighbor’ and, of course, I howdeed them right back.

As you might know, most campers are very friendly and it doesn’t take much to get a conversation started. Over a good campfire and a few beers and, in the morning, over a cup of strong coffee, I got to know a little bit about Cindy and her good buddy Charlie.

Together, they worked as a pilot car team escorting oversized loads cross-country. They had a lot of stories to tell about the huge trucks and huge loads and eccentric truckers that they’d worked with. They even had a photo album to go along with those stories. At the time I ran into them, they were waiting around the campground for a new assignment from their dispatcher.

It was mid-morning when I said good-bye to them. I wished them well and got back on I-80 heading west. It didn’t take me too many miles before I started dreaming up a story about a mysterious oversized load and a guy with a pick-up hired to escort it from Miami to Tucson.

That story became The Scientist’s Accomplice.

Now of course I was just lucky to run into Cindy and Charlie because I’m sure that such a story line would never have occurred to me otherwise. Then again, if I hadn’t met them, maybe I would have met some other people that night in which case the story I ended up with would have been totally different—maybe better, maybe worse. The main point here is that, for me at least, the best story ideas, and the best character profiles too, come from real life and real people. No, I’m not proposing that to write a good murder-mystery you have to know an actual murderer (although I’ll bet it would help—think, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood). What I am proposing is the notion that the greater the collection of real world experiences an aspiring fiction writer has, the more likely it is that his or her stories will be good ones and that they’ll ring true to the reader.

So, if you think that all the great story ideas have already been taken, think again. There are, what, 9 billion people in the world? Every one of them possesses a unique story. Get out there and talk to some of them!

Oh, and thanks to Cindy and Charlie wherever you are.

Comment

Story Ideas, Part 2: Bananas and Lima beans.

Comment

Story Ideas, Part 2: Bananas and Lima beans.

Story Ideas, Part 2: Bananas and Lima beans

So, we were talking story ideas and how to get them.

Sometimes it’s no easy task. You can try all you like to force a great plot and great characters to come together yet, like mixing lima beans with bananas, sometimes you just can’t make it work. In my last installment I described how the idea for my first book started way back in the 8th grade, simmered over a few DECADES then burst upon the unsuspecting literary world as The Lost Revolution. But really, it doesn’t have to take that long.

In the summer of 2013 I was riding a tour bus with my wife through the picturesque countryside of Prince Edward Island in Canada when I started my second book. That’s right, while everyone was wasting time enjoying the scenery, I had my notebook computer perched on my scrunched knees typing away. It’s a good way to let life just pass you by but hey, I had an idea and I couldn’t let it get away. Besides most of the sites from PEI you can get on a good picture calendar. (Being facetious here - I actually enjoyed the trip a lot and didn’t really spend that much time on the book.) Anyway, the story idea was: Art, Murder and the Psychology of Genius. Sounds a little dry, right? So, mix in some good characters, some mysterious paintings, a dark secret, a love triangle and voilà - out comes The Caruso Collection. Gestation period, 2 years. Still too long but quite an improvement from the decades taken by my first book.

The point here is that the idea for the book probably won’t just flash into your head fully formed. All right, the very basic rough idea might, but where do you go from there? A good story needs to develop and evolve and it needs to include both good plot and good characters. I think most of us struggling writers get bogged down trying to conceive the best, most original, convoluted, sexy, action packed thriller that’s sure to become a best seller. We want to take the love triangle to new heights (maybe a love pentagon?) We spin our wheels trying to astound, impress, hornyize (new word) and baffle the reader when all we really need to do is draw the reader into the story. I know, easier said than done. But there are ways…

Think of your number one favorite book or movie. Ten to one, the basic conflict (plot) is very simple or at least starts out that way. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King makes reference to the three R’s: Rebellion, Ruin and Redemption. It’s amazing how many good stories have been crafted around that basic formula. Use that formula to look closely at your favorite book or movie. Deconstruct it, chapter by chapter, scene by scene, so you can see the underlying structure. What formula did that writer use? How did that writer make you CARE about their characters? Can you or should you adopt that same formula and technique in your writing? Maybe, maybe not. But, in any case, this exercise should give you a better understanding of what does work and why.

There’s a lot of secret sauce in good writing, and every writer has their own brand. But with all the variations, there are similarities among the best. Those similarities have to do with style, form and structure and most importantly, a good understanding of the emotions at play. A good writer lives the story as she/he writes it. In that way, their emotions become the emotions of the characters which, in turn, become the emotions of the reader causing them to live the story too. F. Scott Fitzgerald said it better: “No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader.”

So, un-noted authority that I am, I’ll tell you what works for me. I start with a simple plot and simple characters and I try to know them well. These are my basic ingredients and they need to simmer until they produce just the right aroma. (Something you won’t get with bananas and Lima beans no matter how hard you try.) Then I throw in a twist here and a turn there, maybe a mild aphrodisiac so that all the ingredients mesh (I hope) in an interesting way. At this point, it’s just a matter of persistence, dedication and time available to see the work through to its completion. Hopefully it won’t take you decades but, especially if you write part time, it could take a couple of years. A good part of that time spent in the editing and re-write process. Be sure to take your time with it. It’s your work you’ll be putting out there for all to see. Make it your best!

Please chime in with any comments or observations of your own and tune in for Part 3 on book 3, next time. After that (maybe) we’ll be on to character development.

Comment

Comment

Story Ideas and the Indie Publishing Experience (part 1)

I’ve had a lot of people ask me where I get my story ideas from. My quick and most common answer is: “I don’t know, they just come to me.” On reflection though, there’s more to it than that.

The idea for my first book, The Lost Revolution, dates all the way back in the 8th grade when an inspirational teacher challenged the class to read The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. This wonderful book made the start of World War 1 and history in general come alive for me. It was like a kid with athletic capabilities (which I wasn’t) seeing his first NFL game. After reading the book, my first thought was: Man, what interesting and terrible times those were. My second thought was: Man, I wish I could write like that.

Then life came along and fast-forwarded me through high school, a stint in the army, college, marriage and child-rearing. I have no regrets about any of that (well okay, I could have done without the army thing but the draft didn’t give me much choice) but, the point is, writing was left slowly percolating on a back burner. Sure I’d tried writing a story here or there but I really couldn’t finish anything I started. Not only that, most of what I did write one day would sound terrible to me the next.

Still, all through this time, the story for a novel kept developing, plot point by plot point. At first it was called, The Frenchman’s Diary, then Of Cultures and Continents, then A Secret of the Monarchy. I was in my fifties when I completed the first draft of The Lost Revolution—all 167,000 words of it. Then came the hunt for an agent, constant revisions and the hiring of a professional editor. I chopped it down to 120.000 words—all good words, I thought. More years passed. I’d often get encouraging replies to my queries but still no agent would take me on.

Finally, along came print-on-demand and the Indie Author experience. Finally I was able to publish the story that, for me, started all the way back in the 8th grade. Sure agents and publishers are great but they all seem to be looking for the next Harry Potter book, or the next YA vampire book or the next erotic romance book. In short, my wheelhouse just wasn’t commercial enough.

Since publishing that first book, I’ve gotten enough sales and enough general and professional reviews to convince me that, while my book may not be best-seller good, it’s still good; maybe even great among the right readership. And I know that I’m not alone. Many, other writers, some of them already established, are going the indie route. Maybe it’s something you might consider. But, no matter your publishing path, be sure to have others read your work before you publish; others who will not be afraid of hurting your feelings when they find fundamental flaws. It’s always better that they find them rather than your readers.

As for the Ideas for my other two books, The Caruso Collection and The Scientist’s Accomplice, those came about through my interest in art, murder, science and long-haul trucking. More about that in my next blog.

Comment

And what ever happened to Sam Spade?

Comment

And what ever happened to Sam Spade?

 

 

I plod on with my interviews of timeless literary characters and find myself alone on the south side of Chicago...

It’s 2 am, windy, and a late summer rain is falling. Across the puddled street, buildings flash in time with the lightening and seem to tremble with the long roll of distant thunder as I enter Fred’s Coffee Shop and fold my umbrella. I glance at Fred who stands behind the cash register. He starts to wipe down the counter then points with his chin to the only patron in the place - a guy seated in the last booth, his back toward me. He’s enveloped in a white cloud of cigarette smoke. I know he hears my footsteps as I walk closer but he doesn’t turn. His rumpled hat, stained from the rain, rests on the table beside a half-filled ash tray and a half empty cup of black coffee. He doesn’t look up as I sit.

His drawn, shadowy face is entirely devoid of color.

Me:      You Spade?

A cigarette dangles from his mouth.

S:         Who wants to know?

Me:      Tom Ulicny. I wrote the Lost Revolution.

He smirks.

S:         Oh yeah, THAT Tom Ulicny. Freddy said you’d be stopping by.

Me:      You know that smoking in here is illegal, right?

He takes a long drag and blows it out as he talks.

S:         So’s asking stupid questions.

Me:      It’s a nasty night and it’s a little late to be out just passing the time don’t you think?

S:         It’s the middle of the day for me, friend. I’ve been here three hours now, working a case. (He stabs out his cigarette then turns to the window) See that room up there across the street - the one that’s lit?

I spot the window where a table lamp glows, its light diffused by wrinkled curtains.

Me:      Corner room third floor?

S:         She’s still up there. Still awake.

Me:      Who is she?

He shrugs and turns back to me just as another roll of thunder rattles the shop.

S:         Some broad, 28, a looker. She’s in trouble with the cops on a trumped up charge.

Me:      She’s innocent?

 He smiles and lights another cigarette.

S:         She’s guilty as sin - killed her husband, tried to run off with her boyfriend. When the boyfriend found out about the killing he got scared - refused to go with her - smart kid.

Me:      I thought you said the charges were trumped up?

S:         They are. The boys downtown don’t know about the murder. They want her for a little altercation she had with one of their beat-cops. Her name’s Lola, and she’s got one hell of a temper - especially when she’s got a few drinks in her. (He shakes his head) I ain’t ever seen her sober.

Me:      How did the boyfriend find out about the murder?

S:         How do you think he found out? - I told him.

Me:      Why would you do that?

The third floor light across the street goes out and Sam grabs his hat.

S:         That’s two stupid questions - that’s all you get my friend. Thanks for the company.

He gets up, reaches into his pocket and flips a quarter down on the table. When he reaches the door, he puts his hat on, adjusts the angle and shoots a glance at Fred.

S:         I don’t think you’ll be seeing me tomorrow Freddy boy.

Fred gives him a single wave with his work sponge.

Still in the booth, I watch as Sam Spade crosses the street and meets a woman with a suitcase standing under an awning by the building entrance. He takes the suitcase from her and the two of them walk off into the night at a casual pace as if it weren’t raining at all.

Sam was right, it was a stupid question.

Sam Spade is the wonderful character creation of Dashiell Hammett who, along with a strong contribution from Humphrey Bogart, immortalized him in a story about a Maltese Falcon. For more about Dashiell Hammett, go to: http://www.mysterynet.com/hammett/

Comment

Mr. Darcy opens up about love, life and internet dating...

Comment

Mr. Darcy opens up about love, life and internet dating...

They say that the best characters in literature are timeless. To put this idea to the test, I’m conducting an exhaustive series of interviews with some people you may know. I begin today with Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, the famous love interest of Miss Elizabeth Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I managed to flag him down in the streets of Baltimore a week ago Thursday and recorded the following dialog:

Me:        Thank you for taking the time to meet with me today, Mr. Darcy.

D:            (He smiles) I’ll sit down with anyone who’ll buy me one of these Caramel Macchiatos. What did you say your name was?

Me:        Tom Ulicny. I wrote The Lost Revolution.

D:            (He takes a sip gives me another smile – thinner this time) Oh yes, of course, THAT Tom Ulicny.

Me:        So how’s Elizabeth these days – I mean Mrs. Darcy. I assume you’re still together. It’s been what, about 200 years?

D:            Yes, about that, and yes, we’re still together (he sighs) – you don’t spend all that time and trouble on the courtship process only to part company after a couple of centuries. Elizabeth is doing just fine. She’s taken a fancy to bowling but is having trouble with the ball getting caught up in her skirts.

Me:        And do you bowl as well?

D:            Just a few times. Even with her skirts and all, Elizabeth is much better at it than am I. Sometimes we read together in the library at Pemberley. Yes, that’s great fun. I admit though, the place is getting a bit drab these days. That’s how you happened to catch me out here – visiting America, having a walk, getting some sun with the common-folk.

Me:        Any children?

D:            I don’t think so, no, I’m quite sure about that. (He pulls thoughtfully at his chin then looks at me brightly) I have a dog though – a Great Dane. I call him Mr. Bingley.

Me:        And how about you? What do you do for a living?

D:            Excuse me?

Me:        I assume you work? You have a job – own a business – something?

D:            I own Pemberley, my work there is a full time preoccupation. If you’ve ever seen Downton Abbey you’ll know what I mean. I love that show, at least the first season – it’s so progressive.

Me:        Do you follow American politics? What do you think of the current election cycle?

D:            I still have a hard time accepting the idea that you fellows broke off from the Empire. Aside from that, political squabbles are just a distasteful but necessary part of this democratic system of yours. I wouldn’t get too worked up over them. But really, elections every four years? - You should just elect a king and be done with it.

Me:        What do you think of the Internet?

D:            Well, it’s just a mess, isn’t it? Like a big, messy library – never know who or what you’ll run into as you turn each aisle. It can be very exciting. But if you want to meet someone in particular there are a lot of forms you have to fill out. They ask a lot of personal questions you know.

Me:        That sounds like a dating site. Do you subscribe to dating sites?

D:            (Aghast) Oh no, not me. I have a friend who does. Supposedly, that’s how most couples meet nowadays. Dating sites are wonderful things. They would have saved Elizabeth and me a lot of trouble. I don’t think Jane would have approved though.

Me:        She was pretty straight-laced.

D:            Tell me about it. (He finishes his Macchiato. His face brightens again - see photo, above, right)

Me:        I have one last question – Is there any advice you’d like to give to young people who are looking for someone to spend their lives with?

D:            Why yes, I believe I do have some guidance to give. (He ponders the matter for a moment then leans closer). When considering someone for a life companion, don’t look for perfection in them so much as for an enduring contentment within yourself. (He uses his walking stick to get to his feet. I rise too and we shake hands)

Me:        That’s sage advice indeed, Mr. Darcy. Thank you again for your time.

Comment

Comment

How about Istanbul?

When I was writing The Lost Revolution my wife Joyce asked me why in the world I would choose Istanbul as the location where a good part of the action in the book takes place. I told her that it was kind of intrinsic to the story and that there’s a lot of relevant history in that part of the world but, until we actually visited Istanbul, I didn’t have a better answer.

It was a few years ago that we took a cruise in the eastern Mediterranean where the easternmost port of call was Istanbul. There were nine of us in 4 cabins, each having connected balconies. As if it were our own extended front porch we all sat back and watched as we sailed peacefully through the Dardanelles then entered the wide blue expanse of the sea of Marmara. It was early afternoon when the northern and southern shorelines began to converge and the low, white buildings dotting each of them grew more numerous.

We were seven decks above the waterline and from that vantage we watched a speedy craft come alongside. It carried a pilot who, being familiar with these waters, came aboard and took the helm to guide us in the rest of the way.

As we continued our slow approach, other ships passed outbound, some were cruise ships like ours, but most were tankers and freighters. From overhead, the deep blast of our horn saluted each of them and announced our entry into Istanbul harbor. And now, we could sit back no longer.

We all stood up and gathered against the rail to watch. There was a light breeze and our big ship moved majestically into the harbor. Tug boats shot streams of water high into the air and whistling harbor ferries skittered across our path. On the shore, ships already docked lined a pier miles long and, blanketing the rolling hills beyond these ships, lay the city - or I should say, half the city as it's spread out on both sides of the harbor.

The day was clear and sparkling and sunlight danced off white buildings and golden domes and tall minarets making them all seem almost surrealistically prominent and closer than they really were. In the distance, tall office buildings defined the business center of the city that connected its economy to the rest of the world. Even as we were still tying up to the dock words like busy, prosperous, exciting, and enticing were the ones we all used to describe what we’d seen so far of this modern yet ancient city that bridges the continents of Europe and Asia.

We spent two days in Istanbul. We toured palaces, museums, Masques, restaurants, and of course, the astounding (and intimidating) Grand Bazaar. We bargained for rugs. We ate foods and drank beverages rich in unfamiliar flavors. We marveled at archeological treasures, learned about the Ottoman Sultans, and learned about the area's more tragic history. We left having gotten only a small taste of Istanbul, its culture and its exotic beauty, but of our ports of call on that entire trip, this was the one that was for me the most memorable.

If you're wondering where to go on your next trip, you might ask yourself or your traveling companions: How about Istanbul? I recommend it!

Comment

Comment

Getting it right...

Writers of historical fiction take us back in time to experience the world the way it once was and cultures the way they once were. Their stories are usually a blend of historical events and characters with fictional people and made-up events that might have actually taken place behind the scenes. In this, the writer faces the ever present challenge of getting things right.

Does the story make sense? Does the story fit the general circumstances of the times? How and why do the characters do what they do? How do customs and technology affect them? The farther back in history one goes the more difficult this challenge and other challenges become. What did people wear back then? What did they eat? How were battles fought? Did they have gunpowder? What were warships like? Was a trebuchet a better weapon than a cannon in 1200?

James Michener was a master of the historical novel and his books, some of which covered millennia, always gave me the feel for actually being there and experiencing those times and those places. I’ll admit that I never bothered to actually fact-check him – an easy thing to do with the internet – but the point is that to me as a reader, everything felt right so I took it as fact.

In writing The Lost Revolution, I had it relatively easy. I had to research Napoleon’s Egypt campaign; I had to research 1880s London and Istanbul; and I had to research the warships of the time. Yes, HMS Inflexible was the first British warship to have electric lights and no, binoculars hadn’t yet been adopted by the Royal Navy back then.

I like historical fiction (both reading it and writing it) because it takes me back to the world from which we all sprung. It entertains but it also teaches the reader that, although technology changes, many of the most important things in life are timeless. Our joys and our wants, our courage and our doubts are those human things that are common to us all, regardless of our being a goat-herder in the middle ages or a computer engineer in the 21st century.

The truth is that, if suddenly transported to our time, Alexander the Great would still be great - he'd just have to work hard for a few weeks to get his internet skills up to speed.

Comment