Tuesday, February 27, 2018


 Erica, my amateur sleuth, is a historian – and there is a case to be made for historian resembling detectives, too. All of my books have a contemporary mystery and also a story line about the history of the setting. It might be a direct plot connection, a reflection of the modern story, or a geographical connection that Erica happens to stumble across an old and a new mystery in the same place.

            All the books begin with a neighborhood and they all begin with some research. I actually love doing research and there is a tiny bit of truth to the idea that the mystery series is an excuse for me to indulge my inner history geek. I head over to the Brooklyn Collection at the public library and ask to see everything they have on the setting of the new book. 

 I know that if I browse through the relevant section of the shelves, and through a mountain of newspaper clippings, I will come across something that says, "Here!  Here is a story." Lights go on in my imagination.

There is a pitfall, though, beyond the obvious one of using research to procrastinate on actually, you know, writing a real book.  Sometimes I have a tough time corralling all those delightful oddball bits into a solid story. Too many lights go on. This not a small problem.

            For the work in progress, the place is Brooklyn Heights, a quaint and scenic neighborhood which is the original suburb of Manhattan, right across the river from Wall Street. Yes, the views are spectacular. When it was developed the crossing was done by ferry; there were no bridges yet.      

It was also the site of part of the Battle of Brooklyn (yes, G. Washington was there), the home of the Brooklyn Bridge (yes, and people who “sold” it), the very first historic district in New York (yes, the fearsome Robert Moses was there), probably the beginning of the urban renovation movement (all those lovely townhouses). Shall I go on? 

  Walt Whitman worked there.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses owned large chunks of property, now worth many millions.  Truman Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s and part of In Cold Blood there. WH Auden, Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten – and famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee! – shared a house there.

            Famous and colorful characters?  Check. A genteel surface with heated conflicts lurking below? Check that too.  Death defying engineering? Check tragic history of bridge building. Real estate battles? But of course.  Always, in Brooklyn. 

            Though a surprising conflict jumped out at me early on, finding a way to turn it into a coherent plot has taken a lot of wrong paths. Research, which usually gives me what I need to start a book, this time just kept giving me everything I didn’t need.  I even used some of it for a story that appeared in the recent anthology Where Crime Never Sleeps; Murder New York Style #4. Suitably enough, it’s called “Legends of Brooklyn.”

            I think I’m there now. The answer is one any experienced writer should have known but the delightful oddball information kept distracting me.  The key question is – it always is - what does it all mean to the characters?   Erica and the interesting people she has met in the course of her own research?

  Some time next year there should be a new book about Erica and a neighborhood with an excess of stories.

Saturday, February 10, 2018


 Writing mysteries is, among, other things, a process of putting small pieces together to create a whole design. Yes, a mosaic, or a kaleidoscope or a giant jigsaw puzzle.

The general outlines of the plot may be in place, but that’s only the beginning. There needs to be moments that underline that main story. Or enrich it. Or deepen it. Add a new level of complexity.  Reflect a theme. Aha. That puzzle piece slides in here and then, well, then we are somewhere new

It’s like doing a crossword puzzle. I do one over breakfast a few times a week. I’m not very good at it, but we get the NY Times delivered, and I work the easier ones at the beginning of the week.  I can become absurdly obsessed, and of course it also works well as a way to avoid doing anything more productive.  I stare and stare at some interlocking boxes with frustrating blanks, and a clue that doesn’t make sense to me. And then, the letters on the page suddenly take shape into likely words and when I fill in the empty boxes, there are now a few more clues that make sense. Box, box, box. Slip the missing letters into place and then everything  snaps satisfyingly together.

How does television come in?  I have been watching the new series This Is Us, and I have been filled with admiration for the writing from the first, brilliant episode. (I don’t use ‘brilliant” and television the same sentence very often). I will try to explain without spoilers.

It is a series about a family over time, and the scenes are chronologically scrambled. By the end of each episode, not only do we see how the plot points connect, often we see underlying themes connect as well. And sometimes we see how the apparently random story-telling is a reflection of how our human memories work. Whew! I think I’ve said enough without giving it all away.

In the first episode, the individual scenes were compelling but it was impossible to see the connections. Yet. At the end, the camera pulls back from a close-in scene, an intense conversation, to show the background of the location, the other people around, and ...everything changes. Everything snaps into place. Snap! Just like that, the pieces all fit. Make sense.  Fall into place. The overall story comes into perfect clarity.

I was hooked from that moment. I watch each episode and try to guess where they are going. Often they turn my guesses upside down. At the same time, I try to see how they do it, keep so many threads on the loom at once and end up with them woven into a pattern.

The jigsaw puzzle pieces that give us the face, the place, the last bit of sky. The letters that finally interweave to form a crucial word, that gives us the surrounding words, that completes the pattern.  That moment when those bright bits of story slip into the exact right place and make something new.