Category Archives: J.D. Rhoades

Tales of Mystery and Imagination, or WTF? Redux

J.D. Rhoades

Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.

                                                                 -J.B.S. Haldane

As regular readers of this blog know, I'm fond of and occasionally inspired by, what I call "WTF?" stories: weird tales that fire a writer's imagination and make  him or her think "there's got to to be a story behind that." Here, for your entertainment and possible inspiration, are a few more "WTF?" stories I've recently stumbled across. This batch will probably appeal more to the thriller/paranormal suspense/horror writers among us, or the folks who write what I call "what-dunnits":

Standing Stones Under Lake Michigan : In 2007, a group of archaeologists were scanning the bottom of Lake Michigan's Grand Traverse Bay with a special imaging sonar device. They found a number of shipwrecks, old cars, even an old buggy. They also found this:


In addition to the apparently arranged standing stones, a nearby boulder appears to have markings that resemble a mastodon with a spear in its side. If verified, this would make the site somewhere over 10,000 years old and would show the mastodon ranging farther north than previously believed.

   So who (if anyone)  built this? And was it drowned by some cataclysm? I like the idea of some ancient mystical ceremony in an American Stonehenge gone horribly wrong…and something left behind and waiting beneath the water….

The Bloop:  In the summer of 1997, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was listening to the ocean using a hydrophone array formerly used to track Soviet submarines. At  50° S 100° W, off the Southwest coast of South America,  they heard multiple instances of a mysterious sound that, according to the NOAA description, "rises rapidly in frequency over about one minute and was of sufficient
amplitude to be heard on multiple sensors, at a range of over 5,000
km." Experts agree it's probably biological in origin, but with that kind of amplitude,  it's a big sumbitch–bigger, they say, than even a blue whale. Some H.P. Lovecraft fans have noted that the Bloop, as scientists have  dubbed the noise, is located near the location Lovecraft described for the sunken "nightmare corpse-city" of R'lyeh, where the evil cosmic entity Cthulhu lies dreaming. The Lovecraftians have theorized (hopefully with tongue in cheek) that the Bloop is a noise made by Cthulhu stirring in his troubled sleep, preparing to rise and wreak his own particular breed of mayhem. Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!


(hat tip to

You can hear the Bloop (sped up): here.

Slow Down: Another, and to my mind, more ominous sounding deep-sea sound picked up by the NOAA listening team has been dubbed "Slow Down."  According to NOAA, "The sound slowly descends in frequency over about 7 minutes and was of sufficient amplitude to be heard on three sensors at 95W, and 8S, 0, and 8N, at a range of nearly 2,000 km. This type of signal has not been heard before or since. It yields a general location near 15oS; 115oW. The origin of the sound is unknown." You can hear it at the link.

The Roar From Space:  At a recent meeting of the American Astronomical Society, astronomers reported that they had detected a loud "noise" from space. The signal was "six times brighter than the combined emission of all known radio sources in the universe," they said. No one can seem to explain  what caused it. It's not from any known radio source, and it's not from a radio-wave emitting galaxy. Whatever it is, it's drowning out the signals from the earliest stars that the scientists were looking for. Is something large and angry headed our way? Is this the echo of some huge interstellar disaster  "Like a million voices cried out in terror… and were suddenly silenced…"?

Ideas: they're everywhere. Feel free to take these and run with them….

In Which I Save Publishing

by J.D. Rhoades

With the news of widespread layoffs in the publishing industry, declining orders from the big chains, and of course the perennial “death of reading” predictions, we’ve all been watching anxiously, wondering which was the industry is going to go. Are the days of big, quit-your-day-job advances over? Isn’t most  marketing,  with the book trailers that no one watches and the ads in newspapers (which are also dying) a massive waste of cash and effort? How do we get paid for e-books, especially the ones that can just be copied and spread like wildfire across the ‘net?

 How the heck is anyone going to make any damn money in this business, anyway?

Well, according to this article in Galleycat, editor Tom Englehardt thinks he knows. And, as the supercomputer Deep Thought told its eager questioners in THE HITCHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY,   you’re not going to like it.



You’re really not going to like it.


Okay, here goes….


Your Ad Here

Englehardt writes: “The ad, after all, has colonized everything in our world from gas
pumps to urinals, bars to doctor’s offices, taxis to your sneakers and
cell phone, not to speak of every imaginable printed form, including
the cereal box and the back of your supermarket receipt, and yet,
strangely enough, it never successfully colonized the book.”

I told you you weren’t going to like it.

According to the Galleycat piece,  a “book-serialization website” called DailyLit “feature[s] the sponsor’s logo as well as a hyperlink to its website in the right-hand corner” of its offerings.

Now, this raises a lot of questions. Will advertisers really pay for something like this? Will readers object to the distractions of logos and hyperlinks in their reading material?

Well, maybe. But then again, maybe not. After all, we quickly got used to our TV screens being visited by those little dancing figures in the bottom of the screen pimping next week’s new blockbuster  show.

But why stop with ad-matter outside of the text? Why not accelerate the process and go straight to that brainstorm cooked up by the bright boys and girls of Madison Avenue to make sure that no facet of our lives remains untouched by hucksterism?

 I’m talking,  of course,  about product placement.


Product placement,  if you’re not familiar, is the practice of making sure that your company’s logo appears “subtly” in apparently unrelated TV, movies, etc. It’s the art of making people watch a commercial without realizing it’s a commercial. Observe:

Imagine the possibilities of using this in literature: 

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking Sierra Nevada beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in an Applebee’s just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

Okay, maybe that one needs a little tweaking. How about:

I was wearing my powder-blue suit from Jos. A. Bank, with dark blue Brooks Brothers shirt, Principessa tie and display handkerchief, black Florsheim brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them (on sale at Target). I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

Hmmmm…a little wordy. Let’s try again:

It was a a bright cold day in April, and the Seiko clocks were striking thirteen. Seiko…over a century of excellence!

 I’ll admit, the concept needs a little work. So help me out. Take one of your favorite passages, from one of your books or a favorite by someone else, and practice your product placement skills.

 If we can’t stop it, we must learn to embrace it.

Eyes Full of Tinsel and Fire

by J.D. Rhoades

Here it is, the famous Night before Christmas, or for our Jewish brethren and sistern, the fourth night of Hannukah (someone correct me if I’m wrong on that).

It hardly seems appropriate at this juncture to be talking about death and violence and mayhem or the craft of writing about same. I’ll save the post I’ve been thinking of, the one about the crossover between horror and crime fiction, for a more appropriate time.

Instead, how about a little music? This is one of my favorite Christmas songs, balanced as it is between memory, cynicism and, in the end, some hope and good wishes. Plus, I always get a kick out of the impossibly young Greg Lake singing to the Wise Men and their camels:


This is a good season for all of us, whatever our faith or lack of same, to reflect on the blessings and the good things in our lives. For instance, aren’t you glad you don’t live next to this guy?


Well, okay, maybe a just little violence and mayhem…a song paying tribute to two of my favorite Christmas movies (NSFW):

And so, as Mr. Lake says in our first selection:

I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave New Year
All anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear.

Yippie ki yay!
Happy Holidays, y’all.


by J.D. Rhoades

You may remember a few months ago,  after I came back from vacation, I posted about odd things I'd seen. I talked about  how the writer's mind can't help but take  those little anomalies and run with them, spinning stories out of those glimpsed threads of other people's lives. 

So…let's do it again.  I've been collecting little snippets, odd and unexplained occurrences for you to think about and, if you are so inclined, to spin your own stories from. They don't have to be full-blown novels or even short stories..but see if your imagination can come up with creative explanations for these little "WTF?" moments. 

THE PIANO IN THE WOODS: Authorities in Harwich, Massachusetts, are probing the mysterious
appearance of a piano, in good working condition, in the middle of the

Discovered by a woman who was walking a trail, the Baldwin
Acrosonic piano, model number 987, is intact — and, apparently, in

Sgt. Adam Hutton of the Harwich Police Department said
information has been broadcast to all the other police departments in
the Cape Cod area in hopes of drumming up a clue, however minor it may

But so far, the investigation is flat.

Also of note: Near the mystery piano — serial number 733746 — was a bench, positioned as though someone was about to play.

The piano was at the end of a dirt road, near a walking path to a footbridge in the middle of conservation land near the Cape.


Police in Framingham are trying to figure out who keeps leaving chunks of meat on the town common, and why.

People who live near the common have been finding butcher-quality cuts of meat under a tree there for about five weeks.

the most recent incident, the fifth one overall, a resident discovered
a large piece of raw, unwrapped meat, along with what appeared to be a
liver and some bones on Tuesday.
Henry Field, who lives across
the street from the tree, told WBZ he's found 4 of the 5 pieces. "It
was a large chunk of meat, two to three inches thick. A delicious
looking steak."

He's already stopped his dog Dorje from eating
it, but he's worried someone might be trying to poison animals in the

Framingham's public health director Ethan Mascoop
told WBZ the meat does not appear to be tainted and, at this point,
there is no reason to be concerned.


WELL, WHOEVER IT BELONGS TO, HE CAN'T HAVE GONE FAR ON FOOT: A severed human foot has been found in Canada's westernmost Gulf
Islands, marking the third such discovery in six months stumped police
said Saturday, noting all three are right feet, size 12, male and shod
in sneakers.

"It is not known at this time what relationship, if any, this foot
has with the two feet recovered last year in the same area," Constable
Annie Linteau of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said in a statement.

The two previous cases are still under investigation and federal
police "have yet to determine if foul play is involved" in the first
two cases or in this latest discovery, she said.

The standing mystery began in August 2007 when a severed foot in a
white and blue runner was discovered washed ashore on the beaches of
Jedidiah Island in the Georgia Straight between the Lower Mainland and
Vancouver Island.

Authorities speculated it might have been lost in a boat propeller accident, due to foul play, or a hoax.

Six days later, a second right foot in a black and white sneaker appeared on nearby Gabriola Island.

The most recent find was on February 8, when a third right foot washed up on the east side of Valdes Island.

The local coroner is conducting DNA tests on the feet. But so far, there has been no match to missing persons, police said.

I TOLD YOU THAT CULLEN BOY WAS UP TO NO GOOD:  19 vials of HIV-infected blood were stolen from the locked freezer of a
downtown Vancouver hospital.

The blood samples were being stored in a locked freezer on the sixth
floor of the facility's virology lab when they were stolen sometime
between Saturday and Monday morning.

The samples, which were awaiting testing, are labelled with the patients' names, identification number and the letters "HIV VL."

St. Paul's Hospital spokesperson Shaheen Shivji said this was the
first time HIV-positive blood had been stolen from the hospital.

"We've not had such a break-in in any of the freezers before. They
are locked and the area is part of the regular security personnel
patrols," Shivji told CTV Vancouver on Tuesday.

She said the hospital's security video tapes would be checked and security measures were being stepped up.

"If people do come across a vial and they suspect it could be a vial
that was stolen, we ask them to call police right away," Shivji said.

Dr. Akber Mithani, vice president of medical affairs at St. Paul's
Hospital, sought to reassure the public that the only way to infect
someone is to introduce it into the blood stream.

"As long as the vials are sealed, they pose no danger to the public," Mithani said, appearing on CTV Newsnet.

Mithani is baffled as to why someone would steal the vials.

"It is strange. We haven't had any incidents like this one ever before in St. Paul's," he told The Canadian Press.

"We could come up with all kinds of theories around it but it would
all just be speculation," he said. "I have no idea why somebody would
want this."

So speculate! Make four stories, or weave it all into one,  or pick any one  you like. Let your imagination go wild.Tell us WTF you think was going on here.

What We Can Do

by J.D. Rhoades

Tomorrow is the official beginning of the 'holiday season" in the U.S. Of course, most of us have already seen plenty of Christmas decorations and "pre-holiday" sales, trying to capture those now-scarce Yuletide dollars.And I'm starting to hear Christmas music here and there, which will become ubiquitous after Thanksgiving.

Unfortunately, this year, the season is one when people in a lot of industries, including publishing, are, as the Good Book says, "sore afraid." Publishers are talking  layoffs and pension freezes. Newspapers are shutting down their book review pages. Borders, one of the big-box chains, is reportedly in trouble. Barnes and Noble's CEO sent out a memo saying that "never in all my years as a bookseller have I seen a retail climate as poor as the one we are in. Nothing even close." Monday, in a move that rippled across the book blogs like a shock wave, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced that it was "temporarily" suspending the buying of new manuscripts.

 Is this the end of the book business as we know it?

Well, maybe, at least the "as we know it" part.  Oh, I don't think the book business is going to end, but it's sure to go through some changes, some of them long overdue. What those changes will mean for writers and readers remains to be seen. One thing experience teaches us, however, is that the future is likely to defy prediction. That's one of the things the future's good at.

So what can we do? Well, as writers, we do what we always do: we  keep our heads in the work, write the best books we can, and try not to let the fear get to us.

But what we can all do is give books this year for Christmas, or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Festivus or whatever.

A book is a great gift. It provides hours of enjoyment at a relatively low price. Consider the time it takes to read a book. Divide that by the cover price. Now do the same thing for the time it takes to watch a movie divided by the cost. Don't forget the cost of the popcorn. See what a bargain a book is?

And a book can be a much more meaningful gift than, say a tie or a sweater. If it's a book you like, you're sharing a little piece of yourself along with the book. Or it's a chance to introduce somebody you care about to something new, as, for example,  author Carleen Brice points out in her campaign designating December as "Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give It To Somebody Not Black Month" so that people can "explain to white friends, neighbors, coworkers, classmates that there are books without Ebonics, and that books by black authors are much like any other book." I have to say, I'm tickled by the URL of Brice's blog:

Other sites have sprung up promoting this idea, such as, and the fine folks at Indiebound are making a big push for independent booksellers to be proactive over the holidays because, as they put it in their ad "A scented candle never changed anyone's life." 

And while you're giving to family and friends, give some consideration to the men and women serving overseas. Check out and maybe send a little bit of comfort and joy their way. Because among the constants of military life are  boredom and loneliness, and books are good for easing both of those. 

While none of us can save the book industry single handed, we can each do our small part. And, of course, if you want to give a book by your favorite Murderati author, I don't think any one of us will mind.

Happy Holidays, whichever ones you celebrate!

Veteran’s Day

by J.D. Rhoades

Yes, I know, it was yesterday. But it got me to thinking about how many characters in crime fiction  are ex-military…and why.

Harry Bosch is an ex-Vietnam "tunnel rat." Elvis Cole’s an ex-Army Ranger, while Joe Pike’s a former Marine. Jack Reacher’s an ex-MP who got caught in the explosion of the Marine barracks in Beirut. Our Zoe’s Charlie Fox is ex-SAS. Both of James Crumley’s PIs, Milo Milodragovitch and C.W. Sughrue, are ex-military intelligence.  Travis McGee’s a veteran of a war that’s never really specified, but we assume it’s Korea. Chris Grabenstein’s John Ceepak is a veteran of the Second Gulf War; my own Jack Keller’s a veteran of the First, while his lover Marie’s another ex-MP. Walter Mosely’s Easy Rawlins is a WWII vet, as is Stephen Hunter’s Earl Swagger and Spillane’s Mike Hammer. Even Lindsey Davis’ Falco is an ex-legionary, while Brother Cadfael served in the First Crusade.  I could go on, but you get the point.

So why are so many crime fiction protagonists ex-military? Well, for one thing, it already gives them a certain amount of built-in bad-ass cred. It’s a little more plausible that someone who’s been in the military, particularly in combat, would have less trouble handling guns and would be less likely to fall apart in a fit of the shakes in the event that they have to drop the hammer on some bad guy.

Then there’s the increased possibility that an ex-soldier or Marine will have some sort of tragic backstory. Jack Keller’s still shaking off the PTSD caused by a "friendly fire"  incident in the First Gulf War. Rennie Airth’s John Madden is still trying to get over the horrors of trench warfare in the First World War.

On the up-side, the virtues the military instills (or at least tries to) in its members can come in handy for a crime fiction protagonist: Duty. Honor. Sacrifice. Self-reliance. Courage.

The same types of things, it should be noted, apply to another oft-seen breed of protagonist: the cop or the ex-cop.

But this raises the question: is it sometimes too easy to clothe a character in an ex-military uniform to make him either admirable or tortured or both? Do we risk getting cliched?

(I’ll note that Our Zoe manages to dodge the trap of cliche quite nimbly by giving Charlie Fox’s story a particularly dark twist: she hasn’t been in combat, but what happened to her at the hands of some supposed comrades leaves scars just as deep and lasting.)

What do you think about characters who are ex-military? Done to death? Can’t get enough? How else, other than making a character an ex-soldier or a cop, do you give him or her that bad-ass credibility and  sad past? And while we’re at it…who’s your favorite ex-soldier?

The floor is open. And to all our veterans…thanks.

Conspiracy Theories


by J.D. Rhoades

The Twin Towers were brought down on 9/11, not by by terrorists
flying hijacked airliners, but by controlled demolition engineered and
paid for by the Bush Administration.

Man never landed on the moon; the whole thing was faked on a California sound stage.

JFK was killed, not by one man acting alone, But by the CIA. Or the Mafia. Or the CIA and the Mafia. Or something.

We do love our conspiracy theories. On dozens of crackpot
websites, in hundreds of endless drunken barroom conversations, in thousands of conversations at  dinner tables, people
love to talk about the secret forces that are behind  the havoc and
misery we see.  The truth is out there, they just know it.

The government is keeping an alien spaceship and the bodies of its crew at Area 51 in the Nevada desert.

Marilyn Monroe was murdered to keep her from spilling the beans about her affair with JFK.

Someone once developed a car that can run on water, but the oil companies have been covering it up to protect their profits.

Pop culture reflects our love of conspiracy theories. Look at some of the biggest bestsellers in
recent memory. THE DA VINCI CODE  spawned a horde of imitators and an
entire subgenre of nonfiction books purporting to "debunk" its
fictional premise that there’s a secret society made up of some of history’s greatest luminaries, all keeping the real story of Jesus a secret.   Robert Ludlum was one of dozens of writers who made
entire careers out of telling us scary stories about multinational conspiracies and the brave spies who thwart them. And what, after all,
was the Harry Potter series but one huge fictional pulling back of the
veil between our own mundane Muggle world and the secret world of magic
that exists just out of our view?

And movies and TV shows are full of conspiracies: "The X-files", "24", "Lost, " etc. there was even a middling good Mel Gibson movie called "Conspiracy Theory" in which Mel played a crackpot who thought secret cabals ran everything. As it turned out, not much of a stretch for old Mel, acting wise.

Advertisers are putting subliminal mind-control messages in their ads and in TV shows to force you to  buy products.

is actually run behind the scenes by the Jews/the Bavarian
Illuminati/the Freemasons/The Trilateral Commission/shape-shifting
alien reptiles.

Elvis, Tupac Shakur, and Andy Kaufman are actually alive. Paul McCartney, however, is dead.

did a panel (ably moderated by Barry Eisler) at the last Thrillerfest
on the subject of conspiracy theories. One of the questions was–and
I’m paraphrasing here– "do you believe in  conspiracies
in real life?"  Some members of the audience looked a bit
startled, and some were visibly disappointed  when I piped up and said
"no, I believe in stupidity, randomness and  chaos. That’s what causes most of the misery in the world."

I think they were
unhappy because people want to believe in order. They want to believe
there’s a reason for some of the awful stuff that happens, even if that
reason is based in evil. They want to believe someone’s in control,
even if that person (or persons, or shape shifting alien reptile) is malevolent. We
want a culprit. At least that gives them something  to fight against.
There’s no fighting stupidity and chaos. You can send Luke Skywalker
after Darth Vader; sending him after Larry, Moe and Curly would be

And thus, THE DA VINCI CODE. THE X-FILES.  And so on. 

And the truth is, even though I believe stupidity and chaos are more to blame for the bad stuff in the  world, I like  good conspiracy fiction (even some bad, cheesy conspiracy fiction) as much as the next guy.

So what do you believe in? Big Evil or Big Stupid? What’s your favorite conspiracy theory? Do you believe it, and why? What’s your favorite fictional conspiracy?

True or False?

by J.D. Rhoades

Okay,  this won’t be
another one of those "who I met  at Bouchercon" pieces, but I do want to give a
shout out to my fellow Murderati, both posters and commenters, who I met (or met again) there. Sure,we didn’t win the Anthony, but
it was a lot of fun  hanging with you. And for the record, the funniest  Bouchercon story, bar none, is here.

Moving on….

Seems to me we’ve been awful serious lately. Not that that’s a bad thing. Not in the slightest. There have been some great,  thought-provoking posts here, and some thoughtful and incisive comments on those posts. I’ve learned a lot from you folks. But, you  know, all work and no play makes Jack Nicholson try to axe his whole family to death in THE SHINING.

So, as a reward for everyone’s good work, let’s kick back, take a break, and have a little fun. I’m going to throw out a fun or unusual "fact" about a writer or a well-known work, and you tell me if it’s true or false. Later, I’ll post answers in the comments. Those with the most right answers will get their names thrown in the hat,  and I’ll pick one and send them a copy of BREAKING COVER, autographed by yours truly, unless you’d rather have it autographed by someone else. That would be kind of weird, but I’m an easygoing guy. Be sure to READ THE QUESTIONS CAREFULLY.

And, just for grins, throw out your own fun "fact" about a writer or work and let the rest of us guess if it’s true or false. An additional prize may be given out for the best one of those. Or it may not, depending on my mood.

Okay, here we go.


1. When Dashiell Hammett was working as a private detective,
he got his first promotion after a case that involved tracking down a stolen Ferris wheel. 

2. Arthur C. Clarke named the HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A
SPACE ODYSSEY by shifting each of the letters in the IBM name one letter back in the alphabet. 

3.The catchphrase "The butler did it!" originally came from a conversation William Faulkner had with Raymond Chandler while writing the screenplay for THE BIG SLEEP.

4.Dr. Seuss wrote GREEN EGGS AND HAM when his editor
challenged him to write a story using only fifty different words.

5. Michael Connelly  actually threw away the manuscript to THE BLACK ECHO,  but his wife fished it out of the garbage and persuaded him to submit it.

6. Ian Rankin’s book BLACK AND BLUE was originally going to be
called OBSESSION, but a perfume maker came out with a perfume with the same name,
and the title was changed.

7. There is a "lost" Travis McGee book written by John D. McDonald called A BLACK BORDER FOR MCGEE. It’s narrated by his old friend Meyer and tells the story of McGee’s death. McDonald submitted it with the proviso that it be published  after his own death, but the publisher refused to release it.

8. Patricia Highsmith’s mother tried to abort her by drinking turpentine.

9. Fantasy/SF writer Harlan Ellison once supported himself by writing lesbian pornography under the name Ellyn Harlison. His best-known work was called I HAVE NO **** AND I MUST CREAM.

10. Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett is a great grand-nephew  of Dashiell Hammett.

Good luck!

P.S. This should go without saying, but no Googling for answers. You’re on the honor system.


Driven by Desire

by J.D. Rhoades

I know, sounds like a romance novel title, doesn’t it? But it seems to have gotten your attention…

Writers and critics talk sometimes about "plot-driven" versus
"character-driven" fiction.  I’ve always thought it was a false dichotomy, however. In my opinion, character drives plot. Or to be more
specific, characters have desires,
and it’s desire that drives plot.

I was thinking about
this  a few days ago during an e-mail exchange with a young aspiring writer. He
had all these characters, he said, but he didn’t know what to do with
them. This is what I told him:

Figure out what each of your characters wants,
in the short term and in the long term. In real life, people  want more
than one thing, and the same should be true in your fiction.  For
example, the
main character may want to rule the world, he may also want to get the
girl. For each character, then, write out:  what are their deepest
desires?  What will
they do to achieve them? Will they have to sacrifice one desire to

There’s a lot of potential for drama in that last
question, by the way,  as some of the most wrenching conflicts can
occur where a character has to give up one cherished desire for
another. Classic example: in THE MALTESE FALCON, Sam Spade desperately wants Brigid
O’Shaughnessy, or whatever  the hell her real name is, but he also
wants to find out and bring to justice whoever killed his partner. When
those two desires collide–when Spade finds out that his love is the
one who did the deed–the result is one of the most brutal speeches in all of hard-boiled literature:

"When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.
It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your
partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. And it happens
we’re in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization
gets killed, it’s-it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it,
bad all around, bad for every detective everywhere…I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. Yes, angel,
I’m gonna send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. That
means if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in 20 years. I’ll be waiting
for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you."

Another example: in THE GODFATHER, Michael wants to live his life free of the Mob and its associated violence. But he also loves and  wants to protect his family. When his father’s life is threatened, he has to act on the second desire, and finds himself losing the first.

As stated above, characters often have a short and a long term desire. In my Jack Keller books, Jack, of course, wants to track down and bring in his target. But his long term desire, even though he has trouble admitting it, is to learn to connect with people and to love again. Another example: Michael Connelley’s Harry Bosch wants to solve the mystery in every book. But what drives him, book to book, is the desire to  in his words, "speak for the dead."

Which brings us to another way that character can create drama: some characters have  desires that they don’t realize or don’t admit.  Harry Bosch’s  real long term goal is to avenge the death of his mother, to make her almost unnoticed  death matter. So the other thing that drives him is his motto: "everyone counts or no one counts."

Now that you’ve got a handle on what your characters want, figure out  which characters’ desires conflict with those of other
characters. For the most obvious example, in a traditional mystery, the bad guy wants to get away,
the good guy wants to stop him (and probably get the girl). In a heist novel, the protagonists want the loot, but they come into conflict with each because one or more of them wants a bigger share (or the girl). Zombies want
to eat people, the hero wants to avoid being eaten  (and probably get the girl).

Mix those together. See what happens. When you get stuck for what happens next, as an alternative to  having a man with a gun come through the door, remember what each character’s
goal is and think about what they’d do next to accomplish it (which may or may not involve coming through the door with a gun).

Keep in mind as well that, in the words of the famous quote, "no one is a villain in his own eyes." The antagonist, if he’s not a maniacally cackling, hand rubbing cartoon villain, has reasons for his actions which seem perfectly logical and consistent to him, even if they may not seem that way to the reader. Or, as I put it, the villain thinks he’s the hero.

Even minor characters’ desires can move the plot. In JURASSIC PARK, Dennis the computer guy wants the money he thInks Hammond owes him. So he comes up with a scheme to swipe some dinosaur embryos, which involves the crucial plot point of turning off the safety systems, he thinks for a short time. But, unfortunately for poor Dennis, dinos have the desire to eat.

In BREAKING COVER, Tony Wolf wants to hide, to disappear. But he’s
also unable to stand by while a child is hurt, so his gives up his anonymity for a crucial moment. Johnny Trent wants to
find Wolf and do terrible things to him because of the damage Wolf did to him. Tim Buckthorn wants to keep
his town safe, and that means finding out who this enigmatic stranger
who’s moved into the area really is.  Gabriella Torrijos wants the
story behind this guy who suddenly erupted onto the landscape, then
disappeared again. All of these people want something that’s totally
reasonable and understandable for them, but they can’t all get what
they want. And so, you have a story.

So, today’s discussion question: Apply this analysis to one of your favorite books (which, writer ‘Rati, may include your most recent one or even your WIP). What does your protagonist desire? What does your antagonist  desire? How does that drive the plot? How do the desires of supporting or even minor characters move things along?

Occupational Hazards Or, You Might As Well Live

by J.D. Rhoades

The recent suicide of writer David Foster Wallace sent shock waves through the literary world. In the aftermath, magazines and blogs rushed to do appreciations and retrospectives of his work. (I confess, I’ve never read the book that most considered to be his masterpiece, INFINITE JEST, but his collection of essays, A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I’LL NEVER DO AGAIN, is one of my favorites).

What we don’t see in all of the discussion is any clue as to why such a talented writer as David Foster Wallace chose to take himself and that talent out of the world. But perhaps this quote,from a speech Wallace gave in 2005, gives some insight into what was going on in his head:

“Think of the old cliché about the mind being an excellent
servant but a terrible master. This, like many clichés, so lame and
unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible
truth,” he said.

“It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide
with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot
the terrible master.

(Actually, I think most shoot themselves in the head because shooting yourself in the leg doesn’t do the job nearly as efficiently. And, ironically enough, Wallace didn’t shoot himself, he hanged himself. So much for consistency).

When asked "why do you write?" I’ve often been known to answer "mental illness." Mostly, it’s a joke. Mostly. I’ve written here before about the links between depression and creativity (and for those of you who are familiar with my personal take on that, don’t worry. I’m fine.)

As writers, we have to go through life with our walls down, so we can see the world around us as it is. We have to be able to see life clearly, the good, the bad, and the ugly,  in order to write truthfully about it.

But when you live your life like that, without the shielding  people depend on to get through the day,  sometimes the bad stuff comes creeping in. Sometimes it comes to stay. Add to that the loneliness and isolation of the creative process, the financial uncertainties, the seemingly random reversals of fortune, and sometimes, despair seems like an  occupational hazard. Look at the long list of writers who gave in to it: 

Thomas Disch. Sylvia Plath. Yukio Mishima. Virginia Woolf. Ernest Hemingway. Robert E. Howard. Anne Sexton. Iris Chang. Hunter S. Thompson. Even J.K. Rowling, one of the most successful authors on the planet, says she considered taking her own life at one of the low points in her life.  And that’s not even counting the ones that tried to commit  slow motion suicide with drink and drugs.

And yet….

Some of us seem to weather the madness and keep our  heads on straight. Some manage to stay…well,not sane, but at least high-functioning crazy.  And while I’ll admit that it’s not a scientific sample, some of the sanest–or, highest functioning crazy– people I know in this business are mystery and thriller writers. Maybe it’s because we don’t take ourselves quite as seriously as the literary types (I recall one multi-genre book festival where a nice literary novelist asked timidly if she could come sit at our table, because the mystery writers seemed to be having the most fun). Maybe the old cliche, like so many cliches, contains the truth: writing is our therapy; we leave the really dark stuff on the page. Or maybe our familiarity with the implements of death makes us realize, as Dorothy Parker did, that

Razors pain you; Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you; And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful; Nooses give;
Gas smells awful; You might as well live.

So, ‘Rati…what makes the difference for you? What  do you do to stay sane?

Assuming for the sake of argument that you do.