04 April 2020

Creating "Rhonda and Clyde," Issue #5, BCMM

Last month I posted a column here about the writing of one of my recent short stories, "Crow's Nest" (EQMM, Jan/Feb 2020 issue), and during that post I explained that I usually come up with the plot first, then invent the characters, give them a setting to live in, etc. I'm not saying that's the best way to write short stories--I'm just saying that's the way I write short stories.

Not long ago, though, I wrote a story about a pair of modern-day bank robbers called "Rhonda and Clyde," and for this one I made up most the characters first. I had a blurry picture of the plot in my head, but at the beginning it was just a heist-and-pursuit idea with not much detail. Long story short (pun intended), I then wrote the story and sent it to Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and they bought it and published it in their Issue #5, November 2019.

I think the first glimmer of an idea for this story struck me after a re-watching of Bonnie and Clyde. I've always been fascinated with them anyway, and I had recently talked with a journalist friend of mine who'd just returned from visiting the site in northwest Louisiana where the two were ambushed and killed in August 1934. This happened about the same time I was finishing up a story I'd been working on, and since I seem to write these stories like a chain-smoker, as soon as I typed THE END on that previous story I immediately lit up this one.

A character-building experience

I remember first creating my protagonist, who was a woman originally from the south but was now the sheriff at a small town in Wyoming. I wanted her to be strong and level-headed and happy in her job but also a duck-out-of-water, and I wanted her to have a deputy who was also an outsider but who wasn't happy, with either the job or his boss or his location. One of my reasons was that their mild but mutual dislike for each other added a level of conflict to the story before the plot ever really got going. And the more conflict you have in a story, the better. (More on that, later.)

I also came up with a sweet, lonely, and gullible bank teller with the everyday name of Helen Wilson, who gets duped by a married couple named Rhonda and Clyde Felson. Clyde's nickname for Rhonda was Ronnie, which worked well for a pair of lovebirds who robbed banks, and I remember stealing their last name from Fast Eddie Felson, Paul Newman's character in The Hustler. It seemed appropriate. I then added a police dispatcher, a few elderly and Native-American townsfolk, several more bank employees, a motel manager, an old couple on vacation, two state police detectives, and so on. More characters than my stories usually have--and some of the main players, as you might imagine, wound up changing their ways a bit in the course of the tale. I'm not a "literary" writer, but sometimes I try to think like one.

In the weird category, the name of one of my characters came from a highway sign I'd seen as my wife and I drove home from a Bouchercon conference a few years ago. It was one of those big green signs above the interstate--I-85 in this case, heading southwest between Greensboro and Charlotte--announcing the exit for the tiny towns of Spencer and East Spencer, North Carolina. The sign said (and probably still says):



For some reason I remembered that--my brain works in mysterious ways--and when I needed a quirky name for my bank manager in this story, he became Spencer E. Spencer.

Plot, setting, etc.

Locationwise, the characters started out in North Dakota in my mind, and timewise I wanted it to be winter, which turned out well because the cold weather became a factor in the plot. I soon changed the setting to Wyoming, possibly because I've spent so many hours watching the Longmire TV series. The image I had of Sheriff Marcie Ingalls's office looked amazingly like Sheriff Walt Longmire's, minus a few mounted deer heads. Maybe her decorator watched that show too.

Now that I had the setting nailed down and most of the characters in costume and waiting patiently behind the curtain, I started thinking more about what they were going to do. And once I really got going on the plot itself, that turned out to be the most enjoyable part of the writing process. I've always found that to be fun, the mechanics of storytelling, the trying to make sure everything flows smoothly and fits together and is satisfying in the end.

I also enjoy plot twists. Some of my favorite short stories, novels, and movies have huge twists and turns, not just at the conclusion but throughout the story. A couple of examples are John Godey's novel The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and William Goldman's novel Marathon Man. One scene in particular in Pelham (involving a passenger on the subway) and several chapters in Marathon Man (involving the hero's brother) are designed to completely fool the reader and then delight him shortly afterward when the real situation becomes clear. And these happen in the middle of the story. I love that kind of deception. For one thing, it keeps the reader alert and off-balance, wondering when and whether it might happen again.

What most inspired me to try some of that in "Rhonda and Clyde" was a scene in the final act of the movie The Silence of the Lambs, which I first saw on an IBM trip almost thirty years ago--I even remember the city and the theater. It's the scene where rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling is going door-to-door seeking information about the case. One of the front doors she knocks on turns out to be that of the serial killer they're all looking for, Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb, but she doesn't know that because nobody knows what he looks like, and when he invites her inside we (the audience) are thinking don't go in don't go in, but she does. Meanwhile, her mentor and his team at the FBI are closing in on the house, and in back-and-forth cuts we see the armed and vested assault team crash through the door and we think they're about to save Clarice. But they find no one home, and only then do we realize that oh my God they're at a different house. Now that's suspense. And it's just one of the reasons Lambs swept the Oscars that year.

I tried to use some of that kind of misdirection in this story, along with some instances of redemption, which I mentioned earlier. It's always satisfying to me as a reader, and a writer, when characters wind up changing, as a result of what happens in the story, their attitudes and the way they look at life.

Info for Otto

One of the nicer things to happen to me this year was being notified that "Rhonda and Clyde" has been selected for inclusion in the 2020 edition of The Best American Mystery Stories, to be published this fall. As he always does, series editor Otto Penzler asked for a short piece about the story to accompany my bio in the anthology, and part of what I wrote goes along with the how-to-construct-a-story subject I've been discussing here today.

The following will appear in the "Contributors' Notes" section of B.A.M.S. 2020:

If I recall, my first inspiration for "Rhonda and Clyde" came on a bitterly cold day. (We don't have many of those here in the south, thank God.) It probably put me in a Fargo frame of mind, because when I created Wyoming sheriff Marcie Ingalls that morning, the image of the movie character Marge Gunderson sort of jumped into my head, and it stayed there throughout the planning of the story. That choice of a protagonist wasn't surprising; I've always liked stories about strong and smart women in law enforcement, and the way their colleagues (and the criminals) often make the mistake of underestimating them.

I also remember wanting to (1) give her a deputy she didn't particularly like and (2) make the villains a husband-wife team, maybe because I especially enjoy writing dialogue and I knew both those partnerships would give me a lot of opportunity for that. This line of thinking was a bit different for me, because I usually start with the plot and only then come up with the characters. In this case I created my players first and then dreamed up something for them to do, with some twists and reversals along the way. Anyhow, once I had all that in mind, I sat down and wrote the story in a couple of days' time--and it turned out to be one of my favorites.

Maybe an occasional cold snap isn't a bad thing . . .

The truth is, if the elements of fiction--plot, characterization, POV, dialogue, setting--are all in place and effective in a story, it doesn't much matter how they got there. All of us approach the planning and writing of a story in different ways, and whatever works, works. This is just how it happened this time.

How do you do it? Plot first? Characters first? Setting first? Theme first? A mix of several of these? Do you always do it the same way, or vary from time to time? What's been most successful for you?

In closing, I want to again express my thanks to John Betancourt and Carla Coupe at Black Cat M.M. for accepting and publishing this particular story and to Otto Penzler and C. J. Box for choosing it for inclusion in the 2020 edition of B.A.M.S. It's always gratifying to see something that you've written show up in magazines and anthologies that you respect and admire.

Best to all of you, writers and readers alike. Stay safe!


  1. So that's how it's done. A cool look on how you wrote that one.

  2. That's how it was done for this one at least. As you well know, this whole thing is an inexact science. But it sure is a lot of fun.

    Take care, O'Neil. Keep in touch!

  3. Congratulations on your inclusion in Best American Mystery stories!

  4. Thank you, Janice. That was a pleasant surprise.

    I remember reading a Janice Law story in that anthology, too, and maybe more than one!

  5. Thanks for that great insight. And congratulations on being in Best American Mystery Stories!

  6. Thank you, Eve! I love that anthology, and buy it every year. Having another story in there is really a thrill.

    Hope all's well with you. Be safe.

  7. Congrats on making it into BAMS again! It is again, right? Not your first time to the rodeo?

  8. Hey Barb. Thanks so much! This'll be my third story in BAMS--2015, 2018, and 2020. I made it into the "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories" list (in the back of the book) five times: 2000, 2010, 2012, 2016, and 2017).

    Hope you're faring well, during all this. Stay safe!

  9. Congratulations on the Best Mystery appearance.
    Like you wrote, everyone has their own approach to writing. I always start with a germ of a plot, and once the characters take over, the plot is often changed, sometimes completely.

  10. John, the part I don't understand is how come you're always SURPRISED by all the honors you get for your delightful stories. An art history scholar with whom I went to a Mark Rothko exhibit (the abstract expressionist who paints those Black on Maroon and Black on Gray paintings) said, "He does so much with so little!" That's kinda what you do with storytelling. My characters spring up in my head—in their own voices if they're my series characters, from nowhere if it's a standalone, and I get to the keyboard as soon as it happens and away we go. It always happens when I'm NOT at the keyboard or near a pen and paper—when I'm on the living room floor doing my stretches or driving or in the shower or eating breakfast is when they start up—but that's the creative process for me, and it works. The plot is made up of instinct and then deliberate hard work and a lot of revision. I wish I had your gift of holding the whole story in my head. But not really. Each of us is different, and it's fascinating.

  11. Great post, John. I love reading about how other writers go at it. You've inspired me to do one about the first things I think about when starting a new story.

  12. Thank you, Bob!

    Yep, to each his own, with the writing approaches. Like you, I do usually start with the plot, and--also like you--it often changes along the way. But I have to have the basics mapped out in my head, or I would never get far enough to have it change.

    Keep up the good work!!

  13. Liz, you are too kind. I was most certainly surprised by this recognition, and honored to be such good company.

    As I said to Bob, I do have to have an "outline" of sorts in my head before I start, BUT it does change a lot in the process, so I actually don't have the whole thing in my head. But I wish I could just sit down and start writing without first having a plan in place, and I admire those who can do that. You're right, the difference between writers is fascinating. Thanks for the comment!!

    Hey Jan! Thanks so much. I too like finding out about others' processes. As I mentioned, I guess whatever works, works. Keep writing those good stories--and, in your case, novels. And be safe.

  14. Congratulations, John, for your 'cold snap'!

    Speaking of Spencer E Spencer, my parents bought us many books in our childhood. The author of a pair of books on Indians and cowboys was an award-winning author, Holling C Holling. Never forgot the name.

  15. That is a good name, Leigh. And he got it the honest way!

    Thanks for the comment. Be safe, and keep me posted.

  16. Congratulations again on your inclusion in BAMS, John! That's terrific.

  17. Wonderful, John! Congrats and thanks for the info!

  18. Thank you, Paul. You know the feeling, of course, and it's always both pleasing and humbling. There are many, many good stories out there. Take care.

    Hey Jeff--thanks so much. Appreciate your reading the post. Be safe, up there!

  19. I've never tried starting a story in the manner you described, but I can see starting a novel that way. Because the story is short, I feel I have to have key elements already established. I may give your approach a try. Congratulations on the BAMS inclusion.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>