04 November 2020

Table for Eight?


Writers talk a lot about inspiration, that miraculous moment when you get an idea for a book, or a plot twist, or a bit of dialog.  And those moments are amazing.  The writer's mind is a strange and wonderful thing.

But what I want to talk about today is something different: the moment of insight, when a writer sees their own work differently.  I actually wrote about one of them a few months ago.  And here we are again.

Back in 2012 I won the Black Orchid Novella Award with "The Red Envelope."  It was set in Greenwich Village in October 1958 and starred an eccentric beat poet named Delgardo.  The narrator (Archie Goodwin/Watson character) is a coffee shop owner named Thomas Gray.

I had always hoped to write a sequel but it took me damn near a decade to finish it. But fictional time is a different phenomena so "Please Pass The Loot" takes place only a month later, during November 1958, and is rooted in actual events from that time.  Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine accepted it in August.

And that happy event caused me to get serious about Delgardo #3, which I had been tinkering with for years.  I had known for a while that it would take place in December 1958 (are you seeing a pattern here?) and involve a dinner party.

But after AHMM bought Delgardo #2 I suddenly figured out the murderer and the motive.  Progress!

When I started writing the key scene I realized that the arrangement of personnel was too complicated to keep in my head.  So using my vast graphics skills  I drew this diagram of the dinner table:

Perhaps not the most exciting bit of art you have seen today.  But it had an electrifying effect on me.  I suddenly had a tangible, palpable sense of the place and people I was writing about.

And that got me thinking about other times that an image made my own fiction more real to me.  When I was writing Greenfellas, I wanted to have illustrations of my major Mafia characters.  And I found photos of them, but oddly enough they were in The Sixth Family, Lee Lamothe's book about the mob in Montreal.  How did those Canadians get to look so much like my New Jersey mobsters?
I am working on another story which may or may not get finished.  The working title is "Underpass," and it was inspired by the trail under a major highway in the city where I live.  So I went and took some pictures of it, which are now installed in my draft for inspiration.

Do other writers use these physical cues in their writing?
The novelist Diane Chamberlain is my sister (or should I say my sister   is the novelist Diane Chamberlain?) and she gave me permission to tell you the following story.  

Diane started writing her first novel back in her thirties.   Most of the characters in Private Relations  lived in a house in Mantoloking on the New Jersey Shore.  As part of the writing process she went there, found an appropriate house, and took some photos, which she used for inspiration.

Later, at our parents house, she found this photo of herself, age sixteen, sitting on the beach in front of the same damned house.

Like I said:  The writer's mind is a strange and wonderful thing.

So, how about you?  Do you use images or objects to make your fiction more real?


  1. Great blog-post, Robert. Very recognizable, too. I get on my bike to visit and photograph locations, like you seem to do (is that your bicycle in the background?) I also use broker websites to describe existing locations as realistically as possible. I think using real places helps the reader to believe in the unbelievable happenings going on there--a way to suspense their disbelief.

  2. Very interesting, Rob, and I could almost see your characters in Greenfellas anyway, probably because of various movies over the eyars.

    I have used photos and diagrams a few times, and they helped me a lot.

    I set Who Wrote the Book of Death? in the real town where I taught, New Britain, CT. I knew the area where a major character lived, and I walked through the neighborhood and found a house that looked perfect for my needs. I took a photo and relied on it heavily. When I was working on The Kids Are All Right, I drew a map of the grounds of the private school where most of the action takes place, too. It must have worked because that book was nominated for a Shamus.

    Maybe I should try diagrams and pictures again.

  3. A number of images have suggested stories to me, most notably the remains of the Roman amphitheater in Trier, Germany. Only the under ground levels of the arena remain and as soon as I walked along the catwalk over the sunken chambers for the animals and gladiators, I had the end of a novel.

  4. I'm not often inspired by something I see, though "The Town Where Money Grew on Trees" (Tough, November 5, 2029), was inspired by a small town I have frequently driven through. The main street is lined by antique/junk shops that never seem to be open, so the underlying story is about how stores that are never open make money. And "Dixie Quickies" (Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Sept. 2017) was inspired by my seeing a motel next to a redneck bar and wondering how anyone ever slept at the motel. Turns out, that's not what they rent the rooms for...

    On the other hand, I do sometimes go looking for pictures of things or places I want to use in my stories—what model car would be popular the year the story is set, what do the houses look like in the town where a story is set, what do the clothes look like, and so on. Though I can read descriptions of all these things, seeing photographs helps considerably.

    1. Is that first one Hubbard, by any chance?

    2. Calvert, actually. But Hubbard seems much the same, eh?

    3. I've never been so happy to move out of a place! I'm just sorry I didn't get over to a soiree at your place while we were there. I DID see the awesome Mammoth Museum.

  5. Rob,

    I've written a number of stories inspired by physical clues. One is a story set at a real location in Sayreville, NJ called Old Spye Road which has a unique history. I actually visited it so that I could describe it accurately for the story which was published in an anthology some years ago. My novel Dark Moon Rising is a Gothic novel inspired by an old Southern farmhouse that my husband's aunt and uncle had owned and lived in at one time.

  6. I'm absolutely inspired by places I've seen. Tomorrow, my blog post is my very first Crow Woman story (pub. 2000) set in Dark Hollow, which is based on a real place and no, I'm not telling anyone where it is. (If you come visit, I'll take you there.)

  7. I like to draw (very crude) maps so I know the distances between locations I'm using. I have sometimes drawn houseplans, but it's not usually necessary.

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  9. I've spent a fair amount of time, and taken a lot of photos, observing brandings, ranch life, and settings in Wyoming. It informs much of my novel Rope Burn, involving cattle rustling and murder in contemporary Wyoming.

  10. Remember the books that were called the Golden Age Mysteries? Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, and some of the others often had a map of a house or estate, or a diagram of some kind as the frontispiece to their book.

  11. Anne, yes that is my bicycle. In fact, my character is on a bicycle when, well, something happens to him under that highway. That's what gave me the idea.

    Interesting to see how all of you use physical momentos. My sister Diane wanted to comment on this but Blogger has decided she is persona non grata.

  12. I wrote a story last year, submitted it to an anthology this past summer, it was accepted, & then I noticed on the internet a photo of someone who looked exactly the way I imagined the protagonist! I saved the photo in case I ever write a sequel to the story 😎

  13. A location often triggers a story idea. Sometimes it's a person who makes an odd comment or acts in a way to draw my attention. I listened to a woman just released from prison explain to a man, released from prison much earlier, that she was left to find her own way home. The man said the prison provided a bus. The conversation was fascinating and led to two stories.


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