My Creative Process: Plot and Characters

Theme for my next novel: Jealousy. I prime my mind with what others have written: Jealousy is the jaundice of the soul (John Dryden) and To jealousy, nothing is more frightful than laughter (Francoise Sagan). From the Bible: …for I, the Lord thy God, am a jealous God…(Bible). A biblical footnote states that jealousy is part of the vocabulary of love. I note the significance of the word, vocabulary.

I cast my mind to a locale for the novel—some place that will inspire me, allow me to set a mood. Water stimulates my imagination. There is magic in water sounds—a gurgling brook, the swoosh of the current, fish leaping, waterfowl quacking and honking. On sunny days, river water mirrors quivery reflections of forests. The motion of rivers makes me think of where the water has been and where it is going. Who bathed their feet in the water yesterday or two hundred years ago or a thousand years ago? What kinds of trees and plants grow along the banks? Depth, with its murkiness, invigorates my mind. What lies on the river bottom? A gun? A body? A rowboat sunk with bullet holes in the helm? The river atmosphere—fog, mists, vapor—creates mystery.

In “The Dry Salvages,” TS Eliot found inspiration in the river:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
is a strong, brown god—sullen, untamed, intractable.

I will read TS Eliot before and during the writing of my novel. He gets rivers.

Characters. I already have one—the protagonist, Anne Ashton. Anne is a university professor and poet, whom I’ve written about before. Her usual environment is a midwestern college campus. The last time I wrote about her, she was in Ireland on a fellowship grant. This time, she’s back home and leaving for a poetry retreat. The new story is a mystery, but it is also Anne’s story. As protagonist, she must learn something over the course of the novel.

What are her vulnerabilities? In another story, I gave Anne a Calvinist background, which left her with a tendency to be judgmental. She’s hard on others and she’s hard on herself. She makes efforts to correct these tendencies. Due to an episode in an otherwise pleasant childhood, she finds it difficult to trust people. This trait is helpful in sleuthing, but not in personal relationships. Anne has a sexy, magnetic partner, Luc Broussard, who has given her reasons in the past to be jealous. Anne’s weaknesses will be woven into the plot, as well as her strengths.

Several plots come to mind over the next few days. I write them all down, and as I do, a jealous female character emerges. I find the plot that best fits itself to my jealous female, who by now, in my imaginings, has acquired a husband, child, sisters-in-law, an old auntie, and friends. Two credible subplots grow—one stemming from her child and another, from an older member of her family.

At this point, with the exception of Anne Ashton, my characters are shadowed and still like the figures in Georges Seurat’s painting, “Study for a Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” I need to flesh them out. But first, I want to discuss getting in the creative mood. Stay tuned.

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Book Review: The Ghost of Jamie McVay

Teenager Brian Krueger faces challenges: a move to a new neighborhood and school, a apyromaniac neighbor and his gang, an alcoholic father who spends his time swigging beer in front of the TV, and little money to meet basic living needs, including school expenses. Two strong influences in his life are his hard-working, understanding mom and Sharon, the girl next door. Brian is a sensitive kid, who comes from a long line of men with psychic powers. He sees the ghost of railway conductor Jamie McVey and hears the train that crashed years ago in a nearby marsh. On one level, this is a compelling mystery, but it is also a story of human triumph. R. G. Ziemer skillfully captures the moods of a teen-aged boy as he grapples with complex issues, including forgiveness and self-awareness.

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My Creative Process: Theme

Before outlining a novel, my thoughts are like a windstorm. I write poetry and draw, so thoughts are likely to come in snippets of phrases and images that I capture in notebooks scattered around the house. I never trust my memory. Interruptions chase good thoughts away—the doorbell, a clanking washer, my pups, a phone call…

I sorted through my thoughts to identify a central theme. For my latest manuscript, I isolated revenge and forgiveness. Two themes, then. I didn’t think you could have revenge without forgiveness or unforgiveness.

Sir Francis Bacon wrote an essay entitled “On Revenge,” stating, in part: Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out… Certainly, in taking revenge, a man is even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior; for it is a prince’s part to pardon.

It was in Bacon’s quote, that I found my guiding star for “Old Sins.” An act of revenge is a kind of wild justice. A character wrongs another character. Order is disturbed. The act of revenge is an attempt to restore order. An eye for an eye.

To feel the texture of revenge, I read what others, in addition to Bacon, had to say. Prior to Shakespeare, Thomas Kyd wrote The Spanish Tragedy, casting Revenge as a character, which stood onstage for most of the play, serving with the ghost of Don Andrea as a Greek chorus. Shakespeare gave us his tortured Hamlet, who spurred by the ghost of his father, killed his uncle to avenge his father’s murder. In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, sought revenge against Antonio for many slights and degradations.

Myths. Juno imaginatively punished several lovely maidens who caught the wandering eye of her husband, Zeus. The ancient Celts told countless tales of revenge. King Lug’s wife strayed with Cermait, so Lug killed him. Then Cermait’s sons, in an effort to slay Lug, drove him into a marsh where he drowned.

The greatest enactor of vengeance was the Old Testament Yahweh: Vengeance is mine, thus sayeth he! Forgiveness came in the New Testament with the death of Christ.

In Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, Michael E. McCullough wrote: Truth #1: The Desire for Revenge is a Built-In Feature of Human Nature. He went on to explain that as humans, we are hard-wired to experience vengeful feelings, and not so hard-wired to forgive.

My novel “Old Sins” began with a study of the theme. Next, I started to create a framework for the plot. Characters flowed into my mind. Look for my next post: My Creative Process: Plot and Character.

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Kirkus Review of Where The River Runs Deep


Lynne Handy
Push On Press (170 pp.)
$12.00 paperback,
$2.99 e-book
ISBN: 978-0-692-95350-1;
October 30, 2017


In this thriller, a poet at a writers’ retreat digs into the past of a troubled North Carolina town, the site of a current string of murders.

Maria Pell happily accepts an offer to teach at the Daffodil Writers Retreat, lured by the company of fellow poets. The retreat is also near the childhood home of Amen Hotep Jones, Maria’s star pupil (now dead) when she taught poetry to inmates and whose verse she strives to understand. Cherapee County, Maria quickly discovers, is rife with racial uneasiness, a transparent mutual animosity between white and black townspeople. At the same time, her colleague Bo Bennett is writing a book on the history of the Creighton family, starting with Peter Creighton’s migration to the area in the 17th century. The killing of two Creighton descendants within the last year is problematic enough, but suspicions are bolstered by a possible murder (another Creighton) at the retreat. Breaking down Amen’s poetry ultimately leads Maria to dredge up the town’s past; this incites locals but may tie into the murders, which unfortunately continue. With help from her intermittent psychic visions and dreams, Maria searches for a killer, who soon comes looking for her. In Handy’s (The Untold Story of Edwina, 2016, etc.) sequel, Maria remains a curious protagonist, shaken by her husband’s recent infidelity and likely falling for Cherapee County local Ian Kincaid. Her psychic ability, meanwhile, is understated; spirits guide her, but Maria works her way toward a solution primarily with gumption and intuition. The author further exercises subtlety in dealing with race, from different forms of prejudice (overt slurs or micro-aggressions) to links to the town’s plot-relevant history. There are, however, effective thriller attributes, like the car tailgating Maria’s Mazda rental and clearly refusing to pass. Handy’s writing is concise and fittingly lyrical, packing a punch with few words: “Amen grew up in a world that caged his power” and “Words could set the world on fire.”

A witty sleuth as keen and profound as the art form she teaches.

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The Noose and the Fiery Stake

In paranormal sequences, part of my novel Where the River Runs Deep (WTRRD) takes place in the colonial South, where slaves worked plantations under brutal conditions.

Historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown wrote, in the introduction to The Mind of the South:…few planters wrung their hands about ownership of chattel slaves. By the ethical standards of their region, they had no reason to feel guilty. Racial barriers and rules to demarcate one race from the other were an integral part of white understanding of how God had supposedly ordered human governance.

Bible passages used to justify slavery: In the Bible, Abraham begets Ishmael on his slave Hagar (Genesis 21: 9-10). In the confusing story of Canaan, (Genesis 9: 24-27) his father Ham disrespects old drunken Noah, and so Noah curses Canaan and his descendants, making them slaves forevermore. In Ephesians 6: 5-8, Paul says, “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters, according to the flesh, with fear and trembling in singleness of your heart as unto Christ.” (The explanation states: Such regulations did not encourage or condone such situations but were divinely given, practical ways of dealing with realities of the day.) Then there’s the little Book of Philemon in which Paul persuades Philemon to take back a runaway slave.

Planter Peter Creighton in WTRRD owned slaves because he needed unpaid labor to work his land to turn profits. In the mid-1600s, he built a plantation on a barrier island on the coast of North Carolina. Like his Celtic forbears, he ran his plantation as a mini-kingdom. He owned the Africans who worked his land, just as he owned the horses, cattle, and hogs that munched on grass in the meadow. There was no law, other than his.

Slaves hated their captors. Creighton knew his slaves would kill him and his family if it meant they could achieve the freedom so dear to their souls. In the Caribbean, slaves had successfully overthrown white masters. In 1731, a slave revolt on the island of St. John resulted in the ouster of Danish planters. The Haitian Rebellion of 1791, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, resulted in the deaths of thousands of whites and the destruction of plantations. In South Carolina, the Stono Rebellion was crushed in 1739. Over forty whites and forty-four blacks were killed. The Slave Insurrection of 1741 in New York ended with seventeen blacks and four whites (poor whites had joined in) hanged and thirteen blacks burned at the stake.

Slave revolt was always a possibility. In my novel, Creighton has to make his slaves fear him, and he did that by meting out punishments, which included the noose and the fiery stake.

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