Sunday, February 25, 2007


I just finished watching one of my all time favorite movies, Casablanca.

Probably everybody knows the story line:

Rick, the cynical and jaded nightclub owner had a love affair with the beautiful, blonde Isla in Paris, while her husband, Victor Laszlo, is detained in a concentration camp. He is a suspected French freedom fighter. Upon his release, Victor and Ilse make their way to Casablanca but need letters of transmit to leave the country. Rick is able to secure those letters, through his connections. Ilsa is surprised to run into Rick in Casablanca and feels her love for Rick rekindle. She believes that she and Rick will leave, and her husband stay to fight the Vichy. Rick, however, plays honorable and ensures that Ilse and her husband depart on the plane and he stays behind.

In the end, the good guys win out, and the music fades away.

There are two lines from the movie that are burned into the memory of every woman over 18 who has watched it: "Here's looking at you, Kid," and "We'll always have Paris," spoken by Humphrey Bogart as Rick.

The movie was made in 1942, and 65 years later, it still has appeal. Those quoted lines are frequently used on quiz shows because the words are imbedded in our cultural memory (thanks to reruns on TV and DVD).

So, are there lessons to be learned from this movie for writers of the short story or novel? The sentences are brief: five words in one and four in the other.

How is it that they carry so much weight, have so much impact?

Sure we have the benefit of two people looking soulfully at each other, Ingid Bergman as Ilsa has tears shining in her eyes as she turns away from Rick to leave. But I think the lines are memorable because they summed up the plot and Rick and Ilsa's relationship. Rick's cynicism is thin covering for his love and commitment. They--and his sacrifice--are all conveyed in those few words, "Here's looking at you, Kid."

We read what we need as observors, as voyeurs wanting to be in that place. Our reactions may vary, but they are felt deeply, we are touched in some visceral way.

And then there is, "We'll always have Paris." Simple but conveying so much, a heartful of memories, never to be experienced again, never to be forgotten.

Lesson here, I suspect, is to have the relationship and character of your story's players build incrementally and consistently, so that a few words by them speak volumes, leaving the reader satisfied, nodding and thinking, "Well done."

Yours in writing,


Monday, February 12, 2007


One of the adages given to authors is "write what you know." That's an interesting concept for the mystery or crime fiction author. How many of us have committed the kinds of mayhem and skullduggery about which we write? Very few, I hope. On the other hand, all of us in this creating game--and the human race in general--have experienced the array of emotions and feelings that could have led us to do some dastardly deeds.

The three-legged stool that mysteries are set upon (and that I wrote about elsewhere here on the blog) are plot, character and setting. Plots are the story, of course, what happens and why. However, stories are only interesting if the characters are ones that readers find intriguing, appealing or else so loathsome that the reader wants to see the person get his or her comeuppance.

Consequently, the author has to consider carefully the nature and personalities of the story's main and secondary characters. Some advice that I was given has proven helpful in making sure that I stay true to my story's characters and their personalities. I write down each character's internal conflicts that drive him or her. Then I determine what are the likely external conflicts that would trigger an appropriate action or reaction.

This character list that has the internal and external conflicts identified is very useful as I write the narrative. For example, if a poor self-image and resulting feelings of jealousy are Susan's internal drivers--ones that trigger her to act irrationally, for example--then knowing that helps me to have Susan react appropriately. I can use her in settings and sutations to move the plot along and make the story more dynamic.

The character conflict list doesn't have to be elaborate, but it is fun to do and useful. And again, both the primary and secondary characters should be on it. It does save time later on because the characters are like buddies or acquaintences, where you can roll your eyes, and say, "Yeah, I know just how she's going to react in that situation."

I suppose the seven deadly sins could be a good starting place to start the laundry list of your characters' internal conflicts. You can always branch out, refine and move into the venal sins, I suppose . . .

Hope this might have been useful. If so, drop me a line and let me know.

Yours in mystery,