Author: RJ MCarthy

Blog One 6-27-2019

Not infrequently, I’ve been asked how I generate ideas for stories. My answers are likely as broad as the question. They come from stories I’ve read (I read a lot), stories I’m mulling, stories overheard, stories remembered, and of course, stories imagined. Often, what emerges is an amalgam.

 

On occasion, a story idea has been triggered by an article I’ve read, e.g. the obscene level of unaddressed violence, sexual and otherwise, directed against Native women on Indian reservations. The result, my published novel, Where Seldom Is Heard. A contest-winning short story, Smile A Mighty Jesus, emerged from an older, undereducated relative of a good friend who misinterpreted “spinal meningitis.” Some of my stories have been catalyzed by broad-based reading that encompasses geography and history.

 

One short story sprung from a newspaper article about a Jewish-American who served in the Israeli Defense Force and experienced action in Lebanon against Hezbollah. I tied it into another article about street hoodlums counting coup with a cowardly brand of “tagging” by selecting, at random, an unsuspecting pedestrian and punching him from ambush.

 

A novel not yet published, The All-American from Scuffletown, developed from a professional contact with a lifetime alcoholic who, in his own inimitable way, had led a fascinating and (in my estimation) morally estimable life. I decided I wanted to write about him; he wanted me to. After detailed consultation with him, and with his permission, I did.

 

My soon to be published crime novel, Harmony, set in 2044 (therefore, it falls under SciFi as well), evolved from rising concern about unintended consequences of human gene editing. Specifically, I fear we need to be as concerned about what we might lose as humans compared to what we hope to gain.

 

A great friend, Kathy F, has been a wellspring of ideas over many years. Inherently bright and unapologetic about her intelligence, it is nevertheless delivered in butchered English replete with colloquial witticisms, proverbs, old saws, and sayings from an extended family rich in a riot of unforgettable nicknames. My requirement: to listen.

 

If I had to narrow my explanations for idea generation, I would emphasize keying on alertness to something that perks a storyteller’s ear and to record it ASAP. If the idea appears as you’re falling asleep, in a conversational aside, or in a dream upon awakening, record it then.

Ultimately, It’s my (your) imagination that expands the idea into a story.
 









11/27/2019

In this installment, I’d like to briefly address the issue of research in my work, my approach to it and the reality it imposes upon me.

For me, research related to a novel is not something that ceases the moment I begin a first draft (pen and paper, written longhand). It remains an on-going process throughout the writing and the numerous revisions to follow. Until publication, I strive to remain open to new information that might have a bearing on what I write. True, it is my imagination at work, but, as much as possible, I want what is knowable to be correct or as closely so as possible. After all, whatever I write represents me.

To further focus this preference of mine, permit me to offer two examples. The first relates to a published work, Where Seldom Is Heard, a story of pursued justice set on an Indian reservation. Though I never mentioned it by name, I envisioned the Standing Rock Reservation overlapping North and South Dakota.

At one point, I decided I needed to reach farther for exactitude regarding tribal policing issues despite copious notes from online efforts. I called the reservation and, serendipitously, was connected to the tribal attorney. After an initial hesitation, he graciously answered my few questions once my purpose was clear to him. Thus, accuracy of detail was improved.

The second example relates to a work in progress, an as yet untitled story of two lonely people brought together by a drone. My idea of using an ever-learning robot, programmed with artificial intelligence (AI), to act as a matchmaker has necessitated daily re-visitation to drone sites to examine data on: drone specifications, materials including material physics and chemistry, issues of material lightness and strength, battery life, AI, flow dynamics, wind and solar power, etc. as well as on-the-cusp, cutting edge experimentation to further feed and reassure my imagination.

As many of you have likely experienced, there is almost always a precisionist (the gentlest way I can put it), a stickler for detail out there who will welcome the opportunity to point out to you (even better in a group setting) an avoidable factual or technical error no matter how tiny or insignificant to the story’s gist. Therefore, if possible, why not try to get it right? For those of you unaffected by the precisionist’s precision, no problem; I’d prefer to be ready for him - or her.

Once I’ve covered what appears to be known, I then turn to my imagination and drop the fetters.




10-29-2019

In this blog, I’d like to address one of my ideas about a protagonist in a novel. For me, he / she must be credible to engage an adult reader’s suspension of disbelief. Therefore, at least for me, the protagonist cannot be a superhero, cannot rely on super-human powers. Nor can he / she depend upon the deus ex machina phenomenon, the idea of an intermediary suddenly materializing to lift the protagonist from a heretofore unresolvable dilemma. The great Dennis Lehane, in his early detective novels, tended to insert an almost indestructive character, Bubba, when his detective duo was at an impass. The character, while fun, pulled me from the story as something really occurring. It diminished my suspension of disbelief. If I can’t believe in him or her, I cannot write about it, much less sell it to a reader. The protagonist must be central to any problem resolution.

All that said, the protagonist can be big, strong, smart, supremely capable, you name it, but always within a human dimension. Beyond the latter, the protagonist becomes fantastic, and I’m not interested in writing (or reading) fantasy. Nothing against fantasy or fantasy lovers, but again, that’s not what I seek to write or read. I need to believe it could happen. That it could is a crucial part of what draws me into the suspense of a protagonist’s battle, whatever it may be.

No matter how imperfectly human a protagonist might be, he or she must be essentially moral, ethical in the end. A flawless, Galahadian figure would not do. Whatever his or her flaws, they must be acknowledged or, once acknowledged, accepted in the belief they can be overcome or at least worked on to prevent them from compromising or even contaminating the protagonist’s quest to battle iniquity.

In my novel, Harmony, for instance, my protagonist’s (the eponymous Harmony) primary flaw is a convergence of uncertainty about women and self-doubt regarding them. Despite excellent education and a probing intelligence, the flaw leads him to hesitate, to shy away from the very human companionship he seeks, leaving him marooned in loneliness.

If you have a comment as to my sense of a protagonist or a differing take on how you envision your protagonist, please, let me know on my Facebook page.




9-27-2019

Among the ineffable rules that infuse my writing, and regardless how germane it might be to a plot, no animal will be tortured or killed in any story I write. If animal cruelty is ever implied, it is only in a historical sense or threatening situation to set a course toward redemption or retribution. This is a promise I make to any reader. A wounded animal will survive.

I know this goes against the literary grain of letting a story evolve rather than pre-setting it or, worse, forcing it. I don’t care. Knowing how I cringe when I news-read an act of cruelty toward an animal, any animal, I will not use an act of current animal cruelty to build suspense or for any other literary propulsion.

Growing up, my family had cats, generally one at a time. For Sue’s (my wife’s) family, it was dogs, usually Danes and, again, one at a time. That said, we have five animals at present, three cats (females), two dogs (males), all rescued. Do we sound certifiable? I wouldn’t argue with “Yes!” Do we know precisely how this came about? Vaguely, at best. I can say it evolved (that makes it sound orderly, doesn’t it?) years after our children left home. In other words, we can’t blame it on them.

If I felt accusatory (I don’t), I could blame the cats on Sue. With our oldest, Frenchie (French Blue, a gray) already ensconced, she bought home two black sister kittens, Tattoo (tuxedo, black chin fuzz on white) and Purr (who doesn’t, then does quietly). Did I participate in any decision-making process? Not that I can recall. Do I resent them? I love them.


As for the dogs, the oldest, Mufasa (largely Chow) and Marley, two years younger (largely white Lab), any accusations should be directed toward me. When I walked through our then North Carolina neighborhood with its laxly enforced leash laws, I carried dog biscuits. If confronted, guess what? Instant buddy.  The problem: Mufasa, an alpha male, would follow me home. Eventually, his owner, overwhelmed with rescue dogs, let us have him. A year or two later, led by Mufasa, Marley arrived exhausted in an ice storm and stayed. Another big male, he was from the same neighbor’s dog pack. Again, I asked to take him; the neighbor agreed. Sue and I learned later that other neighbors were delighted with our decision, approving of our treatment of and care for the dogs. Do I regret my actions? I do not. I love the dogs, too.

So there we were, and here we are – three cats and two dogs where there was supposed to be only one cat. Putting it to paper this way, we don’t sound psychotic, do we? I’d dare say, no more than a little crazy. Crazy or not, my love of animals inspirits my writing as much as it guides it.


8-24-2019

The products of science always outpace the ethics necessary for their proper use. Ethicists, due to the depth thinking they conduct for all of us, are always playing catch-up. Even with an ethical formulation to guide us, there are always unscrupulous practitioners who, in their quest for fame and fortune, will ignore ethical considerations. From the weight of this reality, I conceptualized Harmony out of a growing concern about the onrushing era of gene editing we are now entering.

My overarching concern – not mine alone – is that through gene manipulation we may eventually edit out experiences necessary for complete human development. As we seek perfection through genetic reworking, we may narrow our genetic make-up and, therefore, potential. If one were speaking of eliminating a genetic defect responsible for a terrible disease, e.g. Tay-Sachs, no problem. It’s the unanticipated effects, the unintended consequences that will also occur, that stir my angst, particularly as they might impact upon or unintentionally deaden the spectrum of empathic emotions. If, for example, we were to emerge from genetic tampering less able to experience empathy, shame, guilt, the emotions that enable us to balance ourselves in relation to others, would we be super-human or diminished in irretrievable ways? Would we emerge more separated from others than ever before? What might this portend in a futuristic sense?

It was from this murky concern that the idea of Harmony emerged. As an unedited FBI agent, Ari Harmony was hired precisely because a unit director sensed an emotional-spectrum narrowing of her gene-edited agents. It was her judgment that an unedited agent, exposed to a fuller range of human emotions, might instinctually possess an ability her enhanced agents were losing. It’s his knowledge and instinctive skills, whetted by unmodified emotions, that allow him to ferret out a serial killer overlooked by his “superior” fellow agents.

I’m not a science fiction writer by inclination, but since Harmony is set in 2044, my crime novel would seem to fall under the rubric of sci-fi as well. Hope you enjoy. Please let me know how you feel about it. A brief review on Amazon would be appreciated.

RJ McCarthy


7-15-2019


More on seizing creative ideas when they strike: Years ago (too many), Elmore Leonard, one of our pre-eminent crime fiction writers, addressed this subject in a manner as pithy as his dialogue. I’m unable to certify the setting, but as I recall it, he was sitting on a bench, possibly at a bus or trolley stop in New Orleans. He overheard one African-American man, chatting with another, use the expression, “Right from jump street.” My translation: Ab ovo. From the beginning. Is that accurate?  I don’t know, but that’s how it speaks to me. Over the years, I’ve heard it shortened to “Right from the jump” to the even briefer “From the jump.”

To Leonard’s point, he indicated that expression was going into his next novel. It did. Prior to that, however, he recorded the words as soon as he arrived home, possibly sooner if a writing implement and a scrap of paper were available.

I have written story ideas – names, tones of voice, facial characteristics, expressive language, colloquialisms, attitudes, projections of an imagined life – on restaurant receipts, napkins, on a tiny reminder pad my wife carries, on whatever is at hand when something impinges one of my senses. If I’m driving, I’ll ask her to please record it.

My suggestion: Be ready! Act immediately! I’ve never consciously experienced writer’s block (not sure why), but I sense that being alert to the whirl of subject matter the world hurls at us is one of the reasons, perhaps even a key. I keep a folder labeled (and filled with) “story ideas.” Periodically, I’ll review it. I suspect I will never use the majority of the ideas. But they’re there, awaiting me to rediscover them, to cull one as a gardener lovingly harvests a morning bloom to brighten a breakfast table. It’s a start.

If there are subjects, pertaining to my writing life, you’d like me to address, please feel free to let me know. You can reach out to me on
Facebook, and while you are there please like my page. 

RJ McCarthy



6-27-2019

Where Do the Ideas Come From?

Not infrequently, I’ve been asked how I generate ideas for stories. My answers are likely as broad as the question. They come from stories I’ve read (I read a lot), stories I’m mulling, stories overheard, stories remembered, and of course, stories imagined. Often, what emerges is an amalgam.

On occasion, a story idea has been triggered by an article I’ve read, e.g. the obscene level of unaddressed violence, sexual and otherwise, directed against Native women on Indian reservations. The result, my published novel, Where Seldom Is Heard. A contest-winning short story, Smile A Mighty Jesus, emerged from an older, undereducated relative of a good friend who misinterpreted “spinal meningitis.” Some of my stories have been catalyzed by broad-based reading that encompasses geography and history.

One short story sprung from a newspaper article about a Jewish-American who served in the Israeli Defense Force and experienced action in Lebanon against Hezbollah. I tied it into another article about street hoodlums counting coup with a cowardly brand of “tagging” by selecting, at random, an unsuspecting pedestrian and punching him from ambush.

A novel not yet published, The All-American from Scuffletown, developed from a professional contact with a lifetime alcoholic who, in his own inimitable way, had led a fascinating and (in my estimation) morally estimable life. I decided I wanted to write about him; he wanted me to. After detailed consultation with him, and with his permission, I did.

My soon to be published crime novel, Harmony, set in 2044 (therefore, it falls under SciFi as well), evolved from rising concern about unintended consequences of human gene editing. Specifically, I fear we need to be as concerned about what we might lose as humans compared to what we hope to gain.

A great friend, Kathy F, has been a wellspring of ideas over many years. Inherently bright and unapologetic about her intelligence, it is nevertheless delivered in butchered English replete with colloquial witticisms, proverbs, old saws, and sayings from an extended family rich in a riot of unforgettable nicknames. My requirement: to listen.

If I had to narrow my explanations for idea generation, I would emphasize keying on alertness to something that perks a storyteller’s ear and to record it ASAP. If the idea appears as you’re falling asleep, in a conversational aside, or in a dream upon awakening, record it then.

Ultimately, It’s my (your) imagination that expands the idea into a story.