Up a Tree, Ducking Stones

As a confirmed and rabid Downton Abbey fan, let me say I am really upset about a recent episode. I was really hoping that Lady Sybil and Tom would live happily ever after. But it’s not to be.


The writer in me understands. If everyone lived happily ever after there wouldn’t be any conflict or drama. We need complications, or the story thuds like a dropped stone.

Someone, I forget who, once said that a writer should put her characters up in trees and throw stones at them. Those stones are more interesting when they are in the air, lobbed at the protagonist or her sidekicks.


That got me to thinking about the obstacles I’ve put in my characters’ paths over the years.

Take What You Wish For, my most recent published book. In the first chapter, we meet protagonist Lindsey Page, who is having lunch with friends. Lindsey has had a serious falling-out with her daughter Nina and she hasn’t spoken to Nina in months.

When Lindsey arrives home after her lunch date, guess who is on her doorstep? Her daughter. Who is out of work and has nowhere else to stay. The already prickly mother-daughter relationship is going to complicate Lindsey’s life for the rest of the book.

Looking back at the Jeri Howard series, in Kindred Crimes, Jeri’s first case, Jeri is hired to find a missing wife. Then, just as she gets started on her investigation, her client changes his mind and fires her. What’s a tenacious PI to do? Of course she keeps investigating.

My fourth Jeri Howard mystery, Don’t Turn Your Back on the Ocean, was a great exercise in throwing stones. In three earlier books, I allude to Jeri’s own prickly relationship with her mother, Marie. So of course I knew that at some point I had to send Jeri to visit her mother, who lives in Monterey on the California coast. Fireworks most definitely ensue.

And if that wasn’t enough, I gave Jeri, who was supposed to be on vacation, several other problems – pelican mutilations, sabotage at Marie’s restaurant, and then cousin Bobby becomes a murder suspect.

While writing the book, I reached a lull in the action. Then I remembered that dictum about the character up a tree, dodging stones. Hey, let’s see what happens if Bobby gets hauled in for questioning. It worked.

Just as it did when Jeri’s client died in the first chapter of Where the Bodies are Buried.

I just finished my train book, Death Rides the Zephyr, and it’s out in September. So I’m not going to tell you what happens. But there are complications aplenty in this mystery set aboard a train. After all, it’s winter and there are lots of interesting characters aboard, some of them not as nice as they could be.

You’ll just have to wait and see what kind of complications can happen on a cross-county train. Suffice to say that my protagonist spends the whole trip ducking stones.


4 Responses

  1. *Everyone* is waiting for that train book, Janet!
    Love your “throw stones” image, too.

  2. I’ll have to remember to “throw stones” at my protagonist more often. Love it! Have to order “Don’t Turn your Back on the Ocean” while I wait for your train book.

  3. I can’t wait to read that train book! And you’ve solved the annual problem of what to give my model train-loving engineer spouse for his birthday. A fun blog, Janet. And I know that obstacle tree well. I’ve been sitting in it myself, as well as writing about it.

  4. I’d love to know who said that about putting your characters up a tree and throwing stones at them! I did it in Death Climbs a Tree–Petoskey stones, to be specific.

    I want to read the Zephyr book, too. My most interesting train ride was in Canada, when we rode to the end of the line on a train whose name I can’t remember. Up above the tree line in Hearst, Ontario, we found that our luggage had been taken off the train hours earlier. The helpful stationmaster who put it on hadn’t known the system the real luggage men used for putting things onto the train according to when they’d need to come off it. So we bought a toothbrush and washed out our underwear and laughed. (Yes, we were reunited with our bag the next day, when we took the same train back south.)

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