Why Must a Favorite Character Die? Or, why Authors have Murderous Hearts.

When I’m watching a movie, especially thrillers or films with plenty of characters, I’m always looking for the ‘dead meat’ , or DM’s for short. DM characters are usually primed to attract our sympathies but are guaranteed to be bumped off somewhere before the end of the movie. It’s kind of a predictable, watch-for-it moment, but it still gets me every time. After all, I cared about those characters. They snaked their way into my heart with good deeds and decent, good-guy actions until I had no choice but to feel their loss, regardless of whether I saw it coming.

Movies reveal their DMs more easily than novels which, due to the differences in length and form, take longer to unfold and may include more subtle character detail. Still, almost all engrossing fiction has a character or two who will meet an untimely end. Remember Little Women?  Louisa May Alcott breathed life into a cast of characters, made us love them all, and then killed off  beloved Beth. I can think of hundreds of examples, as probably you can, too. Nearly every piece of literature features the death of a beloved character. In fact, when you think of it, we writers are a murderous lot. Fellow writers, hold up your hands.

In a recent book club meeting, one of my readers asked why I felt it necessary to kill off a certain character. I felt on trial, she was that unhappy with this character’s passing. She liked that person, identified with the personality, and hoped to become reacquainted in a future book. I explained that, in fictional terms, I was only doing my job. If you’re not experiencing real human emotions, if you don’t care about the people you spend time with inside the covers of a book, the author hasn’t hooked you.

But, all that aside, what turns a writer’s heart to murder?  The simple answer is because we must. In many cases, we love our characters, too. They emerge from our imaginations in some alchemy of creativity and intense observation, and almost like children, we watch them develop. In my case, I don’t give  birth to a character to see him or her die, but as the story world unfolds, often someone must. Writing, like art, should move you. Readers want to laugh and cry so that, when they turn the last page of the fictive world, they feel as though they’ve experienced something authentic.

Were you moved? Did you shed a tear? Good, because I did, too. I promise never to take a reader anywhere I wouldn’t go myself.  Rest assured that while you cry over the demise of a favorite character, I did the same while bumping them off. Otherwise, I am guilty as charged.

Description: shrinking the distance between armchair and reality

Readers often comment on the vividness of my settings, which in Warp in the Weave happens to be Turkey.

Ms. Thornley’s descriptions of Turkey are so vivid, I could almost picture myself walking alongside Phoebe in the bustling streets and breathing in the air of the ancient caves”  

and  “She sucks you right into the world she creates with her vivid descriptions! I could see the colors and hear the chatter in the Turkish bazaars.”  These are only two comments plucked from reviews but all reference setting as one of their favorite aspects.

I can’t help myself. Apparently this descriptive bent began in elementary school, since my teachers remarked on it from my earliest years (probably while I was failing math).  Descriptions are like sprinkling a powerful flavor pack over a too-small world and watching it expand to magnificent proportions.

So I invite all five senses to the party. Most of my books are set in an evocative location–Bermuda, New Orleans, London, Turkey. Travel being, among other things, a sensory experience, I try to bring my readers with me on a ride much as I do on my escorted textile tours. By shrinking the distance between armchair and reality, readers plunge into the immediacy of place and time so that wherever the story takes them, they stay with me.

Warp in the Weave’s action launches in London but jettisons to Turkey, beginning with Istanbul. For avid textile shoppers everywhere, here’s a taste:

Down a set of concrete stairs, past a busy outdoor cafe, through a throng of tourists threaded by young men delivering trays of tea, I arrived at last at the Arasta Bazaar. An outdoor pedestrian arcade lined with modern shops tucked into old gray stone walls, it displayed all that had made Turkey a trade crossroads for centuries–textiles, tiles, gold, silver, jewelry.

My steps faltered. I was seeking Erdogan Sevgi Carpets, which I had yet to find, but to walk past the Isnik tile shops, the store selling silken robes and vests, the jewelry shop glittering with lapis and high-karat gold, the shop specializing in embroidered pillows, and, of course, all the other carpet stores, was nearly impossible.

Everything I loved and honored resided here, and the merchants knew how to display their offerings, how to jumble patterns and colors together so that each excited the other in a harmonious symphony. My eyes couldn’t bear to pass them by without proper acknowledgment.

“Miss, I have more inside.”

I looked up from where I stood transfixed before a window displaying a magnificent Ottoman-style carpet, not old but expertly crafted in brilliant hues and intricate patterns, probably at least 25 knots per inch. A young man wearing the Turkish street uniform of jeans and leather stood in the doorway smiling.

“Um, I’m only looking, thank you, but this is a gorgeous piece.”

Before I knew, I was sitting in the shop, sipping the small glass cup of tea Erkan offered, appreciating the show as he rolled out carpet after carpet until the floor at my feet was an overlay of wool and weaves. Most were new, the products of either small households or the many carpet cooperatives that operated across Turkey. Though handmade, they were still commercial productions and not what interested me as a collector or dealer, though beautiful nonetheless. A few emerged that were clearly older, less regular, with discolorations in the hand-dyed wool. They were pleasing but not spectacular. I insisted to Erkan that I was only looking, which he ignored while proceeding to show me even more.

Pictured a photo of two of my fiber clients in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, October 2011

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Pondering Character in Fiction

Readers crave fictional characters who grow and change as they drive the story forward.  A character in the process of internal transformation offers another plot to unfold within the story world, possibly the most important engine of all. Without character transformation, stories feel empty and one-dimensional.

Can you think of a favorite fictional character who began exactly in the same state as she ended?  Think of Scarlet in Gone with the Wind.  Brewed in a deep well of privilege, she begins selfish, entitled, and manipulative, as fascinating as she is unlikable.  When blow after blow strikes her down, we cheer as she hoists herself back up and keeps on trudging through the mud of civil war. That’s character. We want them strong, yet vulnerable. We want them to bleed, but still wade back into battle undaunted and, most importantly, we want them to learn from their trials.

We identify with the patterns of humanity we recognize. We need to see a living, beating heart in every book we read, even if it’s science fiction or fantasy. That’s where we identify the heroes that help us recognize a germ of the heroic in everyone.

As a writer, I set my characters on a path without knowing exactly how the voyage will transform them. So much of writing is a process of discovery for the author as well as the reader. We never take our fictional journeys alone.

For Phoebe McCabe in the Crime by Design series, a young woman begins in Rogue Wave believing that maturity can be measured in digits alone  until life and mayhem force her to dig deep inside herself to discover her true substance. By Warp in the Weave, she is maturing, her edges hardening, and by book three in the series, we will see a more heroic manifestation arising as the girl becomes a woman. In Frozen Angel, a woman fails to realize the power she possesses to change the destiny of both herself and those she loves. Though her journey pits her against supernatural forces, her character remains indelibly human.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether our stories are set in reality or in some semblance thereof, the core of fiction always pivots around what we recognize as human, even if it beats inside an alien heart.

The Anatolian Goddess with Vultures was Real

Goddess Kilim

An Anatolian Goddess with Vultures Kilim

The Anatolian Goddess with Vultures in  The Warp in the Weave actually existed, in as much as goddesses exist anywhere, any time. She was beyond ancient. In fact, she was most likely neolithic. 

In 1958, one of the great archaeologists of  the twentieth century, James Mellaart, discovered the remains of  an ancient city known today as Çatal Hüyük in central Turkey. It remains as enigmatic and controversial today as it did then. Though not as old as Jericho, the size and scope of the civilization it reveals continues to challenge all we thought we knew about so-called primitive cultures.  There was a goddess with vultures? She played with birds and cats?

Discovering such a find (not his first, by the way) helped elevate Mellaart to the status of Schliemann in the eyes of some. He held the seat as head of the esteemed British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara and published widely (readers of  the Warp in the Weave     take note: Eva held a similar position). Then, as is the case with many great people , he found himself at the center of a controversy that continues today.

One such firestorm concerned the Goddess with Vultures Herself. Though carvings of a goddess figure were discovered in Çatal Hüyük, Mellaart claimed he viewed the motif of the Goddess painted on the walls of the ancient site, paintings that disintegrated before they could be properly scrutinized, even though they  were recorded in drawings by Mellaart and his team.  The Goddess reigned with panthers, vultures, and other elements that Mellaart believed to be the origins of  motifs enlivening the Turkish Kilim such as the one pictured above.

“So, how controversial is that?”, you may think. Plenty. We exist in a world that holds photographic evidence in the highest regard, irrespective of digital enhancements that challenge reality. An archaeologist who cannot verify sources or prove a hypothesis irrevocably, is suspect . Even a brilliant man with an impressive resume like Dr. Mellaart can be shot down and professionally ruined.

Like my Dr. Eva Friedrich in Warp in the Weave. On the other hand, just like Eva, James Mellaart did end up snarled in another controversy.

More on that story next time….

Judging a Book by its Color

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One of the antique Turkish rugs that caught my imagination with that red

I confess that my love for color and pattern means I begin imaging a cover and its dominant color scheme long before I begin writing the book. The cover appears at the edges of my mind, slowly taking shape and form until it glows like a vision in my brain.

Covers matter, colors matter.  For this latest one, I saw red, literally, but the first book in my Crime by Design series was awash in blues and cool greens to conjure the Atlantic ocean, which flowed throughout Rogue Wave.

Volume 2, fittingly enough, features that rich Turkish red, since a background of rare Turkish textiles contributes to the setting. I even researched how the artisans obtained that hue, which turns out to be a mix of sheep’s blood and a natural mordant. That a color can last without fading for hundreds of years amazes me.

I began collecting textiles while in Turkey, thinking how they’d make an excellent background for my cover. Besides hanging out at Istanbul’s Islamic Museum of Art, I brought home five kilims and one carpet from the first voyage. But the central motif–that enigmatic Goddess with Vultures motif–appeared to me much later. It turns out that she is so ancient , her story begins far back in the Bronze Age.  And that, my friends, is a true story best left for another post.

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Warp in the Weave Published!

WITW kindle cover

Warp in the Weave is now live on Amazon!  Come share the journey in book 2 of the Crime by Design series.

Brief synopsis:

Against the panorama of Central Turkey’s underground cities and ancient caves, magnified by its rich textile and cultural heritage, two women follow a trail that leads deep into the prehistoric past, hurling them against competing ideologies, and the mire that is the black market antiquities trade.

What Phoebe discovers along the way is more than just about ancient shrines, missing relatives, and love betrayed.  She finds that what’s at the heart of the human weave may be the pattern that illuminates everything that matters.

This fast-moving suspense blends intrigue, humor, and romance against a textile-rich world interwoven with archaeology, ideology, and one woman’s quest for the ultimate truth.

Available Amazon now

Warp in the Weave…

Publication June 2015

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The loose ends of her past keep threatening to hang Phoebe McCabe as she begins her new life as a London textile gallery owner. Every crook believes Phoebe knows where her missing brother and his friends hid the hoard; Interpol insists the thieves may have stashed the priceless artifacts under her nose; and she’s being stalked by multiple interests, none of them friendly.

As the black market continues to infiltrate her life,  one of the thieves shows up unexpectedly, setting off a deadly chain of events that includes an unexplained corpse and gallery break-ins where nothing is stolen. If she didn’t have such strong feelings for the man, maybe she could have stopped him from escaping. Love is hard enough without falling for a crook.

And then something else extraordinary arrives in the gallery: a mysterious kilim with an ancient motif that holds a clue not only to the thieves’ whereabouts, but also to an ancient religion where God was a Goddess. Fueled by desperation, hope, and fury, Phoebe escapes for Turkey to track down  the source of the kilim and, hopefully, her brother.  Along the way, she meets an archaeologist who offers to help find the kilim’s source for reasons of her own, and together, they race across Turkey with Interpol and black market cutthroats at their heels

Against the panorama of Central Turkey’s underground cities and ancient caves, magnified by its rich textile and cultural heritage, Phoebe and Eva follow a trail that leads deep into the prehistoric past, hurling them against competing ideologies, and the mire that is the black market antiquities trade. What Phoebe discovers along the way is more than just about ancient shrines, missing relatives, and love betrayed.  She finds that what’s at the heart of the human weave may be the pattern that illuminates everything that matters.

This fast-moving suspense blends intrigue, humor, and romance against a textile-rich world interwoven with archaeology, ideology, and one woman’s quest for the ultimate truth.

Coming in June