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What If You Could ‘Slip’ into the Dreams of a Killer?

This family of PIs can. They use their psychic dream ability to solve crimes, and that isn’t easy.


"The launch of an intriguing female detective series." - Kirkus Reviews

"Clearly author Lisa Brunette has a genuine flair for deftly crafting a superbly entertaining mystery/suspense thriller." - Midwest Book Review

“Lisa Brunette’s Framed and Burning is a brilliant, suspenseful whodunit…” - Qui Xiaolong, Author of Shanghai Redemption, named one of the Wall Street Journal’s Best Books of 2015

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An Interview with New York Times-Bestselling Author Robert Dugoni


Robert Dugoni is the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon bestselling author of the Tracy Crosswhite Series: My Sister's Grave, Her Final Breath, and A Clearing in the Woods. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed David Sloane series: The Jury Master, Wrongful Death, Bodily Harm, Murder One, and The Conviction. Dugoni has twice been nominated for the Harper Lee Award for Legal Fiction, was a 2015 International Thriller Writer's finalist for thriller of the year, and the 2015 winner of the Nancy Pearl Award for Fiction.

After I accosted approached him at a recent PNWA conference, he agreed to participate in this back-and-forth interview, which unfolded over several weeks, suspended briefly as we both took vacations. A fan of his Tracy Crosswhite series, I'm thrilled to bring Dugoni to my readers.

Lisa: I just finished reading My Sister’s Grave, and wow. You took a tremendous risk with your twist at the end. What compelled you to go that route? At what point in your process did you know that’s how it would end?

Bob: With this book I knew at the beginning. I really was playing with an old legal maxim which is at the start of the novel. I wanted to point out that a maxim is never 100 percent accurate. There’s a key moment in the book, after the reveal, where this is spelled out.

Lisa: The legal maxim first appears in the quote you use to open the book, right? From Sir William Blackstone, “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” Tracy Crosswhite upholds this maxim, though, not to stop the suffering of an innocent man but out of a driven quest to find the truth. You portray her sharp instincts so well—that scientific truth-seeking is my favorite aspect of her character. Do you think of her as the hero of the novel? Or is someone else? I don’t want to give the ending away, but she has a counterpoint in the story, like yin and yang. Are there two heroes in your mind?

Bob: No, I really see her as the hero. She’s lived with this case for 10 years and had the courage to follow through on it when most others would have given up. She’s heroic in many ways. 

Lisa: Fair enough. Another risky aspect is writing in a different gender than your own. Tell me about the challenges of pulling this off.

Bob: First, I decided not to try to write from the perspective of a woman. I thought that would be a huge mistake. Instead, I wrote from the perspective of a person who has been wounded, trying to survive, day to day, with that wound. That’s a universal existence not dependent on gender. On the other hand, I have four sisters and a strong-willed mother. I’ve worked in a profession with a lot of strong-willed female attorneys.  I tried to draw from those experiences.

Lisa: What tipped you over to creating Tracy? She’s pretty badass all the way through, so kudos to you for the portrayal. At what point did you move from “that would be a huge mistake” to “this is the way I have to write this story”?

Bob: I never worried that it would be a mistake. Years ago I wrote the story Damage Control with the protagonist Dana Hill. I did the same thing. I never tried to write like a woman, just a person going through a difficult time in their life. Men and women are not the same, I recognize that, but I think in many ways we’re similar when it comes to the basic things in life we want and how hard we will fight to achieve those things.

Lisa: You mention in the acknowledgments section conversations with two researchers who gave you insights into the minds of sociopaths and psychopaths, but I note that your general idea for the novel preceded these conversations. Where did the idea come from, initially? Did knowing you were going to use that twist to show the maxim isn’t absolute mean you had in mind there would be a psychopath in the book from the beginning?

Bob: Actually, Tracy Crosswhite is a character in Murder One, a David Sloane novel. She has a very small part. When I was deciding to start a new series, I went through my old novels searching for a new lead character. She was really an unlikely choice, but she made me curious. I wanted to find out more about who she was and how she went from being a high school chemistry teacher to a homicide cop. I know that sounds odd, since I created her, but I really had to stop and explore who she was at her core. I do a lot of research, and it often comes up in a different book than intended, or in more than one book. Unlike some books, I knew in this book I wanted a psychopath because of the nature of the crime and the location and setting.

Lisa: I enjoyed the town as a sort of character in its own right in the story. Why is that important, both in terms of and separate from Sarah’s murder?

Bob: Because of what the police told me about a murder. They said a murder is rarely about one person. A murder impacts an entire family. When I mentioned she lived in a small town, they said the murder would impact the entire town. Everyone would know Sarah, and everyone would live life a bit differently after she disappeared. It’s a scary thought.

Lisa: What are your future plans for Tracy Crosswhite? How long will you keep the series going?

Bob: I’m just going to follow ideas that come to me. I’ll write Tracy stories until I feel as though I’ve exhausted her and I’m no longer excited to get up in the morning and continue on with her journey.  I’ve written four, and I’m a long way into book five. I really enjoy the people I’ve created to surrounded Tracy and my intent is to explore each of them.

 Check out Robert Dugoni's web site for videos, book links, and more.

Dugoni book stack

Why I Write What I Write: Going Against Violence Porn and Magic Mush


 One of the aspects of the mystery genre I appreciate least is the trope of violence against women. It's most obvious in the standard formula opening: A woman found dead, usually in an alley, maybe even a Dumpster. Sometimes she's nude, or in some state of undress. Usually, there's evidence of sexual assault. Often, she's a prostitute.

 When I sat down to write my first novel, I chose the mystery genre with the express intent not to perpetuate this scenario. I didn't want to read about yet another woman's body in an alley, and I certainly wouldn't write about one. Now, two years after I released my first novel, the question takes on even greater meaning, as a probable real-life rapist was caught with his female victim, in an alley even, and nonetheless let off easy. 

 This isn't just politics, though. This is overall a craft concern. Writing cliches is boring work for the writer, and I would expect it to be a boring experience for readers, too. 

 I'm not saying writers shouldn't write--and readers shouldn't read--books with graphic violence in them, or that depict female victims. My books tackle sensitive, potentially trigger-inducing subjects: sexual repression, gay self-hatred, child-rape pornography, incest. But I went to great lengths not to glorify or portray these scenes and subjects gratuitously. I didn't want or need to contribute to the world's repository of violence porn.

 The line, admittedly, isn't always right there in black and white, a complexity I explore in Framed and Burning:

And there she was, in triplicate. His wan heroine, his redheaded lady-child. She wasn’t yet eighteen, as he’d tried to capture in the budding quality of her breasts under a white tank top. She had an unnatural thinness about her as well, as if slightly malnourished. The whole time he’d painted her, he felt as if he wanted to save her. That was the attempt in painting her, to save her and rid himself of her haunting eyes at the same time. But he felt strongly now that he had failed. And in his failure, he’d simply failed her.

 Mick, like the female members of his family, is a dreamslipper: He possesses the psychic ability to pick up other people's dreams. But while his sister and niece use the ability to solve crimes, Mick uses dreams as inspiration for his art. He reflects on the morality of this:

In the quiet of his studio, Mick walked over to the unfinished painting that was inspired by that dream of Cat’s. He remembered the shock on her face when she saw it. So much trouble, he thought. He reprimanded himself for what suddenly amounted to cheating, taking others’ ideas and making them his own in his art. Was it ethical? He thought about Candace telling him basically to butt out of her dreams. And he thought of the haunting look in the girl’s eyes in the triptych. And of his own limitations, just now with Rose.

Mick picked up a large brush, dipped it into a can of black paint, and crossed out the painting. Then he began to fill in with black everywhere the cross lines weren’t. Soon, he’d covered the canvas in nothing but black. The painting was gone.

 In Bound to the Truth, the third book in the trilogy, the female victim is found dead in a hotel room, bound and gagged. While beginning with, and lingering on, the image of her dead body would arguably have given me a reliable commercial hook, I resisted it. For me it was more important for readers to come to know and care about the woman who becomes the so-called "vic." So many hardboiled cop show characters shorten the word victim to further depersonalize. This is supposed to be part of their character development, something they do in order to desensitize themselves to the work that no one wants to do. But still. Every "vic" becomes an abstract, a sea of female parts in an alley. To be grabbed, laughed over, brutalized.


 The other perhaps curious choice I made with the quirky, cozy/suspense mashup that is the Dreamslippers Series has to do with magic.

 These stories tackle the supernatural in a very realistic, modern way. My grandmother-granddaughter PI duo don't carry guns; they solve crimes using their ability to slip into suspects' dreams, supplemented by a host of New Age practices, not to mention tried-and-true investigative work. 

 I'd read books in which amateur sleuths with psychic abilities snap their fingers to unlock doors but somehow don't sense when the killer is following them. As a reader, these contradictions seem silly and frustrating. They're magic mush. I like to think stranger things truly do exist, but if they are there, they're subtle, unreliable, and decidedly unfocused. So I imagined what it would be like to have a psychic ability that functioned according to real-world rules, acknowledged here in a scene from Bound to the Truth:

Grace flashed on the silly ninja clown, and it gave her an idea. “Is there a way you can get close enough to the Waters’s home to dreamslip with Sam?”

“I don’t know, Gran. I’ve thought about it. The security is pretty tight out there. Unlike some of the other cases we’ve had, I’m not sure Mercer Island is the kind of place where you can get away with sleeping in a car out on the street. There’s also the possibility that I might pick up his kids’ dreams instead, or his wife’s.”

“Remember what I taught you about popping out of dreams you don’t want to be in, and of connecting with your target.”

“Yes,” said Cat. “But this super hero power of ours sure has its limitations..."

 Cat does find a way to slip into this suspects' dreams, putting herself in a precarious spot in the process. Throughout the series, dreams help the duo solve three murders and bust a child-rape pornography ring. The dreams are helpful both for what they tell us about the villains--and for what they don't tell us.

 These books haven't made me the next J.K. Rowling, though I'm grateful for and proud of the accolades, the numerous 5-star reviews, and the award noms. I know from my years at the story helm of a game-publishing company that there's often a disconnect between what the audience complains about and asks for and what they actually purchase. All I can do is keep developing my craft for a blend of commercial technique and groundbreaking newnesses that pushes the envelop and attracts a larger audience. Because the biggest lesson from the game industry for me is this: If the games don't sell, we all go home. 

 Buy the books.

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 Photo credit: Lisa Brunette.

What's the Motive? Nancy Slavin


Today fiction author and poet Nancy Slavin talks about how she finds motive in words themselves, both their beauty and their pain. "The first step towards violence," she says, "often is words that make people, well, less than people: into objects, or animals, or body parts."

Just a quick warning: In order to illustrate this, she uses a few examples of hurtful words below.

Nancy Slavin:

The subject of today’s post is about motive--what motivates this individual writer to write a certain book. I feel the need to state and expound on the obvious: words motivate me. Sound, rhymes, sentences, metaphors, stories; all the magic that can ensue just because of twenty-six English letters. If I wasn’t a writer, I’d be a linguist. I’d learn more letters and languages. My favorite part of motherhood was when my child was learning to speak; my second favorite has been watching her learn to read. I’m still amazed that little dark marks on a white page can communicate whole ideas, conjure galaxies, and create the possibility of freedom and justice. 

My original writing training is in poetry; the fine tuning of words and sounds is deep in my heart. I happen to come from a family of mostly artists--a mother who paints, a photographer sister, and a father who is a graphic designer and a potter. I have a brother, too. He flies planes. For me, the artistic medium is words. So that’s the first motive, and I hope, if you’re a writer, that’s your first motive, too. Otherwise, perhaps, consider another medium, like paints or planes.

Because I love words, I am also fascinated by how poorly they get used and how often, especially in relationships (and really, all human interaction is in relationship, hello “friends” on Facebook). Poorly-used words was too often the experience in my childhood, as it is for lots of kids. The long-term witnessing of belittling, mean words, name-calling, and the silent treatment (the tense, tense absence of words), motivated me to work in the field of domestic and sexual violence. 

In my work for more than twenty years, I was a violence-prevention educator--I taught other people, mostly youth, but many adults too, how to use words to communicate feelings and needs in healthy rather than hurtful ways, words that created connection rather than division and wreckage. In my trainings, I facilitated a lot of exercises that asked people to consider their words--words that were cruel but often minimized as no big deal, and/or words that categorized another person into an “other” based on their gender, race, religion, class, sexual identification or orientation. I said some dreaded words out loud and wrote them on boards, and I discussed their origins: words like bitch, fag, nigger, and redneck. I did this work so students could learn the histories and weight of words they might casually say or hear or write on the back of a desk. Depending on if they were on the receiving or giving end, they might respond to those words with an upped ante of violence, towards another, or inwards at themselves. The first step towards violence often is words that make people, well, less than people: into objects, or animals, or body parts.

As a domestic violence worker, I heard all kinds of stories about abuse that left literal scars on people. But I tell you, many, many people also disclosed quite often how the words hurt the most--the words of being told they were no good, not worthy, deserved the abuse, that the abuse was their fault, and many versions on that theme. The words, they told me, were the hardest to shake. They kept hearing those words in their head, reverberating.

All of the above lays the foundation for the main question I explore in my creative work: how do we heal from violence? How do we stop hurtful words from reverberating in our minds? Ultimately, that question led me to create a character in my first novel, Moorings. She was a woman who’d escaped terrible domestic violence, but she’d become mean herself, even in safety. I was curious what continued healing might look like for her. And I also explore the question in my second novel, which is based on and written for many of the youth with whom I worked, who’d been told twelve ways to Sunday they were unlovable and unloved. How does a person stop hearing those words and start believing a new story about who he or she is? 

There are many novels that have explored domestic violence and the rewriting of your own story, or writing your way into a new one. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, Black and Blue by Anna Quindlan, and for youth dealing with family violence, Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison and The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy all come to mind. Although it's poetry, Maya Angelou’s book Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing, and the poem “Caged Bird” that appears in that collection and stems from her important memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was a formative poem for me. I’m also a fan of the play Trifles, by Susan Glaspell. And since I’m working on my YA novel, my next book up to read is Speak, by contemporary author, Laurie Halse Anderson, which confronts the reality of sexual assault. 

I am motivated in my personal life to be a healthier person. I have come a long way in some areas, and, in other ways, I still have a long way to go. I use words to tell myself some fascinating stuff sometimes. But listening to the words I say out loud, and then writing the words down to revise my own story, is my path toward health and healing. See? The letters “h-e-a-l” are the first four letters of “health.” How cool is that? 

For an important talk on the power of words in relationship to violence, I recommend Jackson Katz’s TED talk on domestic violence and words and language.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Check out which communities near you have planned to raise awareness through the National Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

Review on Goodreads and Amazon.

Follow Nancy Slavin on Twitter.

  Nancy Slavin

Nancy Slavin has been a longtime English literature and writing instructor for a community college as well as a violence-prevention educator. She’s authored a collection of poems, Oregon Pacific (2015), and a novel, Moorings, (2013). More of her work can be found in Rain MagazineBarrelhousehip mama, Literary Mama, and Oregon Humanities Magazine. Her website is

Looking for other "What's the Motive?" articles? Here you are.


Something Mysterious: October Reading Roundup

  All books oct

This month I've got two hot, current mysteries and two vintage classics harkening back to my bookworm childhood. Because I listened to that part of me who wishes to avoid a nervous breakdown, I took a vacation recently, during which I plowed through many a book. That means everything from August's Reading Roundup as well as the four books below. There's a "girl" theme at work here, with the so-called "girl" on the train (who is really a woman, by the way), the eighteen-year-old who disappears in Faithful Place, and the two girls in the vintage books, which I read as a girl. The contrast between those early mysteries and what's hot now is startling. 

If you've read any of these, tell us what you think in the comments, and as always, review the books on Amazon and anywhere else you can. Studies show reviews sell books, and that when books sell, authors can afford to write more of them!

Faithful Place by Tana French 

Tana french

Back in 1985, Frank Mackey was a nineteen-year-old kid with a dream of escaping his family's cramped flat on Faithful Place and running away to London with his girl, Rosie Daly. But on the night they were supposed to leave, Rosie didn't show. Frank took it for granted that she'd dumped him-probably because of his alcoholic father, nutcase mother, and generally dysfunctional family. He never went home again. Neither did Rosie. Then, twenty-two years later, Rosie's suitcase shows up behind a fireplace in a derelict house on Faithful Place, and Frank, now a detective in the Sublin Undercover squad, is going home whether he likes it or not.

Getting sucked in is a lot easier than getting out again. Frank finds himself straight back in the dark tangle of relationships he left behind. The cops working the case want him out of the way, in case loyalty to his family and community makes him a liability. Faithful Place wants him out because he's a detective now, and the Place has never liked cops. Frank just wants to find out what happened to Rosie Daly-and he's willing to do whatever it takes, to himself or anyone else, to get the job done.

Review on Amazon and Goodreads.

Follow Tana French on Twitter.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

  The girl on the train

Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning and night. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. Jess and Jason, she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.

And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel goes to the police. But is she really as unreliable as they say? Soon she is deeply entangled not only in the investigation but in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?

Review on Amazon and Goodreads.

Follow Paula Hawkins on Twitter.

The Mystery of the Fire Dragon by Carolyn Keene

Nancy drew dragon

Nancy receives an urgent call from her Aunt Eloise in New York, requesting her help in solving a mystery. Her neighbor's granddaughter, Chi Che Soong, has gone missing! Nancy and her friends fly to New York to help track down the missing girl.

Review on Amazon.

Trixie Belden's Mystery in Arizona by Julie Campbell


Di Lynch’s Uncle Monty has invited Trixie, Honey, and the rest of the Bob-Whites to his Arizona dude ranch for winter vacation. There will be lots to do—horseback riding, swimming, festivals—but Trixie is hoping for an activity that isn’t on the usual list. She wants another mystery.


What's the Motive? Rebecca Slitt


In this regular blog series, guest authors discuss the motive behind their latest books--or in this case, games. Maybe that’s the motive for murder in the traditional mystery sense, but writers will share some aspect of motive in their works without spoiling the plot. For example, rather than focusing on the killer, what is the protagonist’s motive? This could also be the author’s motive for writing the story. Why this story? Why now? Contributors are free to explore “motive” in all of its connotations. 

When it comes to Interactive Fiction, where reader choice matters, motive is a little more up-for-grabs. If you were a nerdy kid like me in the 80s, you remember Choose Your Own Adventure books, with multiple endings and reader choice all the way through. This form enjoys a vibrant life online today, as in Rebecca Slitt's Psy High.

Rebecca Slitt:

What’s the motive in Psy High? It’s whatever you decide it is.

Psy High is an interactive novel: on the border between a book and a game. As in all of the titles from Choice of Games, you the reader direct the action at every turn: you decide what the main character does and why. Not only that, but you get to choose the main character’s name, gender, orientation, personality, and goals. 

The story in Psy High is a mixture of mystery, romance, and supernatural elements, inspired by “Veronica Mars” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” You play a teenager with psychic powers – clairvoyance and telepathy – who uses their gifts to solve mysteries. When an old friend asks you to investigate why your classmates are acting strangely, you discover a plot that could put the whole school at risk. You have to maneuver around your teachers, parents, and even your friends while using your magical abilities to uncover the truth – not to mention going to class, trying out for the drama club play, and finding a date for the prom.

The culprit has their own motive, but you figure that out – along with the culprit’s identity – fairly early. The more complicated question is: what's your motive? When you discover what's really going on in your high school, what do you do about it, and why? 

Maybe you’re motivated by altruism: you want to do what will help the most people. That’s a noble goal, but it’s not always easy to figure out how to reach it. What helps one person might hurt another.

Maybe you’re motivated by affection: you see how all of these issues are affecting your friends and want to help them. Maybe you want to help your boyfriend or girlfriend, or do whatever it takes to make them happy, or just spend as much time with them as possible. The prom is coming up, after all, and what could be more important than that?

Maybe you’re motivated by power. There’s plenty of power to be had, both magical and otherwise, and plenty of secrets to uncover. Do you care about that more than you care about your classmates? More than going to college? More than anything?

Maybe you’re motivated by a desire to fit in. In high school, what’s worse than being different? You can try to reject your magical power, act like every other kid, keep your head down, study, and try to lead a perfectly ordinary life. 

Or, maybe you think that the villain isn't such a villain after all. Maybe you realize that you share their motive: you think that their plan will make the school a better place, not worse. That’s possible, too. You can team up with them and use your magic to help them.

What this all means is that you get to choose the kind of story that you’re participating in. It can be a story about love conquering all: You can find your true love and draw on the strength of that bond to triumph over whatever challenges come your way. It can be a story about discovering deeper truths about yourself and the world: learning what you truly care about, what your values are, and how far you’ll go to defend them. It can be a story about rebellion: breaking every rule, fighting the power wherever you find it, showing the world that you’re your own person. It can even be a story about failure: No matter how strong or noble your motives are, there’s no guarantee that you’ll succeed – so if you fail, what meaning will you draw from that?

There are dozens of stories to be told inside the mystery of Psy High, each with its own motive. You get to choose which story you want to tell.

Download and review Psy High.

Follow Rebecca Slitt on Twitter.

  RLS photo

Rebecca Slitt is an academic-turned-game-designer who uses her knowledge of medieval history to make sure that dragon battles follow the principles of chivalry and time travelers go to the right places in medieval London. She is an editor and author for Choice of Games, and has contributed to the tabletop RPGs Timewatch and Noirlandia


The Goodness of Gathering

SWWC cookie

It's tempting, when you're freelancing or otherwise working from a home office, to become a hermit. You're finally free of the crowded bus; you no longer have to endure the cutthroat competition for the microwave at lunchtime. Even pants are optional.

But after you've soaked up scrumptious solitude for a good while, you start to crave communication. Someone to bounce ideas off of. Alternative answers to the questions you ponder silently every day. 

That's where writing conferences come in. As a writer, editor, and teacher with 25 years' experience, I've attended many conferences over my career, and I always learn something new at each one. At this year's Southwest Washington Writers Conference, there was plenty to absorb, from the art of cover design to the craft of villainy.


Author Kyle Pratt, who presented at the conference, with his mug on a cookie.

Having recently completed a cover vote-a-thon, I found Gorham Printing rep Kathy Campbell's presentation on cover design very interesting. I hadn't realized that male readers prefer blue covers or that Millennials have a thing for vintage photos from the 60s and 70s. (Hmm... wonder what that's all about... ).

Memoirist Jennifer Lauck's presentation served for me as the perfect follow-up to Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, which I'd re-read right before the conference. Both Lauck and Dillard present a vision of the writing life that requires strong commitment, a dedication to the work, and an active reading practice. I loved Lauck's advice to read a book looking specifically for a particular aspect of structure, such as where and how to turn a scene or develop a character.


Author Carolyn McCray, me, and Kyle.

I felt more in the mood for craft discussions over business talk, but when I read Carolyn McCray's bio, I realized I couldn't miss her showdown with Kyle Pratt over whether or not to publish exclusively with Amazon. The two presented equally compelling models for how to make it as an indie writer. They've both achieved great success but with radically different approaches.

Which brings me to this: There are so many different ways to be a writer. Sure, you can get advice and take a lot of rules to heart, but the writing life is as wide open as the sky. For example, there's writer Terri Read, who's published more than 40 books with Harlequin since 1993. She thinks of writing in terms of layers of cake, and her process is very structured, to the point of adhering to a set formula. Another conference presenter, Jill Williamson, takes a less structured approach with her self-described "weird books." She devoted her whole talk to villains, pointing out cliches and arguing that "the best villains are the ones readers actually like."


Speaking of villains, get a load of these two. Just kidding - Kyle* and Pat are my fellow members of the Lewis County Writers Guild.

The most rewarding aspect of attending conferences is the opportunity to meet other writers. While there are always plenty of published and veteran authors in attendance, most of the people I meet are noobs just dipping a toe into the writing waters for the first time. So if you're holding back because you don't think you're experienced enough, let go of that right now. I hope to see you at the next one.

*I realize from the pics here it looks like I'm stalking Kyle Pratt. But I'm not. At least I don't think so. I think it's just that we're both becoming less camera-shy. ;)  

What's the Motive? Corrina Wycoff

Damascus House

O Street

Welcome to the inauguration of "What's the Motive?" In this regular blog series, guest authors discuss the motive behind their latest books. Maybe that’s the motive for murder in the traditional mystery sense, but writers will share some aspect of motive in their novels without spoiling the plot. For example, rather than focusing on the killer, what is the protagonist’s motive? This could also be the author’s motive for writing the book. Why this book? Why now? Contributors are free to explore “motive” in all of its connotations. 

Here Corrina Wycoff shares the motive behind all of her main characters, the "unattainable desire to outrun public failure." In this age of daily public online communications, it's one I'm sure many readers feel keenly.

Corrina Wycoff:

In 1980, at nine years old, I auditioned for Annie. I lived on the East Coast, and going to a cattle call Broadway audition was practically as common a rite of passage as a first kiss. I wasn’t a particularly good singer, but I was a creditably good mimic. My Andrea McArdle impression was decent enough to get me a lot further in the audition process than it should have, far enough that every kid in my neighborhood knew about it, far enough that when I didn’t get cast after two call-backs, my failure became an ongoing subject of playground gossip and cafeteria scorn. Years later, after personal devastations much worse than the Annie experience, I still occasionally thought about this ruined chance, about the happier roads that might have arisen from earlier roads, if only.

I’ve never written about my unsuccessful childhood stab at professional theatre, but the important part of the story can’t be found in its literal details—the suffocating crowd of young girls waiting outside the Alvin Theatre on 52nd Street, admitted inside by the dozen to stand on the black, dusty stage and to sing a few bars of “Tomorrow”; the choreography I was shown twice and then expected, to my horrified astonishment, to repeat; the polished, young performers waiting backstage with me, wearing brand new, hot pink OshKosh B’Gosh overalls and comparing their agents, their private tap dance lessons in Manhattan, and their resumes. However, those details, once fictionalized beyond recognition, have repeatedly become the scabs overlying the singular stinging wound at the psychological core of all my main characters. My characters’ primary motivation—like mine, it seems—is always the unattainable desire to outrun public failure, a hopeless quest to transfigure it into something, anything, less painful.

My first book, O Street, describes a character’s twenty-year attempt to escape the humiliating aftermath of having been, in childhood, the victim of a well-publicized sexual assault. My newly published second book, Damascus House, follows six characters, members of a fundamentalist Christian church, each trying, in different ways, to restore dignity after suffering a small, public scandal. Currently, I’m working on a third manuscript, still untitled, that revolves around a woman who, with decreasing success, tries to rationalize her failings as they become increasingly apparent to everyone who knows her. Although we live, now, in a post post-Freudian world, the idea of a surveillant superego still captivates me as a source of narrative tension, as do the (very human) methods by which characters try to avoid the judgment and contempt of that surveillant Other.

Playwright Harold Hayes explained, “The essence of drama is that man cannot walk away from the consequences of his own deeds.” I repeat this advice to my creative writing students, to remind them to establish necessary elements of character motivation, tension, and conflict in their fiction. When I’m writing, I repeat this advice to myself, too, with the caveat that people also cannot walk away from the aftermath of their own humiliations, no matter how assiduously they try.

Review Damascus House.

Review O Street.

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  Corrina Wycoff

Corrina Wycoff’s fiction and essays have appeared in journals, magazines, and anthologies. She is the author of two books of fiction, a linked story collection, O Street (2008, OV Books) and a recently released novel, Damascus House (Spuyten Duyvil Press). A single-mom-turned-empty-nester, she lives in Washington State, where she teaches English and Writing at Pierce College.