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Essays on Writing, Process, and Creativity

I love thinking about and discussing the writing process almost as much as I love writing. The process is as amorphous as it is structured, as mysterious as it is vivid, and as complex as it is simple. It would be my pleasure to speak to your association, book club, writer’s circle, or other group about what I’ve discovered. Perhaps my keynote speech called Under the Writer’s Veil would be of interest. For more information, please contact me directly.

I teach writing workshops and work with authors one-on-one. For more information, please contact me directly. Also, please scan my appearance page for upcoming writing workshops.

I’m often asked about my writing process and ethos. In addition to teaching writing and coaching authors, I also write about the subject. Below are some essays that might be of interest. They examine content development, writing process, and the nature of creativity, from plotting to techniques to creative vs. analytical writing approaches, these essays describe, discuss, and assess what I’ve discovered about writing. Click on the title to read the essay. The titles are:


Red Herrings: What’s Really Going On?

by Jane K. Cleland

  An element commonly used in traditional mysteries is a device called a red herring. Sometimes the term "red herring" refers to a plot point; usually it refers to a person.

A red herring is a false trail. Until recently, the accepted etymology of the idiom was that red herrings were used to train hounds to track scents. This seems to be false etymology, most likely intentionally introduced as a prank that defines the idiom by example: a false trail within the etymology of an idiom that stands for a false trail.

Apparently, the term was first used in a story by William Cobbett (1805), in which he claimed that as a boy he used a red herring (a cured and salted herring) to mislead hounds following a trail; ultimately, the story evolved to refer to a method of training hounds to follow an underlying scent—to not be distracted by a secondary scent. The story served as an extended metaphor for the London press, which had earned Cobbett’s ire by publishing what he deemed false news accounts regarding Napoleon.

In literature, a "red herring" can be defined as a narrative element used to distract the reader from something else. For instance, in Irwin Shaw’s Nightwork, the key narrative question is whether the thief will be caught. But, actually, that’s a device which allows the story to follow the thief around the world as he uses the stolen money to fix his eyes, to buy nice clothes, and to travel to jet-setting locales where he meets people who expand his horizons, and ultimately, who value him for the man he has become. The overarching narrative question is not about recovering the stolen money; it’s about the transcendent power of reinventing yourself. The stolen money is a red herring.

In film, red herrings are usually conveyed visually. An excellent example of this occurs in the 1947 suspense film The Spiral Staircase. The audience is aware that someone in the house is a serial murderer. Early in the film there is a thunderstorm: the pantry door abruptly opens to reveal the hulking figure of the caretaker Mr. Oates (actor Rhys Williams) framed in a flash of lightning as he bursts into the room. This is the first time the audience has seen this character; his distinctive entrance makes him seem sinister and aberrant, and therefore he is the obvious suspect in the murder mystery. But Oates is not the murderer; therefore this scene establishes him as a red herring.

In traditional mysteries, red herrings serve an even more important role. They are a tool that the author uses like a magician uses sleight of hand, to divert readers’ attention from the actual to the illusionary; if done well, readers believe what they’re witnessing.

Here are six ways red herrings are used in mysteries:

  1. Overlooked detail – frequently this detail is a specific element in a description – a tore hem without an explanation of how it ripped, or a red rose in a vase when all those in the garden are yellow.
  2. Wrong interpretation of known fact – a character assumes that the torn hem came from the narrow steps on the staircase. The author might have a character named Violet say:

    "Oh, Lordie, how does that happen? Wouldn’t you think you’d notice when you tear your hem? I think you’d have to because you’d trip, wouldn’t you? I know I would! Like that time I was walking with Flora… well, never mind that… I bet Mary tore her hem yesterday on those stairs at the Sturley’s villa… did you notice how narrow those steps were? And steep, too. That’s an accident waiting to happen, if you ask me."

    What you don’t know, because the author is choosing not to tell you yet, is that Mary was running away from Tom’s unwanted advances, and she stumbled on a unseen root in the pathway.

    As to that red rose, well Tom gave it to her when they met in the forest and Mary clutched it the entire way home. When she finally reached safety, she realized she was still holding the rose, and being a kind-hearted girl, she couldn’t bear throwing it away, so she stuck it in a vase.

  3. Casual mention in conversation
    Hmmm… do you recall how Violet speculated that Mary tore her hem at the Sturley’s villa yesterday? Why did she bring up her walk with Flora? Was it an irrelevant casual mention? Was it foreshadowing of an important clue to come? Or was it a red herring?
  4. No reason for it to be significant to you unless you have specialized knowledge
    This red herring option comes up all the time in my Josie Prescott Antiques Mysteries. Josie, an antiques appraiser, notices details that elude lay people—why wouldn’t she? She’s an expert in the field. Let’s say, for instance, that someone comes into her shop wanting to sell an antique watch fob. It’s marked 14K gold. From that one fact Josie will know that it’s unlikely the fob is an antique – most antique gold is 18K, not 14K, but the significance of that fact is likely to elude most readers, even if it registers as a bit unusual.

    A related red-herring is the opposite—trusting an expert who’s wrong, a family doctor or a financial advisor, that sort of thing.

  5. An absence of something that should be there
    In addition to Sherlock Holmes’ barking dogs, consider a scene Stephen King once wrote about a woman coming into her kitchen with bags of groceries. She puts them on the counter, places items in cupboards—and then she notices a knife from her knife holder is missing. I’ve got to tell you my blood froze at that one... well if she finds the knife by a box U.P.S. had just delivered, she’d realize that her son had grabbed the knife to open the box which contained his spanking new baseball uniform... the missing knife was a red-herring... and perhaps foreshadowing.
  6. Bandwagon Fallacy – a form of logical false-thinking
    The Bandwagon Fallacy is committed whenever one argues for an idea based upon an irrelevant appeal to its popularity.

    Let’s say, for example, that Violet, a jealous person, is not-so-secretly pleased at the glitch in Mary and Tom’s relationship. When Tom doesn’t attend Mary’s family’s party—a party he was invited to and RSVP’d for—Violet concludes that Mary has offended him.

    Violet gossips with her girlfriends, telling them that Mary has always been a little stuck up and now look where it’s got her. Mary, she says, has obviously offended Tom—as evidenced by his being a no-show at the party; Mary has got what she deserved... she’s lost his affection. Soon all the girls in the neighborhood are telling all the other girls in the neighborhood the same story... it becomes the popular version of events... in the current lexicon, it’s an urban myth. However, its popularity is unrelated to its correctness—it’s a bandwagon fallacy—it’s a red herring.

One of the decisions a mystery writer must make is how many red herrings to introduce, and how best to use them. While there’s no magic formula, popular lore says that one or two are plenty. When done well, they add complexity to your plots and intrigue to your stories.


The Traditional Mystery

by Jane K. Cleland

  The nature of a traditional mystery becomes most clear when contrasted with other sub-genres in general and with what is least like a traditional mystery in particular, a thriller. Before comparing and contrasting a traditional mystery to other sub-genres, however, it makes sense to consider what is meant by the term "mystery."
  • American Heritage: A work of fiction, drama, or film dealing with a puzzling crime.
  • Online dictionary.com said: "(1) One that is not fully understood or that baffles or eludes the understanding; an enigma: How he got in is a mystery. And (2) The skills, lore, or practices that are peculiar to a particular activity or group and are regarded as the special province of initiates. Often used in the plural: the mysteries of Freemasonry."
  • Yourdictionary.com: "a novel, story, or play involving such an event, esp. a crime and the gradual discovery of who committed it."
  • About.com said: "Mystery is a genre of fiction in which a detective, either an amateur or a professional, solves a crime or a series of crimes. Because detective stories rely on logic, supernatural elements rarely come into play." Right... tell that to Charlaine Harris! About.com went on: "The detective may be a private investigator, a policeman, an elderly widow, or a young girl, but he or she generally has nothing material to gain from solving the crime." Tell that to Travis McGee.

    But they also have an article called "Ten Rules of Writing Mysteries," and since those of us who write them know there are no rules that can’t be and haven’t been broken, everything they say on the subject is suspect.
  • E-look.org: a story about a crime (usually murder) presented as a novel or play or movie.

In 1962, Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut discussed their work over a marathon lasting 50 hours over five days. The two great directors and their French/English interpreter barely paused for meals. According to Hitchcock, and contrary to popular belief, suspense bears no relationship to surprise. Hitchcock gave this example: Say you have a scene where two characters are talking in a café, and a bomb suddenly goes off under the table—the audience experiences surprise. If, however, the audience sees the terrorist place the bomb, is told that it will go off at one o’clock, and can see a clock in the scene, the mundane conversation between the two café patrons now becomes one of intense suspense, as the audience holds its collective breath waiting for the explosion.

This approach—telling the viewer, or the reader—what’s going on, translates into fifteen minutes of suspense as opposed to fifteen seconds of surprise. It was therefore necessary, Hitchcock explained, that the audience be as fully informed as possible. Most of us who write traditional mysteries also want to keep the audience as fully informed as possible, too. It’s called a fair play mystery, where the reader knows everything the detective knows—at the same time as the detective learns it. The difference is in the way the story unfolds.

In a traditional mystery, the crime occurs shortly after the story starts, or it has already occurred; it’s a whodunit. In a thriller, stopping the crime is the thrust of the story. If an underlying crime has already occurred, say a kidnapping, it is used to demonstrate the villain’s bad character, or to set-up the potential of a worse crime—will the kidnappers kill the victim? It’s a how-can-the-hero-stop-it.

Suspense plays a role in all mysteries, though usually in traditional mysteries, the role isn’t as large as it is in thrillers. In traditional mysteries, the protagonist, be it a professional detective like Hecule Poirot or an antiques appraiser like Josie Prescott, is trying to figure out what happened.

In a thriller, the protagonist, who may be a police officer like Dirty Harry, or John McClane in the Die Hard franchise, or an amateur, a man whose child has been kidnapped like Tom Mullen in Ransom, or an everyman, a person wrongly accused of a crime like Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive, is trying to stop something from happening.

In a traditional mystery, the reader gets to follow along as the detective—professional or amateur—solves the crime. In a thriller, the reader gets vicarious thrills as he participates in the chase. In both cases, chaos resolves into order.

A traditional mystery is a story of revelation, more than action. Something horrible has happened, usually a murder, and the detective’s job is to discover who committed the crime, and why.

A significant challenge for authors of traditional mysteries is to keep the villain unidentified for as long as possible without slowing down the pace. You’ll note that inherent this paradox is the risk that you lose the delicious edge-of-your-seat suspense that keeps readers chained to their chairs or awake and reading all night. Here’s the bottom line: Without suspense, there is no urgency. And without urgency, why would any reader want to read on?

Which is why most traditional mysteries use impending danger to create suspense. But the author of traditional mysteries sacrifices the most significant source of conflict available because, structurally, the protagonist and the villain cannot have a showdown or confrontation until the final scenes. Plain and simple, a threat from an unknown person is never as intense as the threat from a known and powerful villain.

However, what the traditional mystery may lack in shock value and the chilling thrill of the ticking clock, it more than makes up in its tales of human drama, the gripping tales that occur at moments of crisis—not just what happens, but how people react to what happens.

The contemporary whodunit has evolved from whodunit alone into whodunit and whydunit. The reader feels compelled to read on because they want to know the story behind the story. What drives a sane person to kill? Or why did that insane person snap? (And how could they possibly have covered their tracks so well if they’re insane?)

In traditional mysteries, character drives plot at the same time as plot impacts character. Henry James wrote, "What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?"

The reader must crave knowing how this person will handle that situation. To create that craving, you need a different kind of suspense—tension. Tension is created in a traditional mysteries by the characters’ unresolved conflicts, confrontations, or warring goals. Conflict, confrontations, and warring goals are created by placing engaging, realistic, quirky characters, people the reader can identify with, into extraordinary and unfamiliar situations. The situation can be shocking, but it must be plausible. The reader must care about both the people and the situation. Whatever led to the crime and whatever arises as we move step-by-step toward the ultimate resolution provides a Petrie dish full of emotions primed for conflicts, confrontations, or warring goals.

Thus, in a traditional mystery, the reader is engaged not by vicarious thrill seeking, but by an intense need to know. A good mystery satisfies our need to understand the human condition and to resolve:

  1. confusion into clarity
  2. disharmony into the familiar and the comfortable
  3. chaos into order

What is a traditional mystery? It’s the current day version of the tales told by our forbearer’s clan’s storyteller, the ones he wove to help us escape the frightening, ever-present dangers inherent in our lives when our days were spent fighting off lions and tigers and bears, foraging for food, and trying to keep the campfire going. Stories that caught our imagination, held our attention, and helped us get through the night.


Plotting Organically

by Jane K. Cleland

  The great American author, Edna St. Vincent Millay, once wrote that she couldn’t get the woman onto the porch. What she meant, of course, was that she couldn’t figure out an organically sound reason for the character to do as the plot demanded.

I struggle with this situation all the time. Plotting a mystery is, for me, a combination of architecture and sleight of hand. I lay the foundation, plan the structure, and use language to entice my readers to pay attention to something over here while something else is happening over there, unnoticed. In order for this complex process to flow seamlessly, I need to create characters whose natural actions mesh with the plot’s development.

It’s hard. If I have a boorish man, for instance, who blusters and creates awkward moments, certainly my readers will focus on him. But if, later, the plot demands that the character finesse something, I’m sunk. A boorish man who blusters would never finesse anything. Reconciling these two needs—a solid, architecturally sound plot and actions driven not by the plot’s needs but by the characters’ personalities is, for me, the most challenging part of writing.

How do I do it? I don’t know. I don’t know why, when I’m mentally outlining the plot, I know that a certain female character is well-dressed and socially savvy. The fact that she is, however, becomes important later in the plot—she hosts a ladies’ luncheon. It’s a good thing she’s that sort of woman because I needed her to host that event—but I didn’t know that the luncheon would occur when I started to write the book—at least not consciously.

I’ve concluded that much of the intricacy of plotting occurs on some unconscious level. For instance, I know that when I need to resolve something, if I get the problem clear in my head just before I go to sleep, when I awaken, I’ll have the answer. Sleeping on it, for me, actually works when I need to figure out how to get the woman onto the porch.


The Origin of Ideas

by Jane K. Cleland

  One of the questions I’m most frequently asked is where the ideas for the Josie Prescott Antiques Mysteries come from. Because so many people have asked, I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about the question, and still, I don’t have a definitive answer.

Sometimes I hear or see something, or read something, and it sticks, and then later, when I need something to move the plot along, out that long-forgotten fact comes—usually, I might say, bearing little resemblance to the original.

For example, about twenty-five years ago, when I was in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, I visited a woman’s house. It was a business call—I owned a rare bookstore and she wanted to sell her books. I was there to look at them and make an offer. She was older, born, at a guess, in about 1910, so at the time, I figured she was about 75. Her house was distinctly middle class, but her decorations were anything but.

Every inch of wall space was covered with oil paintings. I spotted a Van Dyke, two Renoirs, and a Matisse. They weren’t arranged artfully; they were wedged in without any thought of relating one piece of art to another or to the space itself.

At first, I assumed they were reproductions, but they weren’t.

"It’s beautiful," I said to the woman, pointing to a Monet.

"Yeah," she remarked casually. "My brother brought them home from the War."

I was young then and naïve and gullible, and I grew up in a sheltered environment, one in which my parents tried to shield me from evil intentions and acts, so I assumed that she meant that her brother had purchased the art in Europe.

More than twenty-five years later, I read an article about how Holocaust survivors and their heirs were suing governments, institutions, and individuals for the return of the art the Nazis had methodically ripped off the walls of Jewish homes. For me, it was an epiphany—it was as if someone had slapped me awake. The art on that woman’s walls weren’t the carefully chosen objects of a devoted art collector; they were the bounty of a thief.

And that’s the origin of the plot of Consigned to Death, the first Josie Prescott antiques mystery.

The idea for Antiques to Die For came organically from Josie’s backstory. InConsigned to Death, you learn that her mother died when she was 13, so it was easy for me to imagine how she would react to the plight of 12-year old orphan, Paige, the central character in the book. My goal was to create a situation in which Josie, by using her knowledge of antiques, would not only find a missing treasure and solve the murder—she’d be able to give a young girl hope.

This begs the question, of course, of why I gave Josie that back-story in the first place. To work through issues, perhaps, associated with losing a parent young. My dad died when I was a teenager, and that, as much as my mother’s decision to move out of our family home and into an apartment that didn’t have a room for me turned my life topsy turvy.

So here’s the bottom line—where do ideas come from? Life, mostly.


Finding My Way: Thoughts on Plotting

by Jane K. Cleland

  In Antiques to Die For, the third Josie Prescott Antiques Mystery, I wrote without an outline. Boy, was that a mistake. Twenty-twenty hindsight and all that. Writing without an outline worked out pretty well in the first two books in the series, but man, it sure didn´t with this one.

Not that I knew it at the time, but what I think happened is that I succumbed to the allure of the moment. I fell in love with minor subplots, unnecessary characters, and intriguing, but irrelevant descriptions. I lost my writer´s compass.

Luckily, my brilliant St. Martins Minotaur editor, executive editor Hope Dellon, helped me understand where and how I´d gone astray. Her specific observations enabled me to get back on track. But there´s a cautionary tale in all this: revising that manuscript was a nightmare. I´d created engaging, but distracting and irrelevant characters, but my plot was a mess. I´d gone off on so many tangents and got myself so completely confused that I, essentially, had to start all over.

Don´t get me wrong—I´m completely thrilled with the final product—but it was extra and unnecessary work. Here´s the macro lesson: It´s always about the story. By listening to my editor, I was able to find my way back to the story. I wanted to write about a 12-year old girl who was all alone. I wanted Josie to be able to help her. Instead, I was writing about a porcelain expert in Asia.

Let me explain. My problems fell into three broad categories: Tangents, sub-plots, and irrelevant characters.

Tangents. I got caught up in my own writing. There I am, writing along, when all of a sudden, I realize I´ve gone into a long, fascinating (to me) description detailing the background of a porcelain expert. For example, this expert had a love affair with an international student when he was at college, which led him to follow her back to her country after graduation. Okay, I´ll stop there. But in my manuscript, I didn´t stop at all. I went on and on for pages. All for what should have been a one paragraph cameo appearance.

Sub-plots. My problem with sub-plots is related to my problem with tangents. For instance, I thought the porcelain expert´s experience in Asia could become a nifty sub-plot about fake pottery. While I always include sub-plots about antiques and collectibles, this one, while interesting, took me in the wrong direction. My sub-plots must meet these standards: (1) they´re antiques-oriented, not character-oriented; (2) they´re local to New Hampshire either because they occur in New Hampshire or they feature a New Hampshire person or object; and (3) they showcase Josie as an expert. Whew, was I on a misguided mission by heading off to Asia. That might be a great story—but it´s not appropriate in this story.

Irrelevant characters. It´s so, so hard for me to resist painting mini-portraits of every character I mention in the book, from the mailman to the Asian girlfriend that the porcelain expert followed to her home country. I love people and I love discovering their quirks and peccadilloes. But it´s an indulgence, and usually, it´s not good writing. Focusing on minor characters distracts readers from the main event.

By following Hope´s guidance, I succeeded in finding my way back. And by finding my way back, I was able to tell the story I wanted to tell.

For the next book in the series, Killer Keepsakes, I wrote a detailed synopsis. It ran almost 40 pages. Forty pages! Can you imagine?

It was the first time I´d ever attempted to create an outline of this complexity. Now, as I write this essay, I´m within spitting distance of the end, and I can report with confidence that I´m very glad I wrote that synopsis. A mystery plot is like a pole overgrown with tangled vines. The vines represent subplots. They´re beautiful and engaging and alive—but the main event—the mystery represented by the pole—must by straight and true. From now on, I´m an outline girl!


The Anatomy of Persuasion

by Jane K. Cleland

  I´ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about the nature of persuasive arguments. One of the best ways to befuddle readers (in a good way) in a mystery is to persuade them that a red herring is the truth. Writing narrative and dialogue that persuades is more complex than merely sounding passionate or having logic on your side.

Certainly, one needs well-framed and well-developed content and a convincing-sounding argument—after all, people aren´t stupid. But that´s all theory... in order to write persuasively, I needed to understand more about the structure of persuasion. I developed the Matrix of Persuasion to help me analyze the underpinnings of believability.

You´ll notice that across the top I´m contrasting two variables: are people "on your side"? Or not? On the left, I´m considering whether people have the resources they need to do as my character is asking. Are they constrained? Or not?

As an aside, I´ll mention that while I´m presenting the matrix to you as black and white—people either are constrained or they aren´t—it´s not that simple. There´s degrees. Someone might have the money to do as your character asks, but not the time, for instance. Likewise on the variables of whether they´re on your side or not—they may know your character only a little bit. I think of the matrix as a bit amorphous—more gray than black and white.

By identifying which of the four quadrants your persuasion challenge fits into, you´ll be better able to identify how your character should approach the task.

As you review the matrix, note that you´re first asked to determine if your target readers are "On your side" or "Not on your side." Think about the people your character is trying to persuade. Do they know one another? Do they like each other? Are they predisposed to help one another? Or not?

Next, consider whether they´re capable of doing as your character asks, or are they constrained? Do they have the requisite time, authority, interest, motivation, money, or whatever resources are needed to do what your character is hoping they will do? Or are there constraints that your character needs to help them overcome?

The implications are expressed as bullet points within each quadrant. For instance, doesn´t it make sense that if your character is trying to persuade someone to do something they´re capable of doing, it´s an easier persuasion task than trying to persuade someone to do something when they don´t even know who your they are? In that case, first your character has to educate them as to why they should believe what he or she says. If you do it well, you can befuddle readers in a tightly crafted mystery plot and create irresistible dramatic tension.

The Matrix of Persuasion is a "big-picture" tool. It will help you plan, then write exposition and dialogue so that your characters successfully persuade readers to believe their stories, see the world from their perspectives, and repeat their tales with conviction.


Write to Touch Your Readers' Hearts

by Jane K. Cleland

  Kate White, editor-in-chief ofCosmopolitan magazine and the best-selling author of the Bailey Weggins mystery series, said she frequently reminds herself to write big and bold—to find the best way of expressing exactly what it is she wants to say to knock her readers´ socks off.

"I have a tendency to hold back with my writing," she wrote, "be a little tentative about going big and bold." She added that she doubted she was the only one.

I think that´s true and I think it relates to trying to please all the people all the time. Can´t be done, of course, but that doesn´t stop many of us from trying.

The idea of writing big and bold appeals to me in every way. I like the words themselves—big and bold—and I like the image those words conjure up for me. If I write big and bold, it’s possible that my words will impact people, make them think, encourage them to do their best, or inspire them to take courageous action.

But it´s far easier said than done because what speaks to one reader’s heart and mind doesn’t necessarily touch another at all. You know that old adage, One man’s meat is another man´s poison. Certainly that´s true in mysteries. To paraphrase, One reader´s "big and bold" isn´t another reader´s "big and bold." The trick, I think, is knowing what´s big and bold to your target readers.

Julia Spencer-Fleming, who won the 2007 Nero Award, told me that in her new novel, I Shall Not Want (St. Martin’s Minotaur), she has an ungrammatical line that the copy editor tried to "clean up." The line, which refers to an illicit kiss between the preacher and a congregant, reads: "In the church."

Think about that! When readers of her Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mysteries read one of the series, they know what they’re getting. Julia describes them as "novels of faith and murder for readers of literary suspense." Big and bold in this context is: "In the church."

As I write, I ask myself what´s big and what´s bold to my readers. I know that big and bold statements relate to large, often literary, themes that transcend a mystery and frequently reoccur in my series. Those themes include defining the boundaries in romantic relationships and the contrast between the isolation inherent in a rugged coastline, with its unrelenting ocean tides and deserted beaches and dunes, and Josie’s ongoing efforts to fit in.

As a writer, I know that there´s never only one way to say something, but for me, there´s one guiding principle—to write big and bold.


Writing Fear

by Jane K. Cleland

  Anticipation, writers agree, is more fearful than the act.

At a New York Public Library panel entitled, "WOMEN OF MYSTERY: PEEK UNDER THE WRITER’S VEIL," which I moderated, New York Times bestselling author Mary Jane Clark described a scene in one of her books that takes place at the Home Depot.

Picture this: A character is cruising the store´s aisles. Into the cart goes an ax. Then rope. Then plastic bags. Then a drop clothe.

I don´t know about you, but that´s scary. Chilling.

Mary Anne Kelly, author of the mystery series featuring the ever-bewildered amateur sleuth, Claire Breslinsky, agreed. Mary Anne mentioned the news story about Lisa Nowak, the astronaut charged with driving more than a thousand miles hoping to kill her romantic rival. She had duct tape in the car.

"Duct tape," Mary Anne said. "I can´t get the duct tape out of my mind. Imagine driving all that way with duct tape. Don´t you just know that she planned to do something awful with it?"

Simple everyday products with no specific information given about how they´ll be used. As readers, we don´t need the details. Our imaginations take over and fill in the blanks.

What scares you? How about a cell phone ringing—not yours—when you think you´re alone? A knife that should be on the kitchen counter, and isn´t. A dripping sound coming from the bathtub, and when you walk in to turn off the leaking faucet, you see that the bathtub has been filled. Maybe there´s soap bubbles from an aromatic bubble bath product you´ve never seen before. Every day items and every day situations.

Note that in none of these examples has anything violent happened. It´s all in your mind, and that´s often more frightening than something that´s been spelled out.

© 2005— Jane K. Cleland

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