A young friend, beginning her first foray into fiction writing, asked me: “What is conflict in a novel?” I thought I’d take a stab at an answer.
The simplified dictionary definition is: “A conflict is a struggle or an opposition.”
Conflict comes from the Latin word for “striking,” but it isn’t always violent. Conflict can arise from opposing ideas. If your character is torn between two different desires, say, marrying a woman who lives in Boston, but dying to take a job offer in Saskatoon (where is that, anyway?) he’s conflicted.
Conflict is key to your characters’ relationships. If everyone gets along beautifully and there are no differences of opinions, arguments, debates, fisticuffs . . . no screaming, pulling hair, beating up or murdering someone, well, there’s not much conflict. And not much interest.
Conflict can occur within a person’s mind. This is the most interesting of conflicts and defines the character’s character, if you will. When a character confronts another character, there is drama. When a character confronts his/her own self, there is drama plus. Now, the stage is set for future interactions with everyone he/she meets.
In The Triangle Murders, my protagonist, Frank Mead is overwhelmingly conflicted about his relationship with his daughter, whom he feels he has abandoned after his wife’s suicide. The daughter feels similarly. However, circumstances bring the two of them together, creating not only conflict, but often tension. There is great strain between them and the reader must wonder if it will ever be resolved.
Emotions play a large role in portraying a character’s conflict. If a character keeps his emotions hidden, any conflicts he faces may stretch these hidden emotions to a breaking point. As a reader we need to know what’s happening in his head – how this conflict is affecting him. We also need to see how it manifests itself in his behavior. Does serious money problems cause him to drink more, beat his wife and kids, or retreat further into himself? How your character handles conflict makes him unique . . . or not. Unique is better, by the way.
Conflict between characters can take many forms. It can be job-related, school- related, socially-related, sexually-related, family-related, or other (everything else) -related. Often all. However, too many conflicts in too many places can cause the reader to get worn out. Give your character, even a cranky one, at least one amiable relationships, even if it’s with another cranky character, please, or we won’t like him very much.
I like to find new ways to help my characters resolve their conflicts. For instance, in Frank’s case above, he enlists his daughter’s help to solve an ancient murder. They form a tentative truce to accomplish this, which may, or may not, last into another book.
My advice is to maximize the use of conflict in your story. It is a great tool to keep readers turning the page.
As always, I welcome your feedback.
Mystery writers and readers have long been beguiled by Jack the Ripper. Numerous serial killers have upstaged the Ripper since his murders in 1888.
From Peter Kurten, the “Dusseldorf Vampire,” who began murdering in 1913 and killed at least nine before surrendering . . . to Belle Gunness, who slayed more than 40 men by luring them to her farm through lovelorn notices . . . to Jeffrey Dahmer, who killed, dismembered, and cannibalized 17 men from 1978-1991 . . . to H. H. Holmes, one of the first American serial killers, featured in Erik Larson’s terrific book, The Devil in the White City . . . to Albert DeSalvo, who was, in 2013, finally proven by DNA to be the Boston Strangler. Thank you, forensic science!
Still today Jack the Ripper holds us captivated and if one asks us to name infamous serial killers, his name will often be at the top of the list.
When I started researching Jack I told myself the reason was timing. The characters in an earlier book would land nicely in the Victorian era some twenty years later. But that was only one reason for my interest in Jack.
In truth, there were several motivations for pursuing him as an interesting subject.
First, the ambience of the time and place in which he killed. There’s nothing like a foggy, damp, dreary night in Whitechapel, London, to set the stage for murder.
Second, his Modus Operandi. He did not just kill his victims, all prostitutes apparently. He butchered them with ritualistic precision, leaving body parts exposed to the night.
Third, Jack did his work so quickly and efficiently, no one chanced upon him during his grisly task, nor bump into him following the murders. No witnesses.
Fourth, if the letters that the police received were authentic, Jack taunted them with his deeds. He made a mockery of their ineptitude, which gave the press a field day.
Fifth, Jack the Ripper was never caught. There were a number of suspects, including the grandson of Queen Victoria.
My other personal fascination with Jack and the time period centered around Sherlock Holmes, and his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I always wondered why Sherlock never solved the case.
Hence, I did solve the case, with the help of Conan Doyle, and, jumping forward 120 years, the assistance of modern DNA technology, which zeroes in on Jack’s true identity.
Add a little imagination. I mean, really, could there have been evidence remaining from one of the Ripper murders?
In Time Lapse, I resolve those questions. Are my solutions believable? Read it and let me know.
Forgive the repeat of this blog but I wanted to announce that my new mystery, Hart of Madness, is now available in paperback and e-book. Please check this website.
Hart Island is a small island located in the Long Island Sound,
off the coast of the Bronx, in New York City.
It has been a public mass burial ground,
a colossal “potter’s field” for a million souls since 1869.
The crumbling remains of its buildings once served as:
a Union Civil War prison camp,
a tuberculosis sanatorium,
a boys’ reformatory and . . .
a woman’s lunatic asylum.
1902, New York City: Nineteen-year-old Ruby Hunt comes home to her Park Avenue apartment to find her family murdered. She is the prime suspect in these gruesome crimes but instead of being placed under arrest, Ruby is committed to an insane asylum for life.
The insane asylum is located on Hart Island, just off the coast of the Bronx. The island has served as the city’s largest potter’s field since the mid-1800s. Over a million lost souls are buried there.
Ruby’s life has irrevocably changed. Her only hope is a kindly caretaker at the asylum and a handsome young rookie police detective with the NYPD.
Detective Liam McCarty is convinced Ruby is innocent and sets out to prove it with the help of investigative reporter Nellie Bly, whose experience in an insane asylum makes her the perfect partner. Time is running out, however, because Ruby’s treatments are becoming increasingly debilitating. If Liam doesn’t rescue her in time, she will be scheduled for a lobotomy.
2016, New York City: A descendant of Ruby’s uncle is murdered and homicide detective Frank Mead soon realizes that the connection between Ruby’s case and his current murder is inescapable. It won’t be the first time Frank has solved a cold case from the distant past to resolve today’s crime.
Digging into the Hunt family is no easy task. Each relative has something to hide and unless Frank can uncover the killer soon, there will be more murders. Using the latest in forensic technology, Frank enlists the help of digital photo expert, Maggie Thornhill, to match photos found in an old suitcase passed down by Ruby’s descendants. Along with handwriting analysis and ballistics, Frank is able to piece together the puzzle that spans over a hundred years.
Time Exposure is a mystery that takes place during the Civil War. I wanted readers to abandon the present and immerse themselves in those brutal, tumultuous years of the mid-nineteenth century. Scene by scene, chapter by chapter. Well, I wasn’t there, so how could I paint a picture of that time period, accurately, vividly, and with painstaking detail?
Research, of course, but research using primary sources whenever possible. What does that mean? There are many books written about the Civil War. About the battles, about the people, about the politics — the operative word being “about.” These sources are written today by historians looking back in time. I wanted to go back there myself. How?
Primary sources are the ones that deliver the information firsthand. Photographs are an excellent way to learn about the past. In my case, tens of thousands of Civil War photographs are available, yes, through books and online, but also at the Library of Congress, where there are drawers upon drawers filled with folders of photos taken back then. The originals, if you can imagine!
Other primary sources of an historic period are letters or journals. Using the Civil War as an example, there are books of letters to and from soldiers and their loved ones. If you use credible authors, ie: Ken Burns, you can be sure these are the true words of the people of the time. If you are really lucky, you may be able to track down a diary written from the time period. A friend of mine’s ancestor was a soldier in the War and he passed down some interesting paraphernalia (no journal, unfortunately.)
Very important primary sources are books written by someone of the time period. An example, which helped me shape my scene at the Union Hotel Hospital, was a precious thin book called Hospital Sketches, by Louisa May Alcott. Louisa May was actually a minor character in my book. If you ever wondered what it would be like to volunteer as a nurse in a hospital during the Civil War, listen to Louisa May:
“My three days experience had begun with a death, and, owing to the defalcation (I had to look this one up!) of another nurse, a somewhat abrupt plunge into the superintendence of a ward containing forty beds, where I spent my shining hours washing faces, serving rations, giving medicine, and sitting in a very hard chair, with pneumonia on one side, diphtheria on the other, two typhoids opposite, and a dozen dilapidated patients, hopping, lying and lounging about, all staring more or less at the new ‘nuss,’ who suffered untold agonies, but concealed them under as matronly as a spinster could assume, and blundered through her trying labors with a Spartan firmness, which I hope they appreciated, but am afraid they didn’t.”
From this one simple paragraph, I learned about the hospital, the patients, the illnesses and Louisa May’s (and other nurses’?) attitude toward them all.
In addition to Louisa May Alcott’s writings, I examined photographs, I read letters, poems and the words of songs written during the time. As I kept reading, I got a feel for the rhythm of speech of the period. I learned some of the basics: what the people of the time ate, drank, smoked, what they wore, how they amused themselves when they weren’t killing each other on the field, what their sex lives were like (there are some bawdy postcards out there!) Essentially, I learned how they lived and, sadly, how they died.
Bottom line: If you write historical stories, (or even modern stories about places you’re not familiar with,) what you don’t know can hurt you. The best way to find out what things were really like, is to do your research through the eyes of those who lived it.
There are no shortcuts. Ideas welcome.
When I wrote The Triangle Murders, I researched the details of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in NYC, in 1911, and blogged about it in past posts. I fictionalized a murder set against the backdrop of the actual fire and detailed the forensic analysis of the fire after the fact. I also blogged about heroines like Clara Lemlich and Frances Perkins who helped raise awareness of the deplorable conditions the garment workers found themselves in every day, as well as the changes Clara and Frances helped institute to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again.
Reading stories from several years ago of fires at garment factories, first in Bangladesh, India, then in Karachi, Pakistan, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/08/world/asia/pakistan-factory-fire-shows-flaws-in-monitoring.html?pagewanted=all, you’ll notice the lamentable similarities to the Triangle fire in this country.
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But first, back up to Saturday, March 25, 1911, and a few grim facts: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory occupied the top three floors of the 10-story Asch Building on the northwest corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in Greenwich Village. On the eighth floor, fire broke out in a scrap bin. Perhaps someone tossed a match or cigarette butt into the bin. Soon flames leaped out and caught other fabrics. About 180 people worked on this floor. They rushed for the exit doors, which were locked to prevent the workers from stealing, and the fire escape. Many were trapped.
For various reasons, the workers on the ninth floor of the Asch building could not be contacted. It was estimated that 250 workers were on the floor that day. For an exquisitely poignant description of the events, you must read ‘Triangle-The Fire That Changed America” by David Von Drehle. https://www.amazon.com/Triangle-Fire-That-Changed-America-ebook/dp/B004RPY48I/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1533148223&sr=8-1&keywords=the+fire+that+changed+america
Many of the workers were women and young girls, trapped by locked exit doors and only one poorly designed fire escape. Fire hoses reached only to the sixth floor, safety nets were unable to break the falls. To avoid suffocating or burning to death, the girls jumped nine stories to the pavement and their death. 146 of them.
“My building is fireproof,” Joseph J. Asch insisted. You might recall that the White Star Line directors made similar proclamations about the Titanic.
Fast forward to recent times. On September 11, 2012 in Karachi, Pakistan, close to 300 people, many of them women and children, died in a factory fire, trapped behind locked doors and barred windows. “There were no safety measures taken in the building design,” said a senior police official. “There was no emergency exit. These people were trapped.”
A few months later, another tragedy occurred. Over 112 people, possibly seventy percent women, died in a fire at a garment factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh. Why? Bangladesh’s garment industry, second only to China, has a notoriously poor fire safety record. Most of the workers killed were on the first and second floors and died because there were not enough exits. One survivor on the fifth floor said he escaped by climbing out of a third floor window onto bamboo scaffolding used for construction workers.
Yikes. What am I missing here? With today’s lightning-fast communications, surely most industrial nations got the message about safety in the workplace. Right? Why must we wait for a disaster to occur before we decide to act?
There must be a more effective way to learn from history, to take those lessons and apply them today. History is not just hard facts that inform us about our past. History is the measure of our past deeds, good and bad. If we don’t take those lessons seriously, as a human race, we’re doomed to repeat our mistakes
We can do better. We must do better.