Thursday, April 9, 2015

Outward Appearances, Illusions, and Innermost Secrets

By Michael H. Rubin

Television, radio, social media, and newspapers are filled with stories about cultural disputes, religious intolerance, and the resulting injuries and deaths. Determining an individual’s religion, however, is not always easy, especially if he or she does not wear obvious religious garb, such as a turban for a Sikh, a burka for a Muslim woman, or a kippah for a Jew. Absent such telltale signs, religion can be a deeply held belief not immediately apparent by outward appearances. On the other hand, we tend to think that we can tell someone’s “race” by his or her facial features and skin color. But determining the “race” of others can be as difficult as determining their religion. Before the Civil War, for example, discrimination against individuals who were as little as 1/64 “black” was legal in Louisiana. In other words, anyone who had a single great, great, great black grandparent was considered to be a Negro in the eyes of the law and could be enslaved, even if their skin color and countenance appeared to be “white.”

At their heart, thrillers are about uncovering truth which, like race and religious belief, is often difficult to discern. Readers gravitate to books that draw them in, allowing them to discover the truth alongside (or even ahead of), the protagonist and to distinguish between illusion and reality without having to explicitly be told.

Charles Dickens in “David Copperfield” and Mark Twain in “Huck Finn” wrote so cleverly that their readers understand things that the narrators of their novels sometimes do not. Long before David Copperfield discovers how shallow Steerforth is, the reader knows it. Huck Finn’s initial uncertainty about the moral right but the “legal wrong” of concealing Jim allows readers to grasp how and why moral justice should triumph.

I’ve been inspired by the ability of great authors such as Dickens and Twain who fashion their stories in ways that allow readers to divine aspects of the truth more quickly than do their characters. From reading Dickens and Twain, as well as the works of other authors of both great literature and great thrillers, four valuable writing techniques have become apparent to me:

     FAIR CLUES: Clues to the plot or to a character’s motives should be given fairly. Authors of memorable novels allow astute readers to comprehend their clues’ growing importance as the story develops. Clues are not so deeply disguised that they can only be uncovered by an almost magical divination on the part of the protagonist or so very obvious that there is no mystery at all.

     PLOT AND CHARACTERS IN EQUAL PORTIONS. Characters should not be lightly sketched stereotypes. They should have depth, and “unpeeling their layers” should not impede the development of the storyline but rather should enable the characters to both react to events and attempt to interpret them.

     PLAUSIBILITY AND CONTINUITY. Once the characters have been established, they should act in ways that are fully believable, even if the reader may not immediately understand their motives or their responses to unfolding events.

     A UNIFIED WORLD. Environments should be so real that readers have a combined sense of gratification and loss at the conclusion of the book: gratification because the story has reached a satisfying denouement, and loss because the readers have become so immersed in the world the writer has created that they hate to leave it.

I kept these four techniques in mind when I wrote The Cottoncrest Curse. They can serve as a guide for all authors who want to create memorable thrillers with intriguing but fully believable characters whose outward appearances conceal inner secrets. By employing the four techniques cited above, novelists are more likely to craft characters who operate in a fully realized world and create stories that readers will find hard to put down.

Michael H. Rubin has been a professional jazz pianist in the New Orleans French Quarter, a radio and television host, a nationally-known speaker who has given over 400 multimedia presentations around the country, and not only is one of the managing members of a law firm whose offices stretch from the West Coast to the Gulf Coast to East Coast, but also is a law professor whose many publications have been cited as authoritative by state and federal courts. His debut novel, The Cottoncrest Curse, is a multi-generational thriller dealing with suicides, murders, religion, and race, tempered with a dose of humor. Published by the award-winning LSU Press, it has been praised by Publishers Weekly as a “gripping debut,” and the Chicago CBA Record proclaims that “the writing is masterful.” Visit Michael at Follow him on Facebook at Michael H. Rubin, Author.

Locals think that the Cottoncrest Plantation is cursed because of the mysterious suicides that continue to claim the lives of generations of its owners, the most gruesome of which occurred two decades after the Civil War, when an elderly Colonel viciously slit the throat of his beautiful young wife and fatally shot himself. But was this a suicide, or was it a double homicide? Suspicion falls on an itinerant peddler with deep secrets to conceal. The deaths ignite feuds that burn a path from the cotton fields to the courthouse steps, from moss-draped Louisiana bayous to 19th century New Orleans’ bordellos, from the Civil War era to the Civil Rights era and into the present, as several generations desperately seek to unravel the mystery of and the truth behind The Cottoncrest Curse.

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