An Imperfect Process: Another story behind the story

Cat 243 Doverby Mary Jo

The last of my newly renamed and relaunched Starting Over Series is An Imperfect Process, and this was one book I was happy to retitle.  An Imperfect Process had been my working title, but the publisher didn’t like it and preferred the very generic Twist of Fate.  Oh, well.  I think my title suits the book’s theme of an imperfect justice system, and also the heroine’s issues about falling in love.

This story was inspired when I read in the Baltimore Sun about a local man MaryJoPutney_AnImperfectProcess_2000named Michael Austin who spent 27 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.  Austin was convicted by the flip-flop testimony of a lying eyewitness, and a business card that turned out to be totally irrelevant. Not only had several other eyewitnesses described a killer of very different appearance, but Austin had been at work at the time of the murder and had a time card to prove it. 

It took twenty-seven years for the truth to set him free.  His story horrified me.  That a man could be convicted and imprisoned when there was absolutely no evidence?  While we know in general that the justice system makes mistakes sometimes, this error was jaw-droppingly outrageous.

Another story also caught my attention: the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, who killed several people and injured others with letter bombs.  He was caught when his brother David and David’s wife Linda realized that the Unabomber must be Ted and contacted federal authorities.  Clearly the Unabomber needed to be stopped, but turning in your own brother had to have been a haunting moral dilemma for David Kaczynski.

Those two real life stories helped provide the raw material for my plot.  I had myJustice, Old Bailey, London heroine—Val Covington, a lawyer with wild red curls and a whip smart brain.  The story begins when Val receives an unexpected windfall large that will allow her to leave her high paid job as a corporate litigator and do law that she can feel passionate about: representing little guys who need legal help. 

Val comes by her idealism honestly.  She was born in a commune to an artist mother and a middle class kid who eventually quit the hippie life and went off to Harvard Law and a solid position in the upper middle class.  Val’s father paid child support, but she was always at the periphery of his life, which may have had something to do with her choice of Harvard Law. 

But she has enough of her mother’s idealism to like the idea of helping out underdogs, so she decides to open her own office, which leads to a pair of life changers: Val’s invaluable assistant, Kendra Brooks, says she’ll run Val’s new practice if in return Val will look into the conviction of Daniel Monroe, who is on Death Row.  He was Kendra’s lover and father of her only son, and she knows he’s innocent Supreme Court Buildingbecause he was with her when the murder took place.  But no one believed her, and time is running out.  Val agrees to look into the case, not knowing what she’s getting herself into.

Her next life changer is visiting an old church that is being rehabbed and which might make a good office.  She meets the owner/rehabber, Rob Smith, who is tough, smart, sexy and enigmatic—and has a personal interest in death penalty cases.  As a former Marine Corp investigator, he also has some skills that will help Val in her quest for justice. 

Here’s a brief excerpt of their first meeting:

    Val glanced at Rob.  Hard to read expressions under that beard, but his eyes were intent.  “If you mean can I feel that this was a much loved house of worship, yes.  I’m glad you saved it.  No new building would ever have such richness.”   She advanced, feeling as if she were swimming in light.  “Not right for me, though.”
    “What sort of business are you in?”
    “I’m a lawyer.”
    “A lawyer?”  
    She smiled wryly at the surprise in his voice.  “People always have trouble believing that.  My first week in law school, one professor called on me by saying, ‘You, the barmaid in the third row.’”
    “Isn’t that considered harassment?”
    “Probably, but at Harvard Law, the philosophy is to torment students into toughness.  If you can’t take it, too bad.  I was warned that HLS is not a user-friendly school, but I didn’t really appreciate what that meant until it was too late.”
    “In the case of that professor, it meant that he noticed you.  Any man would.”
    To her surprise, she blushed.  “Is that a compliment?”
    “Definitely, in a non-harassing sort of way.”  He smiled and changed the subject.  “Why Harvard?  Because it looks so good on a résumé?” 
    “That, and to prove I could do it.”  She turned.  Rob was standing in a swath of light, the sun blonding his hair and emphasizing the breadth of his shoulders. Suppressing thoughts of how long she had been celibate, she continued, “My mother says that even when I was a toddler, the surest way to get me to do something was to say it was a bad idea.” 

Attraction grows as Val and Rob work together to find new evidence to free Daniel Monroe.  But Rob is haunted by his past and Val has commitment issues, so falling in love is indeed an imperfect process.  But really—isn’t it always???

An Imperfect Process is one of my most-researched books.  I talked to all kinds of lawyers: legal aid, family law, and a public defender, among others.  My agent of the time was married to a retired federal judge, and he read the judge’s chambers scene for me.

1278694I did plenty of reading of my own.  Most useful was the book Actual Innocence,  by Barry Sheck, Peter Neufeuld, and Jim Dwyer.  Sheck and Neufeld founded the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to exonerating those who have been wrongful convicted, and Dwyer is an award winning journalist. 

Each chapter of the book is a case study of an actual wrongful conviction, and the specific systemic failures that resulted in an innocent person being convicted.  One of the most common problems is mistaken eyewitnesses, but there are all kinds of other reasons, like faulty lab work, false confessions, public outrage over a particularly heinous crime, and more.  The book was a compelling read as well a shocking wake up call, and it helped me construct a plausible scenario for my book.

An Imperfect Process has been called controversial, which I don’t quite get.  Granted, capital punishment is controversial (and as a novelist, I can see both sides.)  But really, is there anyone in FAVOR of executing innocent people?  I shouldn’t think so!

I also researched some other topics, such as the Big Sisters organization, as Val tried350px-Rolls_Royce_Car_Logo to decide how she felt about having children.  While driving a Harlequin editor to the airport, I interviewed her about the care and feeding of her wild red curls. I studied eradication of graffiti. And Quakers.  And the cost of a Rolls-Royce. <G>  I love this job!

Twist of Fate, original coverI’ll be giving away a print copy of the book under its original title, Twist of Fate, to one person who comments between now and Thursday midnight. 

Mary Jo, adding the question: do you have any idea how many books are named Twist of Fate???

Phoenix Falling: The Story Behind the Story

Cat 243 Doverby Mary Jo

Today’s blog is another in my occasional series of showing how stories come together.  This time I’m dissecting the second in my contemporary romance series: the book what was once called The Spiral Path and I recently renamed Phoenix Falling in the relaunched Starting Over Series.

 

Setting the Scene:

My historical series are all built around men who became friends as schoolboys, so I decided to build my contemporary series around a group of female friends.  They met as girls at a real school, Baltimore’s Friends School, which is a Quaker institution, though students come from all backgrounds. 

Why Baltimore?  Because writing contemporary would represent so many challenges in other areas that I thought it would be nice not to spend much time researching the setting.  Hence, using my home town, Baltimore, which has texture and character and might seem exotic to people who've never been here. <G> 

MaryJoPutney_PhoenixFalling_2000The first and third books in the trilogy are set in Baltimore, but except for a few scenes, Phoenix Falling is set in California, New Mexico, and England. 

The Genesis:

One inspiration for the story was reading in the Baltimore Sun about Cass Elliot (real name: Ellen Naomi Cohen), one of the singers in the famous 60’s rock group, the Mamas and the Papas

Cass died at age 32, leaving a daughter by an unknown father.  The girl was sent back East to be raised by Cass’s family.  That gave me the idea for a heroine whose mother was a famous rock singer who died too young, leaving a child who was sent to Baltimore to live with her cold, disapproving grandparents. 

The Characters

Hence, Raine Marlowe, real name Rainbow. Rainey survived emotionally because of the friendships she formed at school and she stays in touch with Kate and Val and the others.  But she has talent and desire, so off she goes to Hollywood to become an actress.

The Story:

I'm not sure why I decided on a Hollywood/movie making set-up, but I liked the idea of writing about creative process, and what kind of people do the hard work of creating the magic.  The book begins with Rainey approaching her estranged husband, Kenzie Scott, to ask if he’ll star in the movie she wants to make from a Victorian novel that she loves.  The Centurion is about an officer in one of Queen Victoria’s “little wars,” and the terrible price that is paid for empire.  Though I invented the novel, the little wars were real enough, and so is the cost of empire. 

Adventures in the Screen TradeAfter separating from Kenzie, Rainey had thrown herself into writing a script and putting together a budget as a distraction from her pain.  But in order to get the financing, she needs a “bankable” star—and Kenzie is a superstar, as well as a contender for my most tortured hero ever.  Think Pierce Brosnan in his 30s—gorgeous, enigmatic, and very British.

The story is about a lot of things, and one of the central questions is how can two people build a lasting relationship in the middle of the craziness of celebrity.  Rainey is a successful Oscar nominated actress, while Kenzie is a tabloid darling whose every date becomes fodder for speculation. 

The Scarlet PimpernelRainey and Kenzie fall in love and impulsively marry after they finish making a new version of The Scarlet Pimpernel together.  The love and caring are real, but the pressures and separations crack their marriage. 

But because Rainey needs Kenzie and he can't say no to her, he agrees to do the movie without even reading the script.  Which turns out to be a terrible mistake, since the central conflict of The Centurion cuts dangerously close to the horrors of his childhood. Playing John Randall, the brave, tormented British officer, brings Kenzie closer and closer to the breaking point. 

The situation is worsened when the actress cast as the love interest quits before shooting begins, and Rainey must take on the role herself.  It turns out that the heroine, Sarah Masterson, has a loving loyalty which freaks Rainey out because of her personal commitment issues. 

If that isn't bad enough, just as shooting wraps up, a British paparazzo with an apparent grudge against Kenzie explodes a scandalous accusation that pushes Kenzie over the edge.

Rainey moves in to protect her husband, not knowing if the story is true or not, and not really caring.  She’s never stopped loving Kenzie, and she’ll do anything to save his sanity.  They retreat to the remote New Mexican ranch that he’d bought on impulse. There the layers of pain and secrets are revealed, and the healing begins. 

The Research:

I love this story, and the research was immense.  I read all kinds of memoirs like Emma Thompsonscreenwriter William Goldman’s witty, informative Adventures in the Screen Trade and Emma Thompson’s The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay and Diaries, in which she recounts all the work that went into her Oscar winning screenplay for Jane Austen’s famous novel, and what it was like to play the lead in the movie after she’d written the script. 

Also, a friend of mine is the sister-in-law of a director who was shooting a movie in Baltimore, and she was able to get me onto the set for a day.  (Shooting a movie is a really, really boring process, I learned. <G>)

Royal Academy of Dramatic ArtI interviewed my friend Laura Resnick who had studied at one of London’s famous schools of drama to get a sense of what Kenzie’s time at the famous Royal Academy of Dramatic Art would have been like.

I talked to a young woman who had been a Hollywood personal assistant, a class of people who are like magical elves, doing anything and everything necessary to make a star’s life run smoothly.

New Mexico cave B&BI had once read about a B&B carved into a cliff in New Mexico, and thought, “Wouldn’t that be a great place for Rainey and Kenzie to go for a few hours of peace and quiet!” 

I'd also read about a monastery far off the beaten path in northern New Mexico.  The Benedictine Monastery of Christ in the Desert was literally the very first site I visited back in the ‘90s when I got an internet capable computer.  I used the monastery for Tom Corsi, a secondary character in Stirring the Embers. He's living in the monastery as a novice and trying to decide whether or not to take final vows.  A warm and tolerant man, he’s there when Rainey needs to talk.

LabyrinthOne of the most important elements was the labyrinth, which became the central metaphor for the book, and which provided the original title for the book, The Spiral Path. I’ve blogged about labyrinths in the past, and the symbolism is perfect for the complicated relationship between Rainey and Kenzie.  Plus, there is a real labyrinth that Kenzie makes as he comes to terms with his painful past.

The research was fascinating, but the heart of the story is two complicated people trying to rebuild the loving marriage that they both desperately need.  Is there a happy ending?  Of course!  My stories are always about healing and reconciliation, and never more than in Phoenix Falling.

What’s behind the new title?  I think of Kenzie as like a phoenix who'd built a soaring and successful life from the ashes of a catastrophic childhood.  When his life is shattered again, will he have the strength to rebuild? 

With Rainey’s love and understanding, yes. Here’s an excerpt of Rainey’s first meeting with Kenzie.

MaryJoPutney_PhoenixFalling_2000I’ll be giving a copy of the original print edition of The Spiral Path to one person who leaves a comment between now and midnight Tuesday.  Or if you’re impatient, you can download the e-book of Phoenix Falling from any of the major online bookstores.  If you do read the story, I hope you love Kenzie and Rainey as much as I do.

Mary Jo

Starting Over: STIRRING THE EMBERS

2006-08-03 21.34.38by Mary Jo

Historical romance is my first and lasting writing love, and I’ve been writing it continuously since—heavens, 1986!  But the muse craves variety, so I’ve written in other directions along the way.  Always there is romance and a happy ending, and almost always there is history—except for my venture into contemporary romance. 

I wrote three novellas and one related novella in my Circle of Friends series, and it was a wonderful and challenging experience.  I had to develop a contemporary “voice,” and all the books were demanding, high research stories.  They were actually halfway between contemporary romance and mainstream women’s fiction.  If I had to categorize them, it would be as “romantic women’s fiction.”

From a marketing point of view, my timing was terrible.  I was writing serious books at a time when the market was moving to very frothy, light contemporary romances.  (Remember all those cartoon covers?) 

StirringTheEmbers_200The books were well reviewed, but they didn’t set the world on fire.  I learned many interesting things, such as the fact that there isn’t a huge crossover between historical and contemporary readers.  I got emails on the contemporaries asking if I’d ever written any other books. <G>

 So after the trilogy was done, I didn’t write any more contemporaries.  I had never quit my “day job”—I was still writing historical romance–so in the great scheme of things, the contemporaries were an interesting side excursion.  When they went out of print, I got the rights back as a matter of principle and that was that.

RELAUNCH:

Then came the e-book revolution, and all of a sudden, it was possible to make backlist books available to readers.  Authors LOVE this!  All of our children, free at last!  The contemporaries were the very first books I published in e-form since they wouldn’t conflict with my ongoing historical work.

So the series has been available, though never selling as well as my historical backlist.  Then Nina Paules, who has built an amazing business producing and publishing e-books, casually mentioned that she thought the contemporaries would do well if they were renamed, repackaged, and relaunched with a more women’s fiction look.  (Nina and I met through this blog,  One of many benefits I’ve received at Word Wenches!)

I was reluctant to change titles because I don’t ever want to confuse readers into accidentally buying a book they’ve already read.  But I was persuaded that the titles needed to be changed to escape bad earlier reviews in online sites. Most of these reviews were for the first book, The Burning Point, and they dated back to the original release in 2000. 

STIRRING THE EMBERS

All of the COF stories had edgy, controversial elements because I like exploring complicated issues and complicated people.  And in TBP, I tackled the most challenging situation I’ve ever done: Is it possible for two people who divorced over domestic violence to move on, grow, change—and then come together again to build on the love that never died to create a strong, healthy relationship?

The story is built around a romance, but the premise is very mainstream.  Escapist?  Not even close.  But powerful, important, and ultimately romantic?  Well, I thought so.  So did others—TBP was listed by LIBRARY JOURNAL as one of the top five romances of the year 2000, a recognition I’m very proud of.  It was also a Top Pick at Romantic Times

But light hearted escapism the books were not.  I understand that readers who were looking for more
Phoenix, Largetraditional romance wouldn’t like the story line.  But since I love all my books and want to find readers who enjoy them, I decided to work with Nina to repackage the contemporaries in hopes of finding a more women’s fiction audience. 

And so the Circle of Friends Series has become the Starting Over Series.  The Burning Point became Stirring the Embers.  The Spiral Path became Phoenix Fallling.  Twist of Fate became An Imperfect ProcessThe covers are dramatic and emotional, but not particularly sexy. 

But the story hasn’t changed.  Stirring the Embers is one of the rare books where I remember the exact inspiration: a feature article in the Baltimore Sun Sunday business section about the world famous explosive demolition company Controlled Demolition, Inc

RESEARCH

CDI is a Baltimore company founded by Jack Loizeaux, a former army explosive expert who started by blowing up tree stumps and over time developed techniques for demolishing buildings in one grand bang rather than bashing away piece by piece. 

These days the company is run by his two sons, Mark and Doug.  In the article, they talked about studying a building till they know it on a deep, almost spiritual level.  They work with such precision that they don’t always feel the need to clear the parking lot next door to the imploded building.

I thought, “Wow, this is really interesting!!!  It would make a great story if a daughter of the company wanted to be one of their demolition engineers but her old-fashioned father won’t allow it. So she goes away and comes back later…”

I had years to think about the story before I had the chance to write it. I decided that a romance that had exploded and now might be rebuilt seemed like a good fit with the story of an explosive demolition company.  And by setting it in my hometown of Baltimore, I could use the flavor and texture of the city as my backdrop. 

I did lots of research!  Stacey Loizeaux, a third generation demolition engineer, was tremendously helpful in explaining how the business works.  Some of her anecdotes are in the story.  I looked at lots of movies of imploding buildings , and watched a couple of them live. 

I also researched violence, a subject that I have been exploring in my books since my very first Signet Regency. I talked with the director of the House of Ruth, Baltimore’s safe house for battered women and children.  I studied the role of substance abuse in domestic violence, and found people who had overcome abusive tendencies and saved their marriages. 

THE STORY

The result was Kate Corsi, daughter of a mother who comes from old money and an energetic Italian American father who’d founded Phoenix Demolition, Inc.  She and Patrick Donovan fell madly in love and married young, with Donovan becoming the son Sam Corsi had always wanted.  When the marriage implodes, it’s Kate who takes off to California to become an architect while Donovan becomes Sam’s right hand man. 

When Sam is killed in an accident, Kate returns home for the first time in ten years—and finds that her father has left a diabolical will that requires Kate and Donovan to live under the same roof for a year, or the firm will be sold to a competitor.  Kate and Donovan are equally horrified—but ultimately agree as a way of finally laying the past to rest. 

AnImperfectProcess_150As Kate finally gets her chance to blow things up, she also sees how Donovan has grown and changed—and maybe dealt with his issues better than she has.  As they discover who they are now, they also find the old attraction is burningly alive.  But they discover that a broken heart isn’t the only danger that faces them and the business they both love, and maybe Sam's death wasn't an accident….

Here’s an excerpt of Stirring the Embers if you’d like to take a look.  I guarantee a happy ending!  At some later time, I’ll blog about Phoenix Falling and An Imperfect Process and give you the story-behind-the-story on them.

As a lagniappe of the relaunch of my contemporaries, I’ll give away an original print copy of Stirring the Embers/The Burning Point to someone who leaves a comment between now and midnight Saturday. 

A Holiday FlingHere’s also the cover for "A Holiday Fling," the Christmas novella I wrote with two secondary characters from Phoenix Falling.  This is the only cover that is allowed to look happy!

Mary Jo