Monday, April 2, 2012

A Body Guard of Lies by Donna Del Oro


     How can you improve and deepen your basic story idea?  Besides plot and characterization, how can themes, both major and minor, enrich a work of fiction?
     Think about the stories you read as a child. We were taught to draw the “moral of the story” in almost every case. Think about the American Literature classics you’ve read. For example, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. In addition to their stories of war, greed, love and hardship, the great universal themes of literature were imbedded, either consciously or subconsciously by the authors. Their primary objective, no doubt, was to write a compelling story that many—even millions of readers—might enjoy. However, secondary to their objective was the expression of their outlook or philosophy of life. A truth about the human condition.
            There are several important themes in For Whom the Bell Tolls: The harsh reality of war and how it kills the individual; That a special love can still survive the horrors of war;  That courage and grace under immense stress and danger are the ideals of the average man.  Hemingway was a proponent of SHOW, DON’T TELL.  He was one of the first American novelists to reveal his characters through mainly action and dialogue. Since his dialogue was sparse, revelations via action was his stock in trade.
His main character, an American journalist who volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, is a reflective man whose survival in the war depends more on his ability to run, shoot and hide than his ability to write.  While aware of the deep significance of what’s going on around him, he knows in the circumstances of the war, his individuality is lost. If he is to survive, he must act like a soldier, one of many, rather than an individual. After all, the “bell tolls for thee.”  Death is sudden and random. So he acts and speaks, runs, shoots, makes love—when he can—and shows us through his actions how resigned he is to his fate.
            The way I plan and plot my books are neither as a plotser or pantser, in the current writers’ colloquialism. It’s simply the way I think creatively. Rather than begin with characters or setting or a conflict idea, I begin with a dominant theme. The conflicts and characters grow from that thematic starting point.
Before I began to write my first book, OPERATION FAMILIA, I knew what my themes were: Family is important and helps to determine one’s identity and self-worth; Know thyself; To thine ownself be true (to paraphrase the old Bard).  My main character, Dina Salazar struggles in her quest to find herself—even changes her name—but ultimately, by risking her very life, proves to herself that the search is all important. Moreover, she proves to her family that she’s not a “desgraciada” but a woman of true worth.  Which bears out another theme of the book: Only through tests of character is one’s true identity revealed.  Dina’s forbearance, patience and compassion are tested in addition to her courage throughout the story, and the climax of the book—when she enters a Mexican drug cartel’s lair--is the final test.  Rescuing her Mexican cousins becomes for Dina a true test of her self-worth and her identity.
In my romantic thriller, A BODYGUARD OF LIES, I began with the basic theme of retribution and justice. Though justice is blind, she has a long memory. So FBI analyst  Jake Bernstein believes as he is called to go undercover and investigate a naturalized American grandmother suspected of war crimes during World War II. That he is Jewish-American is part of his identity, and losing all of his grandfather’s German family during the Holocaust adds to his deep need for ultimate justice. However, he is a 21sst Century American male, first and foremost, a former Navy SEAL, a conservative male with a condo and stock portfolio. Balance and objectivity are his mottos in life. His undercover assignment becomes an unexpected test of those very mottos. Can he remain objective when the target’s lovely granddaughter has captured his heart, or at least his libido?  Does justice really matter after sixty-five years? He has a difficult time believing that old, wrinkled and frail Mary McCoy Snider was really a ruthless Nazi spy, code named Hummingbird. That she conspired to murder the real Mary McCoy and take her place in Churchill’s War Office seems ludicrous to him. The reader knows differently, though.
Ultimately, Jake must decide whether justice prevails or whether the passage of time and the change of circumstance rule over human nature. He faces a crisis of conscience that shocks him, for he’s always viewed himself as a black-and-white kind of man with a righteous zeal.
For me as an author, these universal themes are my guiding lights, the beacons that direct me as I write and develop the characters and conflicts. Everything in the story generates from those themes. This is where the story begins for me.
Whatever works is the general rule of thumb.  For me this is what works. 

A Body Guard of Lies by Donna Del Oro
Musa Publishing
Available now

Handsome FBI agent Jake Bernstein is recruited by MI5 to go undercover in England and Ireland and investigate a naturalized American grandmother. His task: Discover if she was the notorious Nazi spy, Hummingbird, who caused the deaths of thousands during World War II. His obstacles: A dangerous, Irish neo-Nazi organization, the woman’s lovely blond granddaughter, and sixty years’ worth of lies. His priority: Stay alive!


“In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”
--Winston Churchill


June, 1940
The four-decker ferry tossed about in the Irish Sea. Keeping her sea legs, Clare Eberhard stood and peeked through the curtains of stateroom number five. It was dark and the rain lashed the window with howling fury. She glanced at her watch. It was time.

Her heart leapt and her stomach tightened into a hard ball. Beads of sweat covered her brow. An attack of nausea threatened but she pushed it down. Her extensive training hardened her mind. This was wartime, a time for drastic measures and sacrifice. Every loyal German was a soldier. She was both loyal and a soldier.

A pounding at the door.

“I’ll get it,” Clare said to the girl sitting on the bunk, forestalling her from getting up. The pretty, blonde Irish girl looked up from her book of poetry and smiled. She tucked a needlepointed bookmarker into her book, swung her legs around, and planted her feet on the floor.

“’Tis sure to be the cabin steward with the tea I ordered. Please join me, Katy. ‘Tis bound to be an unsettling crossing. The tea will be soothing.”

Clare smiled, then frowned almost reflexively. The young Irish woman was sweet and charming. They had met each other an hour before boarding—although Clare knew her entire personal history—and had teased each other about their strikingly similar looks: Their height and figure, hair and skin color, facial features. All except for the eyes. The Irish woman’s were a striking hue of blue, almost turquoise. Physically, they could have been fraternal twins. 

They’d discussed their plans for jobs in London, shared verbal summaries of their Curriculum Vitaes and basically hit it off. So much so, they decided to share the cost of a stateroom aboard the ferry, finding it prudent for two single women traveling alone.

Bile rose and burned her throat. Clare quelled her weakness and smiled at the Irish girl. 

“Yes, I’d like that. Thank you. You’re very kind.” Clare put up her hand, making the girl hesitate. “I’ll get the door. I’m closest.”

She paused for a long moment as she gazed at the young woman’s countenance. The resemblance was so remarkable, the main reason why Horst had scouted the country and finally chosen her. She was just the right mark. Now, there was no stopping the chain of events that their superiors had set in motion two years before. They had their orders.

Such was war.


Patricia said...

By the way, beautiful cover. Love it!
And I love the way you describe how you write your books. It works for you and makes total sense to me as well.
I am a pantser who writes a synopsis and chapter outlines. It works for me. I, too, have a theme in my head and work with that by using characters, setting, and dialogue.
Thanks for the post.

_ said...

Great Post, Donna. I think you have it right. I think of a theme and then the characters start appearing. Once they are 'born' they seem to write their own stories. Good luck.
I enjoyed the post.
Emma Lane

Sloane Taylor said...

Enjoyed your post, Donna. I see the characters first, then the ideas flood in on how to mess with their lives.:)

War torn England and a tough Irish heroine has hooked me. A Bodyguard of Lies sounds like my kind of read.

Helen Hardt said...

Wow...your blurb totally hooked me, Donna!

Nancy DiMauro said...

That's a great post. It's always nice to see how other writers go about constructing a story. I think theme is an important element too.