Category Archives: Plot

Writing the women of Jennifer’s Weave


Jennifer’s Weave is technically a sequel to my first published book, Monkey on a Chain, but it is a bit more closely tied to Monkey than is usual for series books. That happened because the main character, Jennifer Murphy, first appeared in Monkey as a stock figure designed to emphasize Porter’s isolation, but she kept pushing back into the story, until by the end of it she was helping April count a fortune in jewels on Porter’s kitchen table.

Normally, that would be a good enough ending for a minor character, but it wasn’t enough for Jenny. When I began planning Rainbow’s second adventure, she pushed her way into the new story. It wasn’t hard. Her character was intelligent and just as far from conventional society’s norm as Rainbow himself, though in a different direction. After all, when she pushed into Rainbow’s house at the end of Monkey and found April, stark naked, happily running her fingers through a mound of diamonds and rubies, sapphires and emeralds, she didn’t apologize and run. No, she asked, “Can I play?”

She was a puzzle I had to explore, so when I needed a convenient spot to drop the corpse that triggered the next book, I picked her kitchen floor. But no dead man exists in isolation. Each lies at the heart of a constellation of questions: Who was he? How did he come here? Who loved him? Who hated him? What part did he play in the life of the woman who found him and ran?

That was enough for a start, anyway. I began writing, and within a few pages a detective with the NM State Police gave the dead man a name: Juan Murphy. Suddenly there was a connection between Jenny and the body, and her character became far more complex.

As I wrote, the first part of the story reflected my interest in Jenny. I’d made her a weaver without knowing why, but that occupation suddenly made sense. What had been a random choice became a metaphor, and Porter’s search for a killer hinged on his ability to read the warp and the weft of the choices that formed the fabric of her life.

I’d always seen Rainbow Porter as a damaged character. In Monkey, I imagined him as damaged by the war. With the new story I realized that the war was just the blow that fractured him, much as a sculptor’s hammer will break a marble slab along a hidden fault. In Porter’s case, that break didn’t weaken him so much as it left him with sharper edges. He became more dangerous, less human. Jenny was affected differently. What shattered her psyche left her unable to accept a complete human connection; she could love, but she would not be loved, and the two flawed characters were not compatible. As you might imagine, this sort of realization can complicate the process of writing a book.

When it became obvious that Porter and Murphy had no future to offer each other, I began to wonder what kind of woman could fit into his life. About the same time, the book started feeling like it was running a little short. The search for Jenny had Rainbow running all over central New Mexico, but all sorts of clues were pointing to California. Jenny’s father and brother lived in Santa Barbara. Her first husband and the daughter she abandoned were there and her third lived in the San Francisco area. Questions needed to be asked and Porter couldn’t ask them, so he hired a P.I. in Los Angeles to do the job. That’s where Sharon Coulter came in. Like Jenny, she also started as a character of opportunity, an ex-cop from LA working as a P.I., but she quickly became an opportunity to explore another side of Rainbow Porter.

Suddenly I had a new subplot. Porter and Sharon replaced Porter and Jenny. My problem with a short word count disappeared, but the new character was a cipher. All I had was a rough description and her name, Sharon. That was enough to keep me typing, but the woman still needed a character and I had no idea how she’d fit into the story. Then Sharon and Porter walked into a restaurant in Sausalito and Sharon limped as she walked.


When I asked her (and, yes, authors do talk to their characters) I learned about the car thief who’d run her down, destroyed her hip, and ended her career with the police force. More important, I discovered her anger and her regret, not that she’d lost her job, but that she’d missed her shot at the man who took it. The injury left her with a wound and an obsession. Both helped her stand out as a character. That made writing her easier. She and Porter shared an understanding of violence, violence tempered by a rough appreciation for justice. Both had been damaged by their histories, and both had healed themselves to the extent that they could. More important, just as a broken bone is stronger along the old break, they each gained a strength Jenny could never match.

Where did that leave Jenny? She remained the heart of the story but she was finally free of the plot constraints created by her relationship with Porter. She could return to her loom, to continue that metaphor, and examine what she had made of herself in the light of whatever self-knowledge she’d gained from the deaths and betrayals. She hadn’t lost anything to Sharon Coulter because Rainbow Porter had never been more to her than an occasional companion, a sounding board, and a bit of comfort when the nights grew too long. What she’d found far outweighed that: a fresh chance with the daughter she abandoned, a renewal with her discarded husband, and even a chance to reconnect with a father who’d never forgotten her.

Counting Down: PLENUM – 6

Sometimes it is good for an author to remind himself what he wanted to do with a book before looking back over the pages to see how far he missed his mark (and I’m pretty sure that every writer worth reading believes that the mark got missed) so, to that end….

I started PLENUM to test myself: I’d spent years pruning code in the vineyards of  Information Technology, and when I was ready to write again, I suffered a crisis of confidence every time I opened a word processor. Writing PLENUM was an attempt to cure myself. If I’d known that the cure would take almost three years, several rewrites, and over a hundred and sixty thousand words, I’d probably have looked for a quicker fix — a novella, a collection of short stories, or maybe just jumping to a new track altogether: nuclear opera or faith-based physics. Unfortunately, I am not blessed with that degree of foresight, so I began PLENUM as a novelization of a script I did back before Noah’s flood called The Game of Knights and Dragons.

The basic story I wanted to tell is as old as the novel itself: Boy is kidnapped and taken on a strange journey where he must slay dragons and knights alike to save a string of very scary damsels in distress while struggling to find his way back to a home that may no longer exist. Sure, the tale has been told a million times, but I figured if I avoided pure fantasy and made each of the damsels prettier and scarier than all the others, and also if maybe the Knights and Dragons hated each other more than Democrats and Republicans, and were just as reluctant to work together, even to save the Universe, and if the hero was actually smart enough not to fall in love with the first damsel to sneak under his cave bear skin blanket, but at the same time, just to add a touch of realism here, dumb enough to fall for the totally wrong damsel when he did fall, then maybe, just maybe, I’d write a story that folks would be willing to pay less than the price of a bag of movie theater popcorn to read. And it might help if I told the part about where Cleopatra stood on a palace wall and tempted our hero with a vision of the Roman Empire, and the part where Julius Caesar kicked his ass out of Rome and all the way back to 3000 BC. So I did.

I think that part of PLENUM came out okay. It hit the mark pretty squarely, which was maybe not so much of a challenge given the size of the mark. It is the rest of the challenge that wakes me in the middle of the night and keeps me twitching for hours, the part of the story readers aren’t supposed to notice unless they are cursed with the author’s intellectual kink and have a bad squint besides. Do the readers see a philosophical farce — a hierarchical examination of emergent realities without supposing there is anything higher about one end of the hierarchy? Do they snap that the fundamental phenomenon is emergence, and that the necessary pre-existence of the antecedent before the emergent is an artifact of our preference for seeing time as an arrow rather than a landscape? Does it occur to anyone that we dine with Judy regularly and suppose that Judy is still Judy, setting aside the sure knowledge that today’s Judy is composed of a different collection of atoms and molecules arranged in a bunch of new cells and the nagging suspicion that she’s done something different with her hair? Do they lay the book down with an uneasy suspicion that subsequent never ever equals consequent, even out here in the real world? I certainly hope not.


Counting Down: PLENUM – 7

The World of PLENUM

PlenumEBookCoverAWhen Art Penn was recruited (he’d say shanghaied) by an old Dragon named Morl back in 1999, he found himself trapped in a time war with the Knights over the Prime Context, the most probable human future. The context split into two time lines in 3092, four hundred years after the end of the worst catastrophe in any of the human contexts left mankind on the brink of extinction. Six centuries of religious slaughter and environmental collapse had left the few hundred million survivors with no hope of recreating the glorious technology of the twentieth century. All the easily accessible minerals and energy sources had been depleted. Almost all the books had burned. Only a few religious documents survived and even those were suspect after the centuries of carnage they inspired. Both the Knights and Dragons regarded that as a good thing.

Hopes remained, however. Dreams. Men told stories around the camp fire, stories of a golden age when fabulous animals filled the world and men created light just by wishing for it and pounded the earth itself into weapons of unimaginable power. Women whispered around the community hearth of a time when disease could be twisted like a hungry worm and made to feed on itself, a time when the secrets of life commanded even Life itself, and designed plant and animal alike to serve human ends.

The age of great machines was over but small machines were still possible, and if the oil and uranium were all gone then dreams must power the future. Small machines grew smaller and smarter. The code of life was edited, snipped and rewritten. The distinction between man and machine began to blur. At the same time the definition of humanity was rewritten: redesigned flesh incorporated the poorly-remembered dream. The trends coexisted for a time, but the tension between them grew until they could not share the world. In the year 3092, the human context split in two. One future belonged to the Knights and in it human consciousness, mind, abandoned biology and spread into the physical universe. The other future belonged to the Dragons. In it, human life began to incorporate the non-human world. Organic consumed inorganic and mind drifted away from machine.

For good or ill, we humans are locked into our private histories, the time lines into which we are born. Neither the Dragons nor the Knights were aware of the context split until emissaries from their distant futures opened the tunnel that touches every point in space and time. They revealed a larger universe, the context of all contexts, in which their time lines were slowly becoming less probable. One fruit of that revelation was a war over which context would dominate the human future, a war that spanned a thousand human centuries and all the countless human histories. Another was Arthur Penn, born in Chicago, veteran of America’s wars in the middle east, Dragon battles in ancient Rome, stone age Europe, and the depths of the last ice age, and beloved of a true woman, a Dragon woman, and . . . something else.

PLENUM on Amazon