A Standalone World

Some stories demand to be written.  Some stories simply do not fit into an established series.  These stories shape their own world, and although that world may in the future turn out to demand that the writer revisit the place and characters, the Standalone is written from the belief that this novel is the only life these characters have.

Here are some of Laurie’s thoughts on her Standalone novels.

A Darker Place
Keeping Watch
Calafia’s Daughters


A Darker Place

When I was in high school, back when computers were the size of dirigible hangers and the Beatles hadn’t yet discovered India, I had a dream. More of a vision, really, or the visitation of an archetype—the inner acquaintance of a Wise Woman, a middle-aged figure who lived in a cabin in the woods with her dogs, and who walked with a limp that evoked a dark story. Nothing more than that, no daydreams that she was my secret and long-lost grandmother or some prosaic version of a fairy godmother, just the image.

Thirty years later, turning over ideas for a new novel that was not one of either series that I wrote, the woman returned, enigmatic as ever, her authority undiminished. She formed the core of the novel, a woman with dark deeds in her past, a woman still struggling to make something of herself, to make sense of her world. Anne Waverley leaves her cabin to look at the inner workings of various religious communities, the sorts of places that sometimes explode and are dubbed “cults” by the media.

The book, as with a number of my novels, makes use of my background in theology. In this case, the ideas of alchemy come into play, the transformation of lead into gold, of muck into Philosopher’s Stone, of base human into enlightened being. Darkness and light combine in the alchemist’s alembic; similarly, light is found within A Darker Place.


Q: How did Folly come about?

One day, deep inside a knotty bit of research, the plaintive thought occurred to me that I really should follow that most basic of writing recommendations and write a book involving a subject I already knew something about. Gardening was a chore and child-raising too complex and immediate, but there was also house repairs… And with that thought, Rae Newborn was standing before me, a strong if damaged woman with a hammer on her hip.

Of course, Folly eventually required just as much research as any of the other books, from mental illness to Great War soldiering, but at least I knew first-hand how a house was constructed. As for researching the San Juans, all I can say is that some forms of research are more welcome than others.

The structure of the book follows Rae’s reconstruction of her great-uncle’s house, from clearing the ground through foundation and walls to raising the roof beam, and if the parallel story of the rebuilding of her own life is a tad obvious, well, not all plot elements of a mystery have to be hidden.

After ten books, a writer generally feels that she knows her routine: nurture the seed of an idea in the dark recesses of the mind for a couple of years while it puts down roots, then when the time comes to bring it to light write furiously for four months or so, rewrite (also furiously, but driven more by rage than inspiration) for another six months, after which one’s editor tears the more or less finished product away and hands it over to the attentions of the cold, cruel world.

Then comes a book like Folly.

Folly began with the idle thought that one of these days I really ought to write about something I knew instead of having to research setting, time, and my protagonist’s profession from scratch. Now, over the course of twenty years of raising children, working a garden, and renovating several houses, a person learns to wield a spade, a cooking spoon, or a paintbrush with as much ease as a diaper pin or a pen.

Or, a hammer.

And suddenly with that thought, there Rae Newborn stood, a badly troubled woman a little older than I with a hammer in her hand. The whole book fell instantly into place, its structure that of the house Rae is rebuilding, its background a relationship with that same house’s history, the progress of Rae’s recovery going in parallel to the raising of the structure.

Building is a deeply satisfying activity, the smell of fresh sawn lumber, the hard echo of a team of carpenters raising walls, a stack of dead trees transformed into a living structure (double entendre intended). And it is to this activity that Rae turns in her time of need, putting up solid walls and impervious roof over herself, shoring up the very foundations of her life.


Q: When a character comes to life like Rae does, don’t you wish you could hang on to her a little longer, make her a series character?

Folly was my second stand-alone, and as with the earlier Darker Place, I found a powerful difference from the very beginning in the way the characters grew in my mind. Both of the series I do, Kate Martinelli in modern California and Mary Russell with Sherlock Holmes in Twenties England, rest upon the ongoing development of the people and their relationships: each book takes the fictional community a few steps further down the path of their lives. There is an easy familiarity in writing another episode in a series, the feeling of rejoining a family after an absence. With a stand-alone, on the other hand, the three or five hundred pages of that book define those characters’ entire existence, the world in which they spring up, flower, and pass away.

This means that in the author’s mind at any rate, a stand-alone novel has an intensity that a serial novel may not. Every sentence counts. In a series, a certain amount of meandering is not only permitted, but necessary, since it is the side excursions that lay the groundwork for future books and link the whole. In Folly, the story line, the subplots, even the asides, have to be tight–although preferably not feel too tight to the reader.

Having said that, Rae did return in a future book, Keeping Watch. Not, however, as the main character, but in support of a relatively minor character from Folly.


Keeping Watch

One thing a writer looks for in the story she is shaping is patterns—landscapes that transform the plot line; individual tales that find an echo in a larger story; events and attitudes in one character that illuminate the life of someone else.

I am of the generation that came of age in the Vietnam era. I grew up with the voice of Walter Cronkite in my ear every evening, giving body counts and pronouncing strange, faraway names. I watched the black-and-white faces of boys my age as the brutal war aged them and took them far away. I was there when many of those previously young men came home to utter alienation, half a million soldiers trying to rejoin civilian life and finding, not the appreciation and camaraderie given veterans of previous wars, but fear and even disgust. And I was there when some of them reacted to the rejection of family and country with acts of violence, against themselves or others.

Thirty years later, with children of my own old enough to register for the draft, I saw Columbine and Paducah, saw boys who had been alienated and brutalized turn to violence, and my novelist’s mind began to perceive a pattern.

How do you make a killer? Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Rhodes asked himself that question and came up with Why They Kill, in which he follows the life and work of “maverick” criminologist Dr. Lonnie Athens. Both men are survivors of abusive childhoods; both men managed to avoid what Athens terms the process of violentization, in which children are first subjected to violence, then taught to enact it. Children—or young soldiers.

Keeping Watch is my own fictional exploration of violentization, in which one young man learns his violent response to the world in Vietnam and spends twenty-five years rebuilding himself, and another boy finds his violence in the home. Their lives come together, the patterns of each character’s story finding echoes and contrasts in that of the other. It is a story about strength and redemption, and about how strength is not always apparent from the outside, and how rescue comes from unexpected directions.  See the book page, here.


Califia’s Daughters

I have a confession to make: My first love was science fiction.

Before Dorothy L. Sayers and Josephine Tey entered my life, my heart belonged to Isaac (Asimov), Robert (Heinlein), and Theodore (Sturgeon). Other worlds, a grand vision of the universe, the furthest possibilities of humanity—what’s not to adore? Had someone peered into a crystal ball and told me that I would one day be a novelist, I would automatically have assumed that the genre would be sci-fi.

I started writing crime fiction in 1987: Mary Russell and her partnership with Sherlock Holmes, Kate Martinelli and her more contemporary world of the San Francisco Police Department, and three stand-alone suspense novels. A Grave Talent won the Edgar award, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice won hearts and minds around the globe, and this year, 2004, saw publication of the fourteenth Laurie R. King title and a niche on the New York Times list.

But before Russell and Martinelli came into my life, I had Dian and Judith and Robin.

Califia’s Daughters had its beginnings ’way back in the summer of 1984, when I’d finished my Master’s thesis but couldn’t stop the words from flowing. It was a story of the near future, when the human race had walked a little farther down the paths to catastrophe we can see around us every day. The characters came, as strong and vigorous as any writer could ask for, but the ideas gave me difficulties, and before long, the pressures of family life shoved the project onto a shelf. There it remained for some years, while the kids grew and went to school and I laboriously taught myself to write; finally, I could no longer bear not knowing what happened to Dian and the rest of her world.

The novelist’s task is to explore the What if? In the case of Califia’s Daughters, that includes, What would happen, if women were simply handed the reins? What if the world were shaped in a way that forced men to stand back and assume the passive role? And what would then happen if one strong woman—strong in herself and in society’s expectations—discovered that she was also vulnerable?

To view the Califia’s Daughters book page, click here.