An Author’s Inspiration
By John Anthony Miller
I have two inspirations as an author. The first is the vivid imagination I was blessed with – I love to plot twists and turns and surprises – and the second is a desire to learn.
I’m an avid reader, mostly non-fiction, and I keep a list of time periods and locations that I might like to write about. Many of my ideas come from that, rather than a specific plot or character. When I do start with the plot, it normally begins with an overarching global theme, like the Holocaust. If the concept begins with a character, I like to write about people who do something totally unexpected and usually for no benefit, either for their country or to save others, knowing there’s no personal reward for the risks that they take.
When I’m ready to begin a new project, I normally start two or three books at the same time. As I mentioned, one of the drivers for me is the opportunity to learn about new things, and eventually one of the books I start will become my focus, based on how interesting I find the material that I’m researching. It takes a good deal of research to write a book, which means what I’m learning about has to maintain my interest through the entire first draft. For those that don’t, they land in a file on my computer, and they’re on the list for the next book I write.
I also like to set books in exotic locations – Paris, Lake Como, Switzerland – and I’ve been to most of them, often multiple times. I like to describe the locations in detail, to draw my readers in – to make them feel like they’re walking down the same street that the character is, can see the same buildings or flowers or automobiles, to make the location a character, too, just as interesting to the reader as the people in the book.
Change also motivates me, and I like to do something completely different with each book I write, whether I change genres – mystery to thriller to psychological – or I change voices, use a dialect, sparse description in a minimalist style or a lush narrative.
I suppose the trick is to tie it all together – a good plot, an exotic location, an interesting historical period, and characters you care about. For me, this takes many revisions. I’m always jealous of authors who write a draft, review it, and then send it off to their agent or publisher. I suppose for me, the rough draft is the hardest, and then I continually polish it, through five or six revisions, sometimes more. That may sound tedious to some, but for me, I can’t wait to get to my computer every day!
When I wrote my latest release, Sinner, Saint or Serpent, I started with the overall plot. It’s a murder mystery, with several suspects, designed to keep the reader confused about who the actual killer is. I started the book in third-person, but it didn’t feel right, so I switched to first-person and created a narrator, Justice Harper, a journalistic reporter beyond reproach. I already had the title – I keep a running list of potential titles – and I next decided to make the characters surrounding the narrator unique. They consist of a voodoo queen named Belladonna Dede, a Mafia gangster named Nicky the Knife, Lucinda Boyd, a pillar of New Orleans society, Serenity Dupree, a sultry jazz singer, and Blaze Barbeau, a real estate magnate with a checkered past. I gave Justice an assistant, and tried to create an unforgettable character in Remy Morel, a woman who speaks her mind, with absolutely no filter whatsoever.
When I write a novel, I like to move beyond the main characters, and create subplots for the other major characters – essentially what happens in their lives when they’re not in the midst of propelling the main plot. I weave that in through the subsequent revisions as I round out each of the characters.
And if the location, the plot, the subplots, the voice, and the characters are created effectively, the result is a book that makes the reader keep turning the page. Ultimately, that’s what I strive for – to provide entertainment that the reader remembers long after they finish the book.
Sinner, Saint or Serpent
By John Anthony Miller
New Orleans, 1926
When a leading businessman is found murdered, investigative reporters Justice Harper, known for his fairness, and Remy Morel, his sassy counterpart, are determined to find the killer. There are three suspects, all prominent women in New Orleans society. The sinner is Blaze Barbeau, a real estate magnate with a checkered past. The saint is Lucinda Boyd, who lost her family business to the victim. And the serpent is a spooky voodoo queen named Belladonna Dede.
New Orleans, Louisiana
May 18, 1926 at 7:37 p.m.
August Chevalier sat in the parlor of his Royal Street mansion, eyes wide open, a bullet hole in the center of his forehead with a line of blood trailing down the bridge of his nose. He seemed surprised by death’s arrival, or by whoever delivered it, as if meeting his maker had been the farthest thing from his mind at the time.
I studied the body from the foyer, leaning against the white molding of the arched entrance, watching the investigation. The corpse sat on a Victorian couch, lavender with lion’s paws feet, a book lying askew beside it. The Prince, by Machiavelli, was a political discourse that supposedly gave good advice for handling enemies to business folks like Chevalier. He should have read it just a little bit sooner.
There was an Art Deco table in front of the couch with a glass top and floral wrought iron frame that matched the fence that circled the property. Chevalier’s left leg was stretched out beneath it, a nick on the sole of his Italian leather shoe. Like most rich folks, he wore expensive clothes – a silk blue shirt and darker slacks with barely a wrinkle in them.
Even though I had no right to be at the crime scene, I was there just the same. So I just kept looking around the room, scribbling notes on a pad I always carried with me. There was a small leather bag on the floor near the leg of the couch, just beside the body. The string keeping it closed had come undone, and there was a trail of gray powder, a few streaks of vermillion and chunks of something that looked like bones or small animal parts scattered across the Oriental carpet. I knew it was a gris-gris bag, a voodoo charm used to ward off evil or bring good luck – or any number of things that the creator might make for the purchaser. They were popular in New Orleans, especially among the superstitious. And even those that weren’t.
A grandfather’s clock stood against the far wall, a leather chair beside it, while a mahogany desk sat just under the side window. It was flanked by two cypress bookshelves, the spines of decorative leather volumes visible as you entered the room. A few papers were arranged real neat on the desktop, with a torn envelope and a folded letter that was a bit crumpled tossed near one edge. It looked recently opened, read and discarded, the contents perhaps not to the liking of the addressee. The writing on the envelope, visible from my location whereas the letter itself was not, showed fine penmanship, a swirling cursive with a flair for the dramatic, sex of the originator unknown. I leaned toward female. Most men I knew, including myself, were just not that neat.
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Sinner, Saint or Serpent
John Anthony Miller
John Anthony Miller was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to a father of English ancestry and a second-generation Italian mother. Motivated by a life-long love of travel and history, he normally sets his novels in exotic locations during eras of global conflict. Characters must cope and combat, overcoming their own weaknesses as well as the external influences spawned by tumultuous times. He’s the author of the historical thrillers, To Parts Unknown, In Satan’s Shadow, When Darkness Comes, All the King's Soldiers, and For Those Who Dare, as well as the historical mystery, Honour the Dead. His latest novel, Sinner, Saint or Serpent, is a jazz age murder mystery set in New Orleans. He lives in southern New Jersey with his family.