Wednesday, December 21, 2011



by Mike Dennis


I've said before that I can't make up stories, despite having written four published novels, numerous short stories, and a few more novels that will, thankfully, never see the light of day. What I do is start with some flimsy thread, like a central character, or a setting, or even a couple of lines from a song. From that, the central character develops a little, then takes me wherever he wants to go. I only tag along to chronicle the journey.

The Ghosts Of Havana was particularly a difficult experience. All I had was an opening line, which I lifted from one of my bottom-drawer novels. I liked it, and because it conveyed a certain tension right away, I ran with it, thinking it could eventually become a coherent novel.

About a hundred pages in, however, the ice curtain fell. The whole book froze in place, and I couldn't go anywhere with it. The story came grinding to a halt and the characters, who normally tell me what to do, took an extended vacation.

See, this is what happens when I'm forced to make up a story. Day after day, I returned to the computer and day after day, the word count was the same: zero. I liked what there was of the story so far, but I needed help and plenty of it.

Well, since I had ripped off the opening line from an earlier novel, I started rummaging around in that drawer among other discarded novels for an idea, a notion, anything.

It wasn't long before I found my salvation.

About fifteen years ago, I'd started a novel about a man who grew up with a terrible family secret, one his mother only told him about very generally, with no details at all. The secret was contained in a mysterious box his mother had squirreled away, and when she died, he learned of its contents. Right about that time, he realized people were trying to kill him. That's about as far as I'd gotten with that book when I permanently set it aside.

But wait! The idea of a lethal family secret hidden away in a box … could it possibly fit into my current novel, the one that would become The Ghosts Of Havana? I made a couple of minor changes and grafted that idea onto the novel for a perfect fit. From there, I sailed to the ending.

Another novel completed where I didn't have to make up the story.


Margot Kinberg said...

Patti - Thanks for hosting Mike.

Mike - I just love it that you mined your earlier ides. I think sometimes those good ideas do come back to help us, so we should keep them. And first lines can indeed be awfully powerful.

Mike Dennis said...

You're right, Margot. It turns out the whole purpose of writing that false start 15 years ago was to get that idea down on paper. It just took me 15 years to mature as a writer to learn how to turn it into a novel.

And Patti, thanks so much for the opportunity to share this story on your website.

Dorte H said...

Ah, a secret in a box which is so terrible someone´s life is threatened - sounds good!

jessica said...

And after having read the novel I challenge anyone to guess what the box actually contains - so far not one person has figured it out. Even better, once revealed it appears obvious. This is one tight plot!

Heath Lowrance said...

It's a twist I never saw coming. Ghosts of Havana is an excellent thriller.

Michael Haskins said...

A great book! I read it before publication and couldn't put it down.