The Brilliant Detective

Earlier this week, I was thinking about characterization and character development, specifically as it relates to detectives.  A detective represents the power of society in many ways, but none as well as in finding and catching criminals. Usually murderers. Often serial killers. As “good” characters, they must still be interesting, sympathetic, and somehow easy to relate to for the reader.  How to make a “good” character interesting?

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Photo: Paul Grover)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Photo: Paul Grover)

We never seem to tire of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. I think he must be the standard against which all other fictional detectives are measured.  Since Doyle’s books, we’ve seen fan fiction, movies and TV shows using Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson as the primary characters.  What is it about Holmes that makes him so fascinating?

Holmes and Watson (original actors) (Photo from DVD)

Holmes and Watson (original actors) (Photo from DVD)

For one thing, he’s brilliant.  Doyle must have been brilliant himself to create and write him.  Holmes can be rather abrasive at times, though, and he’s eccentric to a fault.  Watson definitely puts up with a lot.  Holmes plays the violin, has a drug habit, and an ego bigger than a barn.  But we love him.  He makes the world right.  In other words, he’s not at all a goody-two-shoes or an idealist about humanity and justice.  He has flaws.  And he’s brilliant.

So, I started thinking about other “brilliant” detectives, wondering if they have been able to fill Holmes’ large shoes for us.  The first that came to my mind was DCI Morse as played by John Shaw on Inspector Morse for Masterpiece Mystery.  Writer Colin Dexter created him in the original novels. In keeping with the Holmesian tradition of abrasiveness, Morse is known for his short temper and being a curmudgeon.  He can be downright difficult.  But he doesn’t like dead bodies at all, i.e. he stands away from the victim at a crime scene as he quizzes the medical examiner.  He prefers not to go to the morgue for the autopsy report.  He drinks too much — it landed him in the hospital in one episode.  He’s particular about his red jaguar.  But his powers of observation  surpass anyone around him.  He loves classical music, especially opera, and is a champion at solving crossword puzzles.  He’s also a slightly paunchy middle-aged guy who likes the ladies but whose love life leaves him alone most of the time.  Poor Sergeant Lewis has to endure Morse who has no illusions about humanity.  But Morse is absolutely brilliant.

DCI Morse (John Thaw)

DCI Morse (John Thaw)

It’s interesting to note that the Brits are masters at creating interesting and brilliant detectives.  Adam Dagleish, for example.  Jane Tennison. And most recently, a TV series about the young DCI Morse in which we learn what Morse’s first name is, Endeavour.  What parent names a kid Endeavour?  No wonder he develops into a curmudgeon.  This series interests me specifically because it shows us how Morse developed into the detective he was in middle-age, the people who supported and challenged him, his blunders as well as longer glimpses into his personal life.

(copyright ITV/MammothScreen)

Endeavour Morse (Shaun Evans) (copyright ITV/MammothScreen)

Finally, an American detective of brilliance who can stand proudly with his British comrades: Adrian Monk.  I stumbled onto Monk while in the hospital, and I was incredibly grateful I did because watching his exploits made my hospital stay much more pleasant.  Monk adds a tragic personal life to the mix: his beloved wife Trudy was murdered and her case has never been solved.  He suffered a mental breakdown after her death and left his job as a detective with the San Francisco Police.  After he recovers, he works as a private detective. Soft-spoken and vulnerable, Monk suffers from OCD, i.e. obsessive-compulsive disorder.  His OCD also makes him incredibly observant about details and solving the puzzles that are murder investigations.  The thing I loved about this show and this detective was the ultimately positive light they shone on Monk’s OCD.  Yes, it could be unbearably painful and debilitating, and they show that.  But it also makes him a brilliant detective.

Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub)

Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub)

I cannot stand an unsolved mystery.  I can be very compulsive myself once I’m hooked on a detective.  It is so comforting to watch a brilliant one solve a mystery and take a world that was in disorder and give it order….




The Creative Brain

Credit: Mike Basher

Credit: Mike Basher

For a lot of people, creativity is a big mystery.  Where does it come from?  Is it hereditary? Is it dependent on Nurture vs. Nature?  Is Creative Genius dependent on a high IQ? What makes someone highly creative?

Dr. Nancy Andreasen asked those questions and more as she developed studies to find out.  She reports on her findings in this month’s The Atlantic.   Andreasen looked at creativity not only in the arts, but also in mathematics and the sciences.  It’s an amazing article, one that I read twice, marveling at the clarity of her writing (well, she has a PhD in Literature) as well as her descriptions of her studies, her procedures, and her thinking. I highly recommend this article for anyone interested in creativity and/or neuroscience.

I was relieved to learn that I don’t need a high IQ, i.e. over about 130, to be a creative genius.  In fact, there was that curious effect about not getting a higher return the higher the IQ.  So, creativity is not necessarily dependent on a high IQ.

Another characteristic of creative genius she found is perseverance.  Highly creative types tend to not give up easily on whatever it is they’re doing.  I don’t know how many people have commented to me about my perseverance. Making a person with perseverance especially successful is her discipline.  I would also say that focus needs to be a part of that discipline.  Writers know that perseverance, focus and discipline make it possible to write.

But what about the actual brain?  Is it bigger?  Is it somehow physically different?  Or does it just function in a different way?

Andreasen recounts the results of a functional MRI imaging study done on symphony orchestra musicians that revealed they have an unusually large Broca’s area which is the part of the brain associated with language.  She went on to describe that most of the high level functions of the brain occur in the six layers of nerve cells and their connections called the cerebral cortex, including the Broca’s area.  Some regions are highly specialized such as those receiving sensory information.  The most developed areas of the brain are the association cortices which process and use the specialized information collected by the senses and movements.  Curious, Andreasan developed a study to figure out which parts of the brain make creativity possible.

First, she learned that REST was not very restful, i.e. random episodic silent thought, or what the lay person would call daydreaming, or letting one’s mind wander.  During REST, she discovered through functional MRI studies, the association cortices are “wildly active.”  From this, she realized that these areas support recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way or angles that others can’t see.  Highly creative people are gifted in doing all those things.

Next in her study, she interviewed her subjects to learn about their family backgrounds and personalities.  After putting all the data together and analyzing it, she concluded that creativity tends to run in families but takes diverse forms.  Nurture is essential.  And there is a tendency toward mental illness, usually a mood disorder, of varying degrees of severity.  Her explanation of contributing factors fascinated me.

For example, highly creative individuals tend to be exploratory or adventuresome.  They will push at established boundaries and meet with resistance and rejection.  They persist in spite of the rejection, in spite of doubt, because they believe powerfully in what they do. (Does this sound familiar to anyone?)  This sets up a conflict, however, in the psyche which leads to psychic pain, and that can manifest as a mood disorder such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder.  Andreasen also found that mental illness ran in her subjects’ families, but often the highly creative subject suffered only a mild form and was fully functional.  Eccentricity, anyone?

Creativity cannot be forced and provided on demand.  We all know this, of course.  Those breakthrough moments that some call “eureka” moments occur after long periods of preparation and thinking, so working daily is part of the preparation.  They tend to come during REST periods, i.e. when doing mundane tasks that require little attention from the brain such as taking a shower or a long walk.  My most creative days are actually Sundays when, after a week of butt-in-the-chair work I’m RESTing.  I read, take a long shower, putter around the house, take walks, and so on.  My RESTing association cortices, however, are pumping out ideas and solutions to creative problems.

I absolutely loved this article by Dr. Andreasan, and I plan to keep it near for a while.   It’s helped me to understand how my own brain works….


The Writer’s Life: Taking Care of Yourself

deadline-clockMarketing and promotion efforts for Perceval’s Secret have so preoccupied my mind, especially this last week, that I’ve not gotten dressed each day until mid-afternoon.  This is not like the normal, regular me.  But I’ve fallen into a routine in which I set up the computer immediately after breakfast when I usually wash up and get dressed.  Urgency has compelled me into this routine.  This urgency is about getting as much done as possible each day so I must start as early as possible.

There’s a part of my brain that is pounding on the wall to the other part, insistent and determined.  It’s the part that knows 1) like most humans, I am capable of accomplishing only so much in any given time frame, and 2) the marketing and promotion efforts can be spread out.  In fact, it’d probably be just fine if some of my plan sat on the back burner until September when I hit the 6-month mark of being on sale.  It makes perfect sense to implement another big promotion push at that time.

On the other side of that wall, though, is the emotional part that is trying to hold the panic at bay.  What if the book really doesn’t sell?  What if no one likes it?  What if, despite the best laid plans and implementation, I fail?

This is powerful stuff.  What I need is a cat.

upside down cat

Have you ever watched a cat deal with life?  I swear, the cat’s answer to almost everything (but hunger) is to feign indifference.  Oh, you have a new toy for me?  I think I’ll wash my face.  You want me to jump up on your lap?  Oh, I need to walk over to the window and look out.  Oh, you want to pet me?  I’ll run around you for a while then into the kitchen for some food.  Cat behavior is a good reminder for how to back away a few steps without losing sight of what’s going on.  I love the way cats seem to be capable of sleeping anywhere, and that they have absolutely no problem with bathing themselves whenever the spirit moves them, no matter who’s around or what they may want.  There is something, somehow, that’s very zen about a cat.


They are choosey about what and who they’ll allow to influence them.  Of course, the human pet with the food gets top priority.  But the thing that most leaves me in total awe is their total lack of guilt.  I can make myself feel guilty for not doing certain work on a daily basis, for goofing off at Twitter too long, for wanting to close the computer to just read for the rest of the day.  A cat wouldn’t feel guilty about any of that.  First of all, a cat’s job is to be a cat and a cat does that constantly, without effort or a need to brand herself or establish a platform.  By that measure, a writer is a writer is a writer, and my name is my brand, and my life is my platform.

I would definitely like to see a cat tweet.

Ready? Set? Go!

Ready? Set? Go!

The brain needs a rest.  The body may be just fine, but we don’t often think about a brain needing rest.  Cats are masters at resting.  They can sit and stare out a window for hours, or stare at an aquarium.  Then they’re off to play with — what?  The air.  Cats must have amazing imaginations evidenced by the play behavior.  I’ve watched a cat chase nothing around a room, jump at nothing, swat at nothing, her head moving to follow some imaginary bug flying in the air above her.  Cats rest their brains all the time!  Humans need to pay much more attention to over- stressed brains and rest like cats.

cute-cat-picture-wallpaper by

In other words, take care of yourself.  For me, classical music can be part of resting my brain, or complete silence.  Sleep works, too, although I’m not a big napper.  Reading an engrossing mystery that takes me far away from my own life also rests my brain.  Watching reruns of favorite TV shows.  Taking a long walk around the nearby city lake without cellphone or earbuds.  In short, getting away from technology, of being plugged in.

How do you take care of yourself as a writer?  What are your methods for resting your brain?




Perceval’s Secret Author Buzz Contest Results!

The results are in!  It was actually exciting for me to do the drawing this morning at 9 a.m. (Central).  Here’s what the “pot” looked like:

The Author Buzz Contest Pot

The Author Buzz Contest Pot

Written on each piece of paper is a number that corresponds to a name of an entrant.  Here are the winning numbers:

The winning numbers

The winning numbers

And here are the names that correspond to those numbers:

  • 22 — Paula Cappa
  • 39 — Tiffany Grace Duncan
  • 49 — Fern Jacoby
  • 53 — Rita Pierini
  • 55 — Richelle Marlene Grant

Congratulations to all the winners! Each will receive a free copy of Perceval’s Secret for either Kindle or Nook.  I am also in the process of sending out an email to each entrant — 60 total who did not win –  with the results.

I want to give a BIG Whoop!  Whoop! to all the entrants and a BIG thank you hug for their interest in Perceval’s Secret.  I hope their interest will continue and propel them to their favorite online bookstore to purchase their own copy to enjoy reading this summer…..

C. C. Yager