Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Guest Post: Marilynn Larew

How I came up with idea for The Spider Catchers by: Marilynn Larew

When I was working out the plot of The Spider Catchers, I didn’t have one big ah ha! moment. I put the plot together like a jigsaw puzzle out of pieces I had laying around in my past. My protagonist, Lee Carruthers, is modeled after the heroine of a book I wrote shortly after I finished my PhD. That woman was a hard-boiled detective. Lee works for the CIA, although she’s increasingly weary of that. I lived in Baltimore at the time, and the original novel was placed in Baltimore. Lee’s office is in Paris, largely because I like Paris, but also because it allows her to range over North Africa and the Middle East, because she’s a Islamic specialist. I can’t any longer remember why I chose Fez, Morocco, for the site of The Spider Catchers. Possibly because I wanted to go there.

I knew I wanted to write an international thriller. I like to read books that are set in places I’ve been or places I’d like to go. I also knew I wanted to write a book about matters relevant to today’s news, not one about a Vatican conspiracy or the Knights Templar. I sat down to list the things I know that are prominent in today’s news. The first thing I came up with was terrorism. I’ve taught about and studied terrorism since the days of the Red Brigades in the 1970s. The next thing I thought about was money. How it gets to the terrorists. I did a field in money and banking for my PhD, and I know something about money and its ways. So I wrote down money laundering. Two other topics I considered were gun running and drug smuggling, but in the end I settled on human trafficking, the smuggling of women and children up from sub-Saharan Africa to the brothels of North Africa and Europe. Terrorism, money laundering, and human trafficking would be the three sides of the triangle of my plot.

The next thing I had to do was research. I’m historian, so research is no problem. The problem is always making myself stop doing it. I probably did too much of it for The Spider Catchers, but I was having so much fun! Current money laundering techniques. Financing terrorism. Current trends in the sex slave trade. Morocco. I’ve never been there, so I had to work hard to make the reader think I had. The bloody history of that country, all the information about people I could find, and pictures. The Internet is alive with everything I needed to know, and I downloaded what seemed like hundreds of pictures of Fez and the Moroccan environment, and of Moroccans, until I knew what Morocco and Moroccans look like.

Then I moved to Google Earth, which is a great program for studying the land, its cities, and its waterways. My plot goes from Morocco to the Algerian desert and back, so I needed to know something about the Algerian desert, too. By the time I finished with Google Earth, I believe I know more about Morocco than most Moroccans do.

I made one serious error. I used a real terrorist group for my villains. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was a very small group, on the run from the Algerian Army, and almost defunct when I first started. By the time I was ready to do the final draft of my book, that terrorist group had become one of the richest and most powerful of the Al Qaeda offshoots. By kidnapping people for ransom, the group had become rich enough and thus powerful enough to carve out a fief in Mali that it took the French army to recapture and to hold an Algerian oil refinery hostage. That took the Algerian army to settle. It was clearly not a group that one woman could mess with, however competent she was. It was then that I learned what perhaps the single most valuable lesson I learned from writing The Spider Catchers. As I say, I’m a historian. I’m used to re-creating reality as best I can. But you make up fiction. To do that, I had to forget all I knew as a historian. I created my own terrorist group, admittedly an offshoot of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, but small enough for Lee to deal with, if she was very careful.
Putting a plot together is like doing a jigsaw puzzle. You get the corner pieces, and then the ones with straight lines on one side, and put them together until you have the frame. And then you fill in that frame with anything your heart desires.

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