I made a hat where there never was a hat:
Mystery scribe Hank Phillippi Ryan on this writing life

By Cynthia J. Starks

I seem to be hanging out with a lot of “real” writers these days – ones who write books instead of speeches, and I must say I’m enjoying it.

In September, I heard a new author share insights into her writing process at my local women’s networking group; in early October, I learned a lot from the writers at the Indiana Author’s Fair, and just a couple of weeks ago, I discovered a wonderful mystery writer who spoke at my local Barnes and Noble.

It was Hank Phillippi Ryan, author of The Other Woman

– a tale of murder, mystery and political intrigue set against the backdrop of an election and featuring newspaper reporter Jane Ryland and police detective Jake Brogan. Her appearance was at the invitation of the Indianapolis chapter of Sisters in Crime, an organization that promotes the professional development and advancement of women crime writers.

When I hear these writers speak, I’m reminded anew of how much fun it is to inhabit the world of the imagination. How fascinating it is to get lost in a time and place of your own making, enjoying the characters you have brought to life and being surprised – yes, surprised – by what they say and do and where they take you.

Phillippi Ryan is an investigative reporter at the NBC affiliate in Boston, where her work has won 27 Emmys and 10 Edward R. Murrow awards. In addition, she’s the bestselling author of four mystery novels and the winner of the Agatha, Anthony and Macivity awards. I purchased The Other Woman and look forward to reading it.

But as a speechwriter, what I liked so much about her presentation were the personal stories she told and the pride she clearly took in her role as an investigative reporter working to illuminate malfeasance and corruption in order to correct them – yes, for the little guy.

Here’s the story she told about getting the idea for The Other Woman, which she characterized as “The Good Wife” meets “Law and Order,” featuring the best elements of each:

“I needed a root canal and was in the dentist’s office. I picked up a copy of People magazine and read the story about Mark Sanford, the former governor of South Carolina who told everyone he was going hiking in the Appalachians but was really in Argentina with his mistress. And of course he got caught.

“And I began to think about what kind of a person does this? Knowing you’re going to be caught and ruin everyone’s life. I thought how awful it was for a governor to take that position of honor and power and ruin it. And then I thought what if there’s another reason? What motivation could you have to make it acceptable?”

And she was off and running.

But what I like most to hear from writers is what they have discovered and say about the spiritual journey that writing really is. Here’s some of what Hank Phillippi Ryan said:

* Somehow, some way, something happens in our brains and the idea comes when it’s time.

* Sometimes I have an idea and I think it’s the last one I’ll ever have…but it never is.

* My abiding philosophy is that when something bad happens, something good happens. (This in relation to how needing a root canal led to her story idea).

* All those years in my job were not an end in themselves; they were preparation for my book-writing.”

She told us she has a sign above her desk that reads: “Leap. And the net will appear.” She says she is living proof that it’s never too late to begin. She started writing novels at age 55.

And finally, like a speechwriter, she said she “needs to know her first sentence.” She needs to know what the key issue is and then she can jump right in.

Before opening the floor to questions, Phillippi Ryan ended her thoughtful and fascinating presentation on writing with a lyric from Stephen Sondheim’s “Finishing the Hat” (Sunday in the Park with George): Look, I made a hat. Where there never was a hat.

And ain’t it grand?

Note: Cynthia J. Starks is an award-winning executive speechwriter with her own business in Zionsville, IN. She is a former IBM speechwriter, and her diverse clients include executives at the United Nations, the Federal Reserve Bank, Verizon Wireless, Raytheon and Roche Diagnostics. She blogs regularly about speechwriting at www.starkscommunications.com.


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