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Anna Katharine Green Tells How She Manufactures Her Plots

“SEND detective stories.”

This is the advice of those who have made a study of the kind of reading matter most desired by the boys at the Front. The puzzle of plots and the rapid movement of the stories take their minds off the trenches when they are in rest-camp and muffle the sound of the distant 75s. And speaking of detective stories and plots, there can be no one better qualified to speak thereon than Anna Katherine Green, author of “The Leavenworth Case,” and other stories famous in that class of fiction.

In Buffalo, where she lives and is known in the prosaic every-day world of fact as Mrs. Charles Rohlfs, she was seen by a writer in the Pittsburg Dispatch, who says:

She opens the door herself, a gentle woman in soft mauve with century-old embroideries, and leads you to the fire which flickers fantastically over the originals of mission furniture. It is a cozy, cordial room, and all fear of the detective lady leaves you and you feel only an intense curiosity to see into her clever mind and find out how she writes her stories and gets her ideas.

“Detective stories do rest the mind,” she said, when the errand was explained. “Colonel Roosevelt has told me that he finds my stories a great relief in mental stress. I have never heard personally so from President Wilson and Mr. Balfour, who are said to devour detective stories, but a puzzle which absorbs one must be a relaxation.”

Anna Katherine Green was the daughter of a widely known criminal lawyer of New York. She began her work by writing poetry. Then came her first novel. Her father was disappointed that she had given up poetry until he read the first half of her book. Then he agreed she had found her place and became her critic.

“You must remember,” she said, “that I am a grandmother. I have brought up three children. One of my boys is now at the Curtiss Flying School and another is married and lives on his ranch in Colorado. Besides, I have a husband, my garden, my house, and my friends. Writing is only a part of my life.”

“Don’t hurry your ideas,” is Mrs. Rohlfs’s first advice to amateurs who aspire to write detective stories for the soldiers. “I always let my ideas lie fallow for some time, and then suddenly, perhaps in a day, the beginning and end will come to me. If there is any part that might be called misty, it will be in the middle of my story. The end is always clear before I begin my book.

“A friend told me of a murder which had happened in the northern part of New York State. A woman was induced to kill her husband while under the influence of a man in his employ. She chose for her weapon a billet of wood, and the distinguishing feature of the circumstance was this: That the victim, after being struck, lived in an unconscious condition exactly six hours before he died.

“The woman who struck the blow was convicted of murder, but there was no way of reaching the guilty instigator, altho the community was convinced that he was the one most deserving of punishment. Several years later the same man was walking through a forest when a tree fell and hit him. For six hours he lay unconscious and then he died. This plot was in my mind for three or four years. One night when we were in Connecticut, the whole story of ‘Hand and Ring’ came to me. I could see the characters and the situation. Of course, there were details which were worked out later, but I had the central ideas. All those years I had been revolving that plot subconsciously in my mind, and not in a mechanical way.”

The inception of Mrs. Rohlfs’s stories seems marvelously simple when she tells about it. Take, for example, “The Leavenworth Case.” The author started with only these two main ideas: The murderer should be the first one to announce the crime; and second, some one passing a door should hear a conversation and attribute it to the wrong person. And then she says:

“People are constantly sending me clippings or plots of murders. My nephew sent me the newspaper story which I afterward used for the basis of ‘Doctor Izard.’ It seems that in Illinois a doctor had as a patient a woman who died under peculiar circumstances, so that he was not satisfied as to the direct cause. The night after she was buried he determined to perform an autopsy. As he was digging up the new-made grave he glanced up and saw the woman’s husband staring at him across the mound of earth. In his terror he struck him with the spade and killed him. He realized what he had done, and in his despair finished his digging, removed the woman’s body and buried the husband in her place. He carried the body home and concealed it in his cellar. The man had simply disappeared and left no trace. The doctor afterward adopted the orphaned children and at his death left this confession.”

In the “Hasty Arrow,” with the beginning and end in sharp outline, Mrs. Rohlfs came to a blank wall in the middle and had to lay the book away for a year.

“Now, I can not see why it was,” she explains, “the way through seemed so simple. Perhaps I was just tired.”

Mrs. Rohlfs always writes in the morning. She surrounds herself with cheerful people, spends much of her time in her pleasant garden, and so in every way counteracts the morbidity of the plot she is evolving. Even Fluffy, her cat, is pure white and of a most sane disposition.

“Don’t talk your ideas over with any one” is her final advice to the amateur. “Not that people take your ideas, but by telling them your ideas become thin. If you can keep them in your mind, they will grow and multiply there. I wait until I have half finished a book before I let any one see it.”

“Were you ever frightened by your own detective story?”

“That isn’t a silly or surprizing thing,” she replied. “I had such an experience when I was writing ‘The Forsaken Inn.’ A woman dies in a locked room, which is never opened. Fifteen years later another woman crawls through the passageway to the room. I knew what she was going to find there, and when she was half-way through I was so frightened I could not take her any farther. I had to lay the manuscript away for a time.”

The surprizing thing about Anna Katherine Green is her lack of egotism. She is considerate of the taxi-driver who waits for you outside in the cold and she does not take herself seriously at all. You leave with the idea that she enjoys writing her stories, and even if they did not run through large editions she would go on writing them just the same.