Art As A Plot Device by Linda Schroeder

Happy to welcome Linda Schroeder to the blog today to talk about the use of art as a plot device and how the need to come up with an “object of desire” for a mystery writing class led to her novel Artists & Thieves.

Linda SchroederNeed something to steal, to ransom, to fake? Need modern forensic technology to solve a crime? Need a detective with guts?

Try using art as a plot device.

Art is a high price commodity. One of the four versions of Edvard Munch’s The Scream just sold for 120 million. And it is pastel on cardboard. Lots to think about there. So you need look no further than art if you need a writing topic.

The Thomas Crown Affair. The Da Vinci Code. The Rembrandt Affair. The hunter and the hunted. See what I mean?

A question I am often asked is, “How the heck did you figure out what to write about?” That’s an easier one to answer than, “Why the heck did you even want to write a book?” I’ll answer the easy one here by getting back to art and how I figured out what art piece to write about.

Several years ago I enrolled in a UCSD class on how to write a mystery novel. I needed a plot, settings, characters. Piece of cake, I thought. But, no. What I knew about writing and what I needed to learn in order to write were worlds apart. I’ve studied books and language since college but studying and reading are very different from the active task of producing a story.

Artists and Thieves by Linda SchroederFor the class, I didn’t want to spend hours writing about nasty murders, blood diamonds, or weapons of slaughter. That’s the daily news. At that time I was reading David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge, his discussion of how Old Masters might have used a camera obscura to trace a subject and then paint over the tracing. A camera obscura is simply a dark (obscura) room (camera) with a small hole in one side. Light passes through the hole from outside and projects an upside down image on a wall or a canvas. A pinhole camera does that. Every camera lens does that. It’s a physics thing.

For the class I needed to come up with an “object of desire,” something the characters needed to protect and/or steal? So, “Aha!” Why not create an art piece showing a camera obscura? Not so easy to do. I tried thinking up a painting, then a scroll, then an etching. While I was thinking, I also was studying Chinese art and Chinese brush painting. Finally I came up with a Chinese bronze bowl with an upside-down garden carved on it.

When I finally had the bowl, no one in my writing group could visualize it. So I had to write scenes to describe exactly how an artist had designed the bowl and how it was made into bronze. I went to foundries to see first hand how bronze is cast. That was fun.

Then I started putting together the whole art mystery. Several years and a lot of rewrites later I had Artists & Thieves.

Three guesses what the original title was.

Linda Schroeder divides her time between the bright sun of California and the high mountains of Colorado. She has a Master’s degree in English and one in Communicative Disorders/Audiology. In addition to her debut novel, Artists & Thieves, she has published a college text. Currently, she studies and practices Chinese brush painting and is working on two more novels, a second Mai Ling novel about the Diamond Sutra, and a Sammy Chan art mystery about the forgery of a Goya painting. To learn more about Linda, visit her website.

– Artists & Thieves by Linda Schroeder –


  • carol

    July 11, 2012 - 11:42 AM

    Really interesting that she started the story as a class project.

  • Cathy Worthington

    June 11, 2012 - 12:48 PM

    Really, really interesting insights into what goes on in the mind of an author! I enjoyed the whole thing.

  • Sabrina Ogden

    June 11, 2012 - 11:45 AM

    Wonderful article, Linda. And what an interesting piece of art to choose… I’m sure the research was very fun.

  • Valerie Stocking

    June 11, 2012 - 11:37 AM

    Great article, Linda! You explain camera obscura really well. It’s obvious you enjoy your subject very much. “Artists and Thieves” was great, and I look forward to the sequel!