Showing posts with label Elizabeth George. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Elizabeth George. Show all posts

12 February 2015

Write What You Know

by Eve Fisher

"Write what you know!"  That old cliche gets trotted out regularly.  Now usually it's meant as an encouragement, but it's also used to set up (and even justify) limitations. I've had people seriously ask how I could teach World History without having visited every country in the world.  I've talked to writers who seriously said that they couldn't write about a ski bum or a serial killer or a heartbroken mother of a dying child because they'd never experienced that.

My response to the first is, "Does a medieval historian have to go to the Middle Ages?"  [Perennial note to self:  get a Tardis.  NOW.]

And my response to the second is, Emily Bronte, Emily Dickinson, and Flannery O'Connor.

Or Terence:

"I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me."
                        --Terence, The Self-Tormenter (163 BCE)

Or Walt Whitman:

"I am large; I contain multitudes."
                       --Walt Whitman, Song of Myself (1892 CE)

We are (almost) all born with the same emotional equipment.  Love, jealousy, envy, happiness, sadness, depression, joy, verve, hatred, need, greed, etc.  You want to know how someone else feels?  Pay attention.  To them and yourself.  Look inside and amplify (or de-amplify) as necessary. Everything that happens starts inside the human heart and mind.  If we're lucky, not all of it gets out, except in fiction.
NOTE:  "Just because it leaps into your head doesn't mean you have to DO it," is an observation I keep trying to share with my friends at the pen.  One of the main differences between (most) writers and (most) criminals is that writers have the ability to delay gratification.  (Per word, per piece, perhaps....) 
But seriously, think about writers:  Besides absolute loners like the Brontes and Emily Dickinson, there are many others who wrote amazingly atypical stuff.  In real life, Conan Doyle had far more in common with Dr. Watson than Mr. Holmes.  By all accounts Margaret Mitchell was neither a bitch nor lived during the Civil War.  Elizabeth George is neither a viscount nor a working class frump, and she's never lived in England.  Patricia Highsmith never actually killed anybody, although I understand that some people wanted to kill her.  Ray Bradbury never drove a car.  Rex Stout was happily married (at least the 2nd time), and fairly thin.  Our own Janice Law has never been a male gay artist of extremely unconventional genius with a liking for rough trade.  (That or she has the most fantastic disguise in history.)  It's called imagination.  And observation.  And mulling things over.  And wondering...  That's why we write.

Look, there's nothing new under the sun.  Humans are humans (including Neanderthals).  Everyone on Jerry Springer could be any of us, given the wrong circumstances and a complete lack of self-control in public.  There are really no new plots, which is a godsend to those of us who scramble to figure out not whodunnit but how the heck they did it.  My story "Sophistication" used a 4,000 year old plot device and I'm damned proud of it.  And if the news is quiet, and you just can't think of a reason why someone would commit a violent act, consider Steven Pinker's breakdown of the Five Inner Demons from his book, "The Better Angels of Our Nature":
  • Practical violence (means to an end)
  • Dominance violence (the quest for authority, prestige, power, glory, etc.)
  • Revenge 
  • Sadism 
  • Ideology 
There's a list to haunt your dreams.

James Joyce,
painted by Patrick Tuohy
in Paris, 1924
So we have all the emotions, we can crib the plots, what do we really need?  Education.  Facts.  And here's where we are the luckiest generation in history.  You can research almost ANYTHING on the internet.  I don't have to be James Joyce, sitting in Paris, writing frantic letters back home to Dublin, trying to nail down details of Dublin, June 16, 1904.  (Although there's worse things to be, that's for sure.  I wouldn't want his failing eyesight, but otherwise...)  I can find out almost anything I want to know about guns, poisons, crime, statistics, spyware, malware, anything-ware online.  I can read old diaries, old letters, old cuneiform, and go to an infinity of historical websites dedicated to Life In ___ (fill in the blank).  It's out there. And I have done it:  I am proud to say that my most recent sale to AHMM (thank you, Linda Landrigan!) is "Miss West's First Case", set in a tuberculosis sanatorium in post-WW2 Vienna, and I did ALL the research either on-line or amongst my books.  

Write what you know?  Honey, we can know anything we want.  We just have to put it together. Excuse me, I have to get writing!


15 March 2012

The Long and the Short


by Janice Law

Recently, I was asked to write a four page mystery for a forthcoming anthology. While our Sleuthsayers colleague John Floyd constructs such tidbits for Woman’s World, this is unknown territory for me. However, there’s nothing like a contract in hand and promises of a check to focus the writer’s mind and once I had a plot idea, the story went surprisingly easily. And fast.

This was because I have learned one of the invaluable aspects of the writing game, writing to length and having a sense of how many words take up how much space. Obvious, apparently, but anyone who has worked with beginning writers knows that writing to a set length is one of the difficult things to master. Ask a class for a two page essay, and you will get one and a half skimpy paragraphs with looks of anguish from half the class, and prideful four and a half page torrents from the other half.

Of course, journalists acquire a sense of length with their mother’s milk – or by their editor’s pencil. Well before they earn their first byline the decent journalist can hit his or her word count or, in bygone days, the allotted inches, on the nose.

And how does one acquire this useful skill? By writing over and over again pieces of the same length. I learned by doing two page movie reviews for a West Hartford newspaper. After several months, I not only could hit my page count, I had a new confidence in writing in general, and composition ceased to be a matter of tears and angst.
Now, everything I write (and with twenty books published and more than I’d like in the drawer I’ve written plenty) is just a multiple of those old two page reviews. I’ve acquired a sense of length.

So the little ultra-short story was not quite two reviews length or slightly more than the old Criminal Brief blogs. I figured a half page to set up the situation, a half page for the conclusion and just under three pages for the meat of the story. QED, as we used to say in geometry class.

The matter of length, though, has another aspect. I am convinced that writers all have an optimal length (or lengths). In my case the Anna Peters mysteries consistently came in around 275-290 pages. My contemporary novels are a tad longer, between 300 and 350 pages. My short stories without the incentive of a contract run between 10 and 14 pages, rarely longer – or shorter.

Other writers, I believe, follow the same sort of pattern. Stephen King clearly writes long. The Portuguese Nobelist Jose Saramago wrote short – check Cain, his posthumously published novel about the first murderer.
The great Edwardian humorists, P.G. Wodehouse and Jerome K. Jerome liked short. The classic American novelists were divided. Melville liked long as did Stowe; Hawthorne liked short and was better even shorter. The great UK Victorians and the great Russian novelists needed amplitude, though one of the best of the era, Emily Bronte, brought in Wuthering Heights at a modest length.

Perhaps if penicillin had been available to knock out her TB, Bronte might have evolved into a long writer. More recently, this been the pattern of successful mystery novelists. While Christie, Chandler, and Simenon all stayed with compact books, all too many of our contemporaries have moved from short and tight to brogdingnagian. Dick Francis, he of the thrilling Nerve and Flying Finish, grew rich on doorstop novels of multiple plots – and abundant padding.

P.D. James has grown longer, too, over the decades, if with fewer ill effects, but Elizabeth George’s Believing the Lie suggests that she may have reached the tipping point. Ruth Rendall has resisted the trend; indeed her most recent novel was shorter than usual, but she has had the outlet of the Barbara Vine novels, suggesting she has two ideal lengths.

Surprisingly, given the cost-cutting in the publishing world with lower advances – or no advances at all – cheaper paper, and cheesy construction, there seems to be a preference for the massive. Big novels, big books suggest big ideas or, at least, big sales and big sticker prices. Big suggests important, though many a savvy reader knows it really means inflated. But in this economy, who can blame writers, if like me with a contract in hand, they are tempted to venture beyond their muse’s favorite territory?

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