Writers as Fisherfolk

It’s stretching a metaphor to call writers fisherfolk, but in for a penny . . . If you can stick with me here, I’d say we cast our nets through research. What I like best about the research I do for my short stories and novels is that it gives me ideas, it lets me connect my story to reality, and readers respond because the story seems so “real” to them. Even if a bit of background work gives me only a single word, it will be the mot juste. Our net-casting—our research—happens at several levels—trolling for ideas, diving into the facts, and weighing the catch.

Trolling for Ideas – When readers ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” and a writer says “everywhere,” they mean that every news story, magazine article, museum exhibit, and anecdote goes into that great filing cabinet wastebasket in the brain and comes out, maybe, someday, in some form or another. Very likely, it won’t be identical, it may not even be recognizable, but it will be “inspired by.”

An example: In my novel, Architect of Courage, the protagonist learns a heinous crime was not the fault of the person he blames, and a police detective wisely advises him to let it go. “This will be hard to wrap your mind around. It changes things,” the detective says, adding, “Time and again I see people who can’t give up their theories about who’s to blame for a crime. They hang on for dear life.” This idea came from reading an FBI agent’s blog about the British family of a young woman murdered in Perugia, Italy, a crime for which American Amanda Knox was wrongfully convicted. Despite numerous and lengthy legal proceedings and much evidence exonerating Knox, the dead woman’s parents steadfastly believed in her guilt. The psychology of this case, if not the factual situation, bore directly on my thriller.

Diving into the Facts – Writing page after page and chapter after chapter requires a different, much more focused type of research. Maps, reference books, photo research, the Internet—all keep the writer out of blooper territory. Are there one-way streets in Brussels? Which way do they run? How long does it take to get from the Hotel Sofitel to the American Embassy by cab? What does the hotel neighborhood look like? My architect protagonist is mostly in Manhattan, but he travels to Brussels and Tarifa, Spain, too. I was amused and flattered when a friend contacted me asking for Brussels travel tips. I’ve never been there. The setting just seemed so real to him. (Success!) The facts I uncovered, in turn, led to new ideas and situations that fostered the story’s development.

Weighing the Catch– So, the author has written “The End.” Is it? Probably not. Now that the story is down on paper and the dilemmas of the plot and characters are solved, what more is there to do? It’s time for the big picture. Beta readers help (think “audience research”). In Architect of Courage, I also needed a more specific review of the way police work. Yes, I watch tv, but on the off-chance its depictions of policing aren’t 100% accurate, I sought help. I spent an afternoon with a former NYPD detective and terrorism expert going over every paragraph and every line of dialog that involved law enforcement. “Would a detective say something like this?,” “Is this how it’s done?,” “Does this make sense to you?” Blooper-patrol again, though my questions weren’t just about what do cops do, I was hoping for—and received—insights into how they think.

Your Further Research:
I like Benjamin Sobieck’s The Writer’s Guide to Weapons. It provides “just enough” information.

Need a foreign word? Try the Word Reference website—lots of idioms associated with a word, and online forums with native speakers where you can ask questions. Especially helpful with slang. Many languages.

If you’ve read Architect of Courage and wonder where something or other came from, feel free to ask! And if you haven’t read it, you can order it here. (affiliate link)

No Dull Sentences!

Award-winning novelist William Gay, who died just over a decade ago, was heralded as a new voice in Southern fiction from the time his first novel, The Long Home, was published in 1999. When I read a reviewer’s comment that Gay was “incapable of writing a dull sentence,” he sounded like someone to find out more about.

In an interview published in 2013, he talked about being considered an heir to Faulkner, O’Connor, and Wolfe, and said that his favorite Faulkner novel is As I Lay Dying, because in it Faulkner writes about ordinary people. That’s a hallmark of Gay’s own writing, and draws on a long career that included house-painting and hanging drywall to support his family by day, writing out stories by night. Understandably, given that schedule, his first book wasn’t published until he was in his late fifties. But he had been on that path since seventh grade, when a teacher noticed his incessant reading and gave Gay a copy of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, as long as he’d talk to him about it afterwards. It became one of his favorite books.

Younger people would ask him whether they should write what they want to write, even though it might be a hard road to get it published, or should they turn to genre writing (which is no picnic to get published, either, I’d add). His advice was always that they should write what they wanted to write. I think that’s what lets you, as a writer, put your heart into it and gives you the fortitude to stay with it over time through revisions, more revisions, critiques, and seeking publication.

Many book marketing folks say authors should have their ideal reader, or audience, in mind. Gay disagrees. He believes that, if you do, “the work is going to be more bland, with the rough corners knocked off.” It makes a story more generic and he said he’s always tried to avoid being generic. Much of Gay’s work is dark and violent, coming-of-age stories set in the 1940s and 50s, in which a young person must confront evil. (Stephen King, who knows something about evil, said Gay’s darkest, most Southern Gothic book, Twilight,was his “best read” in 2008.NOT the vampires.)

Gay went on a publish several more well regarded novels and a short-story collection with the juicy title, I Hate to See the Evening Sun Go Down (2002). His story, “The Paperhanger” was anthologized in Best American Mystery Stories 2001.

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AI: Wild Hopes, Desperate Fears, and Plot Ideas

Generative artificial intelligence taking over what we thought were uniquely human activities offers of-the-minute plot lines for mystery and crime writers. We’re accustomed to robot reporters covering high school sports and company earnings reports, but ChatGPT and its kin producing the Great American Novel-To-Be? What about AI creating art, video, and audio that mimics specific human voices? Whole new realms of possible crimes open up. A recent Washington Post article calls this an era of “wild hopes and desperate fears.” If the genie isn’t already out of the bottle, it’s certainly punched through the top.

“The capacity for a technology to be used both for good and ill is not unique to generative AI,” the Post article says. Other types of AI tools have downsides too. One that immediately raised skeptical questions is the idea of deploying AI in policing. A recent Guardian article by Jo Callaghan starts by describing the questions such a move would raise. While it makes sense to continue the long-standing practice of sending a robot to check out suspicious packages, San Francisco’s board of supervisors has planned to arm robots with lethal explosives, before pushback caused them to take a step back, maybe only temporarily.

Public confidence in the police has declined sharply in recent years, not just in the United States, but in England and Wales too, Callaghan reports. Meanwhile, it’s a job that “requires hundreds of judgments to be made each day, often under conditions of extreme pressure and uncertainty.” These decisions are informed by a lot of factors unrelated to the situation confronting the officer: past experience, recent trauma, temperament, attitudes and prejudices absorbed from the rest of society. Could AI, presumably relieved of all those extraneous factors, do better? Operate more fairly and efficiently? Maybe, maybe not.

“Narrow AI,” Callaghan explained, can perform specific tasks, like identifying the bomb in that abandoned backpack; “general purpose AI” makes more complicated judgments and decisions, even the kinds public safety personnel must make. The deep learning that enables general purpose AI results from feeding the system huge amounts of data. For example, having been fed millions of photographs of human faces, facial recognition AI can pick out suspects. We see this and other examples of AI creeping into novels and TV cop shows, where, for example, GPS data are used not only to develop “heat maps” of where crimes are likely, but also to predict specific suspects’ likely location or where to look for a missing person. You can see why some authors prefer to set their stories before 1970. The technology is a lot to keep up with.

Callaghan concludes, “Instead of debating what AI will or will not be able to do in the future, we should be asking what we want from our criminal and justice system, and how AI could help us to achieve it.” These are questions crime writers wrestle with too.

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Zoom Cat-astrophes!

The wisdom of a piece of advice in Stephen King’s very useful (and actionable) book, On Writing, has come home to rest in my lap. Purring. Someplace amidst his good advice, he says, “Put the cat out.” In other words, avoid distractions. (No, this is not Save the Cat, that’s another thing altogether!).

Twice lately, I’ve had reason to bow to King. My mystery reading group was reviewing this month’s selection, when my Siamese, William, got his head stuck in a desk-top box of tissues and waved it wildly in front of the Zoom camera. So much for a focused discussion. (Video of an earlier, similar episode attached. Who says cats aren’t willing to conduct repeat experiments?)

Last month, I was the interviewee on a Zoom call about writing, my writing process, and my mystery/thriller Architect of Courage. Kim Ha of the Pennington public library did the interviewing. While a whole checkerboard of Zoomers watched, I had to get up, call my husband, and have him take William away, because he was playing noisily with a plastic bag. Wouldn’t stop, no matter how hard I glared. Talk about wanting to appear “professional”! You can see the interview in this YouTube video if you’re interesting in writing, etc., etc. The thoughtful Kim cut out William’s star turn, however. (I’m hoping that wasn’t the best part!)

So, meanwhile, put the cat out!

The Power of Story

Howard Gordon, executive producer and showrunner for American television shows like Homeland and 24 was the guest on a recent podcast produced by The Cipher Brief, a think tank focused on national security issues. It’s part of the site’s dip into the way national security is portrayed in popular media—television, movies, and books. And it reflects a truth that Gordon says is found in Richard Powers’s book, The Overstory, “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

So, what does it take to make a Hollywood hit “in an age of geopolitical turmoil?” as Suzanne Kelly, head of The Cipher Brief termed it. You don’t have to look far to see that turmoil. Today’s news headlines include the Russia-Ukraine war, China’s world role, a new generation of Palestinian fighters, and repression in Iran and Afghanistan, for starters.

Gordon maintains that his new crime show, Accused, which addresses current social issues, is also germane to national security, because society’s strength is affected by how and how well it functions. Accused, which airs on the Fox network, challenges audiences to understand why a crime was committed. The plot lines are drawn from contemporary issues: violence, race, identity and, as what Gordon called “a vital accelerant to the drama,” social media. He says the show is “a new game every week.”

C’mon, this is tv. Is it just wishful thinking to believe fictional television is “important” in a world where so much serious stuff seems out of whack? We’re so polarized along numerous fault lines there seems no good way for people to come together. Stories, culture, food, are all “Trojan horses for empathy,” Gordon believes. If you show someone other types of people in the context of a story, maybe they will come to look differently at people they encounter in real life.

Again, how do these “culture wars” affect national security? Kelly noted that the age of interpretation and context is gone—people seem too eager “to line up on sides.” As retired four-star General Michael Hayden, a frequent contributor to The Cipher Brief has said, society is not suffering so much from a need to find truth, what we have lost is much more important—a desire and critical capacity to want to find the truth. We’ve lost the desire to respectfully disagree, to negotiate. It’s a loss that affects national security because it makes the job of our enemies so much easier.

More Ways to Annoy Your Reader

In the litany of authorial sins that readers object to, are quirks that require readers to reread or rereread a passage to figure it out. So said the hundreds of readers who responded to a recent Washington Post query, written up here (paywall).

One cause for having to reread a passage can be the abandonment of quotation marks—Cormac McCarthy is an author who omits them (though, I admit, I don’t mind rereading him).

Hilary Mantel had the opposite quirk. She kept the quotation marks but eliminated everything like “Cromwell said” or “said the Cardinal.” Some dialog passages needed several readings to be sure I had the words coming from the correct character’s mouth. Most confusing in Wolf Hall, but better in the later books.

Another annoying source of confusion are gratuitously complicated timelines. The structure of a book should make it easier, not harder, to follow. Even Sulari Gentil’s clever The Woman in the Library (my review) baffled me at times. In a plot like nesting dolls, you have to stay alert to a change in point of view. Is it the author writing or the author she’s writing about or . . . . ???

On to the complaints about characters, starting with “unrealistically clever children or talking animals.” No, please.

A big one we should have evolved past by now is sexy descriptions of women in non-sexy situations. I read a lot of cringy stuff focusing on a woman’s appearance, especially her figure, top and bottom. Need I mention such descriptions are almost always written by men? Turn the tables and write about male characters in such a salacious way, you see how awful it is. (See this column by Alexandra Petri, “If male authors described men in literature the way they describe women.” Or this essay by Prasanna Sawant, “The Bizarre Ways Some Male Authors Describe Women.”) I don’t believe the male authors are even aware they’re doing it. Appearance is what they notice about women in real life, so that’s what they put on paper, whereas the male characters just show up.

Readers also object to “disabled characters who exist only to provide treacly inspiration.” That holds for any character who is meant to demonstrate a point, like the protagonist’s open-mindedness: “Look, he has a Black friend, a gay friend, a loyal dog!” Authors need to give those friends and mutts something to do.

Then the readers got down to nitpicking. Somebody will object to almost anything, it seems: overused phrases like “his smile didn’t reach his eyes,” “she exhaled the breath she didn’t realize she was holding” (I encounter that one a lot). Even individual words would prompt readers’ to get out their blue pencils: burgeoning, preternatural, inevitable, lugubrious. In the comments on the article, one reader objected to “spelling based on sound, not a dictionary. Just read one novel that referred to riggers (not rigors) and emmersed (instead of immersed). I was stunned to read the author’s note in which she complimented her editor.” I, on the other hand, was pleased and surprised to see that such creatures still exist.

Post writer Ron Charles, who compiled these complaints, predicts that “somewhere some cynical, market-driven AI scientist is working on a novel-writing program that can accommodate all these complaints.” I hope not. Words written by a real person—blind spots and annoying habits and grammar lapses and all—are preferable to a formula any day.

Read Part 1 of this article here.

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How To Annoy Your Reader

What pet peeves set readers’ teeth on edge? Washington Post writer Ron Charles wrote about them in this recent article. He asked members of the Post’s Book Club newsletter to let their opinions fly, and, he says, “The responses were a tsunami of bile” from hundreds and hundreds of readers. In case you’re working on a book now or even thinking about it, you’ve been warned.

Readers don’t like dreams. And why not? Is it because as you’re starting to get a mental grip on what’s going on in the story, you suddenly hit that “and then I woke up” line that means you have to mentally erase what you just read? Or, is it as one respondent said, “They are always SO LITERAL.” One example where this type of thing was handled very well was in Paul Cleave’s latest book, The Pain Tourist (my review here). There was never any confusion about whether you were in the comatose boy’s dream-mind, and he put together reality (what was going on around him in real life) and his mind’s protective mechanisms (the illusion that masked the horrible events that led to his coma) was quite astonishing and revelatory.

As you’d expect, readers take offense at historical anachronisms and factual inaccuracies. In essence, “say, dear reader, blah-blah-blah.” Too jarring. At the same time, unless an author is writing for twelve-year-olds, they shouldn’t avoid the occasional word that might send some readers to the dictionary. Not to be pretentious, but because it’s exactly the right word.

Readers want authors to write with authenticity. One respondent warned that “taking a cruise to Alaska is not enough to write a novel about the Last Frontier.” You can take the cruise and write the book, of course, if you bolster that with a lot of additional research.

Typos and grammar errors. Oh, boy. I confess I look up “lie” and “lay” nearly every time I use them (this was one of the errors singled out, along with popular misused homonyms). I’ve read it wrong so many times I don’t even know what’s correct any more. It’s worth the twenty seconds to check, so I don’t lie (ha-ha) awake at night, wondering.

Recently, I read a UK thriller where the author repeatedly used the wrong pronoun case. “He gave it to him and I,” “the book was for her and I,” etc. I was fuming. That’s something he should have learned in junior high. If you turn the sentence around, you see how bad it is: “he gave it to I and him.” And, while this particular error might be forgiven in dialog, because people do make mistakes while speaking, it kept appearing in the narration. This particular book was also, alas, morally bankrupt, so there was a lot not to like.

Readers complained about books that are simply too long. Especially books by best-selling authors Do they think “every word they write is golden and shouldn’t be cut?” one respondent wondered. And it isn’t just the book that’s too long, so are the prologues, chapters, descriptions, and everything else in them and especially those italicized passages. It seems italicized paragraphs hit a nerve with readers. Don’t do it, they say.

“What Readers Don’t Like” – Part 2 WEDNESDAY

Closure–Is It a Realistic Goal?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote two web posts about a real-life murder that took place in Atlantic County, New Jersey, in 2012. Still unsolved. My summaries were based on a pages-long newspaper story by Rebecca Everett. Several of the people she interviewed said outright or implied that the mishandling of the investigation and prosecution kept the family from having closure.

“Closure” is something we hear a lot about after tragedies. But that seems a slippery concept to me. Is there such a thing, really? Or, after a violent episode are people haunted by some combination of guilt and wishful thinking that suggests they or Someone surely could have done Something? They don’t even have to say specifically what those Somethings were, though they may have specifics in mind. Do they tell themselves that they shouldn’t have let their teenager take the car on that rainy night? That they should have kept their child with a stuffy nose home from school that day? That they always knew there was something off about Uncle Max? And on and on.

Even in cases where a death isn’t unexpected, when it isn’t a sudden catastrophe, does this same second-guessing come into play? Do was ask ourselves, Why didn’t I insist she get her mammogram? Why didn’t I say I’d drive him to those AA meetings? Maybe I’m mixing up “closure” and “guilt” or “responsibility.” Or maybe they are somehow cousins.

You’d think the most unequivocal sort of closure would come in death penalty cases, in which victims’ family members are allowed to witness the execution of their loved one’s murderer. It turns out it doesn’t work that way. Not always.

Said the mother of a slain Houston police officer, “I wanted to be sure it was finished, and that’s why I went.” Possibly, this mother did achieve closure. “It was just too humane,” said the mother of a murdered daughter. No closure for her. (The first quote is from a 2017 New York Times story, the second from WebMD.) Perhaps the experience gives the viewer a feeling of retribution, but it doesn’t offer consolation. The loss is still real and present, the empty chair still there. Revenge seems to me a totally different animal than closure.

As a writer of crime fiction, I have to think about this, even in my stumbling way. Recently, I read a story about a private investigator whose client was murdered in a set-up the investigator himself engineered. Although I didn’t expect (or want) the fictional investigator to lapse into a full-blown depression, he doesn’t question his actions, take any responsibility for the death, demonstrate any regret. This struck me as unrealistic and unsatisfying. I guess you could say this particular character achieved closure with no trouble at all. He would have been a better person if he hadn’t.

Halloween Countdown: The Story Behind the Story

tiger, mask

If you asked, I’d say I don’t write horror, but two of my published short stories do include a ghost—maybe. The closest I’ve come to horror is a story Kings River Life published for Halloween 2021. (You can read it here.) “A Question of Identity” is a much-reworked and rethought tale originally written in response to a request for stories about masks. Because our home is full of masks, this was a theme I could resonate with!

In it, two preadolescent girls, neighbors and best friends, each receive a box with a Halloween costume in it—a fox for one and a tiger for the other. Where did they come from? No one knows. Few questions are asked. The moms are just grateful that’s one shopping errand they can cross off their very long lists.

When the girls put on the costumes, the unexpected happens, which is why it evolved into a story that’s much more about identity than Halloween. When they exchange costumes, their parents don’t recognize them, and even after Halloween is over and each girl has her own costume again, their effects linger. You may conclude that those new identities have a dark side.

It isn’t a mystery story leading to a solution, so you never know where the costumes came from, and that uncertainty contributes to the spookiness. As Charles Baxter says in his wonderful book, The Art of Subtext, “the half-visible and the unspoken—all those subtextual matters—are evoked when the action and dialogue of the scene angle downward, when by their multiplicity they imply as much as they show. A slippery surface causes you to skid into the subtext.”

At least, that’s what I was going for!

Reading Lessons: Green Monsters & Flawed Characters

see, eye, green

In Nicky Shearsby’s new psychological thriller, Green Monsters, the first-person narrator, Stacey Adams, makes no secret of her hatred (her word, not mine) for her married older sister, Emma. Emma is a successful businesswoman, lives in a huge house with her dishy husband Jason and toddler daughter, has a designer wardrobe, yada-yada-yada. Perfect, in other words.

Emma’s every remark is perceived as a subtle dig at Stacey’s lack of achievement, her lower status, all the ways she is less. Implications all the more piercing by being true. Stacey lives alone in a cramped apartment and squeaks by with work for a temp agency at a job she cares about not one little bit.

This is a book that, despite its strengths, has a number of significant challenges buried in the set-up described above. Stacey has an almost Manichean view of the world. People are unambiguously either bad (Emma) or good (herself). There’s no gray here.

Shearsby does a powerful job conveying Stacey’s obsessions. The book cover describes her as a “narcissistic psychopath”; however, no mental health professional makes that diagnosis. When, eventually, the plot requires a reversal of Stacy’s attitude, I had been so persuaded of her pathology, I doubted whether Stacey would be capable of any recalibration. If she’s truly a psychopath, it isn’t plausible to me that one day she would simply get past it.

Any story where the main character has a severe mental disorder faces difficulties. And, in Green Monsters is also the narrator Leaving aside that a character’s quirks could become tiresome to the reader, it can be almost too easy to predict their actions. (Of course she sleeps with her sister’s husband—not a spoiler, says so on the cover. Of course, he’ll pursue revenge to the ends of the earth.) Such characters, propelled by their pathology, typically have little control over their lives, and all the reader can do is watch their downward spiral. (By contrast, in Tana French’s Broken Harbor, the apparent schizophrenia of the main character’s younger sister is brilliantly portrayed and viewed not through her eyes, but his.)

This isn’t to say that all characters need to be “likeable,” far from it. But they do need dimension. What do they do all day? What do they value? What are they interested in, and is it something that makes the reader interested in them? I never had the impression Stacey was interested in anything other than her sister’s husband and their trysts.

In the right hands, with the right project, there are always exceptions to any general observations about writing. But I’ve read enough stories that take the point of view of a deranged serial killer (which, thankfully, Stacey is not) that I have seen how hard that is to pull off. If I were trying to distill the main lesson for me from reading Green Monsters, it would be to give my characters the kinds of lives that will keep readers interested even when they are monsters, green or otherwise.