Comfortable Ambiguity

keyhole, shoes, Cristian Iohan Ștefănescu

(photo: Cristian Iohan Ștefănescu, Creative Commons license)

A novel should leave “a little room for the reader to interpret, to bring in his or her own perceptions and conceptions,” says Celeste Ng in a recent Glimmer Train essay. Ng’s novel, Everything I Never Told You is one of NPR’s “Great Reads” for 2014 and has been selected by the Amazon editors as the #1 book of the year. Ng’s essay suggests we can look through the keyhole, we can see the pink velvet shoes, but we may never know everything about them, so we fill in the rest of the story to our own pasts, preconceptions, and predilections.

In her “literary thriller,” Ng artfully leaves room for interpretation of the events leading to the disappearance of a family’s daughter. A familiar premise, but “If we know this story, we haven’t seen it yet in American fiction, not until now,” says Alexander Chee in the New York Times, as she turns “the nest of familial resentments into at least four smaller, prickly mysteries full of the secrets the family members won’t share.”

There’s a difference between the deliberate ambiguity Ng advocates—“a space, however small, for the reader to fit into the piece”—and simple confusion. The challenge is to walk the tightrope between answering every question and leaving out important information about character, motivation, or even plot that the reader needs in order to arrive at a reasonable conclusion. As a writer of mystery and thriller stories myself, I am constantly aware of that tightrope and the expectations of readers in this genre.

Discomfort with ambiguity leads to such devices as the flash-forward epilogue “that tells you exactly where everyone ends up and what everything means.” This was my one quibble with the otherwise lovely novel All the Light We Cannot See. Movies do this, too. In general, I find this trick disappointing, because by the time I reach the end of a book or compelling movie, I have a rich array of ideas about the potential future lives of the characters, and the novelist/moviemaker can pick only one of these.



Preoccupation with, you could say, “closure,” may not be simply a response to ambiguity per se, Ng proposes, “but to ambiguity done badly.” If ambiguity results from the writer’s own indecision, she says, then it often doesn’t work. If the writer is relying on readers to sort out the evidence and arrive at a conclusion, “the reader senses that crucial pieces are missing and ends up confused.” When the writer knows how the situation resolves, but simply chooses not to say, like Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, “a modest monument to the bold pursuit of ambiguity,” said poet Brad Leithauser. The ambiguity in that novel has sparked 116 years of speculation, a level of interest that likely wouldn’t have occurred, had James made it perfectly clear whether the governess was delusional.

In the batch of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine stories I reviewed 12/12/14 was one by Joyce Carol Oates (“Equatorial”) in which the timid wife of a much-married man grows to believe he’s trying to kill her. Evidence mounts that he might want to be rid of her. He seems, a time or two, to try. But then he injures himself and the imbalance in physical strength between them tips slightly in her direction. She takes a risk to further even the odds. The story ends as the two sides of this interpersonal equation teeter on the brink. Will he succeed, or will she? The ending is classically ambiguous, and Oates has given sufficient information for readers to plausibly choose either ending.

Everything I Never Told You ends without telling exactly what happens to its characters outside the bounds of the book, and readers ask Ng about them. At first such questions made her worry she’d left out some key bit of information, but then she realized that readers believe they know the characters and are firmly convinced about what happens to them. What they wanted from Ng was “to confirm what ‘really’ happened—because they wanted to be right!—but all of them were already positive that they knew.”

It is these readers’ “intense and comfortable certainty” that shows she left sufficient ambiguity for readers to take hold and give the story their own meaning. “The story is truly finished—and meaning is made—not when the author adds the last period, but when the reader enters the story and fills that little ambiguous space, completing the circuit, letting the power flow through.”

See how she does it!

***Blood, Bones & Butter

Gabrielle Hamilton, Blood Bones & Butter

(photo: author)

By Gabrielle Hamilton – An engaging memoir that chronicles the author’s intense relationship with food, from her upbringing with a French mother and artist/set designer father, her falsifying her age to work in New Jersey kitchens starting at age 14, her drug-riddled stints as a bar waitress and catering kitchen dynamo, to the opening of her own restaurant in the East Village. That restaurant became the mini-phenomenon known as Prune, helped bring home-style cooking into vogue. In 2011, Hamilton received the James Beard award as New York City’s best chef.

The book describes Hamilton’s difficult relations with her mother and husband, but it’s never clear what the source of these difficulties is, why the relationships deteriorated as they did, or, rather, why she let them drift. Her essential alone-ness appears to be the strongest strain in her character.

I enjoyed this book’s lack of typical foodie descriptions, though it is over-the-top in its own way, determined not to, ahem, sugar-coat kitchen proceedings. She’s a compelling writer, with an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, and winner of the James Beard book award for writing and literature in 2012. Power on the page gets you past some of the unsavory spots, and it was well received. Legendary chef Anthony Bourdain calls the book “simply the best memoir by a chef ever.”

Joyce Carol Oates: “Not in a Car!”

Tracy, Hepburn, Adam's Rib

Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in Adam’s Rib (photo:

The most specific piece of writing advice I gleaned at the Princeton University event celebrating Joyce Carol Oates’s teaching career last week was this: Never let your characters have a conversation while riding in a car. Her former students laughed in a way that suggested they’d heard this one—and other cliché-avoidance tips—before, more than once.

The event included two panels involving 10 of Oates’s former students—all successfully published writers today—who offered wide-ranging reminiscences about their experiences with their teacher and mentor. In last week’s First Draft blog post, I collected their thoughts on what she taught them about “being a writer.” They also let the audience glimpse a bit of what they learned from her about the craft of writing.

Julie Sarkissian, author of the novel Dear Lucy, long-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize, recounted how she grounded some of her early writing in her own experiences and how Oates wanted her to separate this work from the lived reality, to make the fiction whole and entire in itself. Apparently the teacher wasn’t swayed at all by Sarkissian’s argument that what she’d written was “true.” Sarkissian learned right then that “the fact that something is true is a pretty pathetic defense when it comes to fiction.”

Is it going too far, then, to say fiction is about lying? Deftly? Another of Oates’s students present was Pinckney Benedict, author of the collection Miracle Boy and Other Stories (my review), and apparently Oates once said something like, “Pinckney seems like the kind of person who would lie to an interviewer.” A startled Benedict found this a revelation: “You can LIE to an interviewer?!” and swore he’s included two or three whoppers in every interview since.

Now I wonder what lies lurk in his excellent Glimmer Train interview from Winter 2013, which has him saying, “I am not trying in my own work to demonstrate that my heart is in the right place because, quite frankly, it is not.” [Is that one?] Trying to establish a common ground with readers—“we’re all well-meaning people together”—he says, “is the antithesis of a powerful or worthwhile literature.” That statement underscores the “don’t pull your punches” approach to writing Oates encouraged in her students.

Former Oates student Jonathan Safran Foer recounted how he’d once turned in a set of pages on which Oates wrote: “Confusing, but uninteresting,” with the latter charge the more piercing. Even unpleasant and essentially boring characters have to be made interesting, she said, in the context of fiction. They become interesting through their uniqueness. (Paradoxically, “The more unlike anyone else you make a character, the more universal that character becomes,” says Donald Maass’s in Writing 21st Century Fiction.) Benedict, originally from rural West Virginia, sets his stories in an Appalachian region so vividly portrayed the reader can reach out and touch the surrounding mountains and smell the barns and fresh-turned earth. In commenting on his skill in this, Oates echoed Maass’s counterintuitive statement, “The regional, if it’s intensely felt, is the universal.”

A conversational thread I especially related to was Oates’s dictum that “Writing is about solving problems.” How do you get this character from here to there (believably)? If you need a character out of the picture a while, where does she go? Why? How to get from here to there is what Oates taught her students. Despite having written more than a hundred books, when she has to identify her profession, “If I have to put it down on some form,” she said, “I write ‘teacher.’”

Joyce Carol Oates: Being a Writer

Joyce Carol Oates, On BoxingJoyce Carol Oates isn’t a person bitten by the writing bug early in life. She wanted to be a teacher. And, it’s as a teacher that Princeton University celebrated her last Friday, with 10 of her former students—all multiply published writers today—returning to talk about their experiences in her classes and workshops and with her personally. She began teaching at Princeton in 1978 and, in 2015, will retire from full-time teaching but continue to teach a course each fall in the Creative Writing program.

While the former students lauded her accessibility and careful attention to their work, Oates also has found time to create more than 100 books, including fiction, essays, plays, poetry, and a memoir. In this list is her “unlikely bestseller,” On Boxing. One of her former students, Jonathan Ames, commented that in his day, the only photograph in Oates’s office was one of her with Mike Tyson. This got a laugh from the 100 or so people in the audience observing Oates’s birdlike frame.

Boxing might seem an activity far removed the daily life of a literary academic, but all writers are boxers, one might say, whose opponents are the words they are trying to batter into place in meaningful sentences that express ideas, display characters, and tell unforgettable stories. While this or that writer is applauded as “brave” for spilling raw emotions messily onto the page, Oates’s former students called her truly “courageous” —and here the boxing metaphor emerged explicitly— for never “pulling her punches.” And she taught them not to, either.

Numerous comments about her guidance related to how she prepares her students to be writers, including, as Jonathan Safran Foer said, maintaining the energy to produce a completed work. Many students—equally talented and ambitious as the published writers present—at some point just stop writing, he said. Oates makes her students excited about the process, in the hope that they won’t stop, because from draft to draft, although incremental improvements may—probably are—achieved, they become smaller and smaller. As Whitney Terrell said, “Half the game is just hanging in.” And the work is hard. Moderator Edmund White called his conversations with Oates “one Sisyphus talking to another.”

Another gift she gave students, they said, was permission to identify themselves as “writers.” Being a writer is not necessarily an identity people are comfortable claiming for themselves. In France, White said, no one ever says “I am a poet.” “I write poems” might be OK, but external validation is needed for writers to assert their status in the creative world. Christopher Beha said that Oates made him feel like a character himself —a persona—apart from his ordinary sense of self.

The students further praised her for finding something in every piece of student writing that she loved. She would point out the particular strengths of a piece of writing, then focus the seminar participants—much as editors of a magazine might, which was a frequent class discussion device—on how to make it better. “You let me hand in all those dirty stories,” Ames said, “and you never just x’d that stuff out.” To which Oates replied, “There wouldn’t have been much left. Your name, maybe.”

Over her years of teaching, she’s observed changes in her students. Most prominently, at Princeton today, the student body is so diverse, coming from many different countries and backgrounds. Students have traveled more, visiting countries that decades ago most wouldn’t even have heard of and encountering different cultures that inevitably affect their work. They also read different books, and Oates emphasized the importance of the earliest books one reads—before college, even before high school. Today’s childhoods typically include Harry Potter and more films. Her favorite reads were Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, which she first devoured at age eight or ten. Fantastical. Penetrating. Funny. Inciting curiosity. Qualities we were told she brought to her decades of teaching.

Bad Ideas Don’t Become Good Books

kindle, book, ereader


Helping writers become published seems like as big a big business as writing itself. And writing, we know, is huge. People will help writers write, help them self-publish, and help with the endless baffling tasks—finding an agent, managing a self-publishing path, and promoting their product. As a book nears completion, a writer’s anxiety grows, and the whole process of sending that precious baby out into the marketing void fills authors with not unreasonable qualms.

That some of these purveyors are unscrupulous goes with the territory. (See links below.) That some of them serve ideas that are cold potatoes, ditto. But every once in a while, amid the cacophony of advice available to writers, comes a message that may not be exactly new but really resonates.

Jane Friedman is a consistently reliable, forward-thinking writing-and-publishing commentator and pulls in mostly helpful guest posters on her blog. Recently she invited Laurie Scheer, “a seasoned development exec and writing mentor,” to talk about a topic most authors (me included!) would rather not examine: What if the fundamental idea for your book is, well, mediocre?

Scheer started off with three questions, then presented what I found the most helpful part of her post: an example.

The Three Questions

question, graffiti


Every writer, she says, needs to have persuasive answers to these three questions on the tip of the tongue—for dealing with potential editors, agents, publishers, and the (eventual) marketing team and even the public. Why make this? Why make it now? and Who cares?

The answer to “why make this,” needs to describe what about a novel (or screenplay, for that matter) makes it unique, compelling, and authentic. For people who write in genre fiction—mystery, romance, science fiction, horror, and their permutations—this can be especially hard. A police procedural with a flawed detective? Divorced and drinks too much, perhaps? In truth, most plots have been done and done again—because they work—but something about them needs to be unique, compelling, and authentic. This is a flaw with many memoirs. Nothing new or insightful. That’s a hard message for writers delving into their own personal—and very likely painful—history.

Why make this now? Recognizing trends in the marketplace and when they’ve peaked suggests something about timing. In crime novels, the trend has been for ever-more inventive and grisly threats. This has upping the violence ante to the point of unbelievability, in my opinion. In one I read last year, a victim would awake standing up, with the lower half of his body encased in a block of ice. Nowhere did the text mention the amount of time it would take to freeze that much water, the noise of the generators producing sufficient cooling, how the equipment to do it was transported from one locale to another, in other words, a big “huh?”

And, the third question, who really cares? Who will pay good money to read this book? Herein is the flaw in the new Kindle Scout program—“reader-powered publishing for new, never-before-published books.” Potential readers help decide which books the program publishes and receive the book free if it’s selected. In other words, some of the people most interested in the book don’t have to pay to get it. (Thanks to Build Book Buzz’s marketing maven Sandra Beckwith for pointing this out.)

Here’s the Pitch

biological clock


Scheer gives this example of the kind of ideas writers often pitch in answer to the above questions:

A story about a 43-year-old unmarried woman who has had a successful career in advertising or law or pharmaceuticals or whatever, and decides at the last minute that her biological clock’s ticking and she wants to have a child.

Scheer says, “I will wait for the writer to tell me the rest of the story. And there is no rest of the story, because in their mind, that is the story.” A story that has been done many, many times. Some new element needs to be interjected to create new and unique conflicts (why now?). That new element might be one that would capture attention of some larger audience (who cares?). Perhaps the baby’s father should be a divorced police detective who drinks too much. Just kidding. Half.

So I’m going back to reexamine my pitch letters and make sure I’m not cutting short my three-sentence description of what my books are about before I get to “why now” and “who cares”!

Writer Resources

  • Preditors and Editors – this widely recommended website rates agents, editors, publishers, and many other businesses for writers. Though encyclopedic, it could use a makeover. Especially helpful would be dates added to its one-line reviews.
  • Writer Beware! – highly recommend website and blog maintained by Victoria Strauss for the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, but applicable to all writers. Especially helpful information on contracts, I’ve noticed. (Her take on Kindle Scout is here.)
  • Laurie Scheer’s new bookThe Writer’s Advantage: A Toolkit (Amazon says Tookit) for Mastering your Genre. I ordered this book, and will review it here.

**** The Golden Hour

Todd Moss, diplomacy, thriller,The Golden HourBy Todd Moss (sounds like a nom de plume, doesn’t it?). Read by Peter Marek. This was the best, most realistic (to me!) political thriller I’ve read in recent months. For a first-time novel, impressive. I bought it after reading this Washington Post profile of Washington insider Moss. The book tells the story of an Amherst academic, Judd Ryker, who develops a theory that the period for action after a military coup is limited—just a few days—otherwise the usurpers will be too entrenched and it will be impossible to easily get rid of them and reestablish the (presumably) more legitimate government. He calls this period “the golden hour,” taking the name from emergency medicine and the limited period after a massive traumatic injury in which medical treatment is most likely to avoid death. Ryker is recruited by the State Department to test his theory in real life and promptly ignored.

The book is not only about a newbie in the shark tank of seasoned diplomats, a coup in Mali, the kidnapping of a powerful Senator’s daughter, and U.S. security imperatives, but also about finding out whom you can trust. I liked that the main character isn’t an armed-to-the-teeth master of 20 forms of martial arts. He’s just a guy, a very smart guy, using his wits. He doesn’t meet up with a woman character as a flimsy excuse for the author to write a couple of steamy sex scenes. He doesn’t make decisions that had me silently screaming, “Why are you DOING that?” He doesn’t fall predictably off the wagon–a dead giveaway that things are going to go very wrong. Instead, he goes quietly about his business, calls his wife, checks on his kids at the beach, and learns who his friends really are. When he makes one most fateful decision, you understand he makes it based on his principles, not the external exigencies of the author’s plot.

Thriller writer John Sandford called it “A tough, realistic, well-written tale of American diplomats scrambling to reverse an African coup amidst intense turf battles – State, Defense, White House, Congress, and CIA – and ever-shifting facts on the ground. Moss is an insider who knows how these things are really done – and how thin the line is between triumph and disaster.”

The narration may make Judd sound a drop more tentative than necessary, but Marek’s portrayal of the African characters and military were beautiful. Awesome first book by Todd Moss. First of a series.

Ravel-Edged Storytelling

forest poetry


A walk in the woods of poetry and prose and pleasantly lost in thickets of words.

The current (subscription only) newsletter from AGNI—Boston University’s well-regarded literary magazine—includes an interview with prize-winning poet and nonfiction writer Rosalie Moffett about “Ravel-Edged Storytelling.”

A Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University, Moffett says she mostly considers herself a poet, but believes that the two genres—poetry and nonfiction—“share a border, and sometimes I look up to find I’ve crossed it.” A work that started out to be one thing takes an unexpected and serendipitous turn to become the other. In reading this month’s submissions to the writer’s workshop I attend, I encountered one 1200-word short story excerpt that seemed to want to become a poem and might have become one, by just changing the line lengths.

Answering Questions

Moffett says she writes prose and poetry for the same reason: to answer questions and, most of the time, poems “end up being the best arena for my mind to answer them.” This suggests a mind that ranges freely through a forest of possible answers, where the ambiguity of words can be pulled into service of meaning and intent. Strung together in a particular way, they can be the perfect example of the whole being more than the sum of the parts. That phenomenon is is one function of subtext.

dinner table, family

(photo: creative commons generic license)

AGNI online offers Moffett’s essay Sidney, whose story she says absolutely required “the ravel-edged” kind of telling offered by prose. Prose also provided a more valid recreation of how she originally heard—or overheard—the family stories, and the stories about Sidney himself, with all their half-bits of information, inferences, and unanswered questions like loose threads in a bag of knitting ravaged by moths or kittens. Prose “puts our stories together in a way they never had the chance to be before people died, got bitter, or went off their rockers.” I urge you to link to it and start reading; you won’t be able to stop!

And Telling Stories

In the essay about Sidney, she talks about how as a child younger than six visiting her grandparents, she got up late in the evening feigning hunger, so she could camp out in the kitchen eating a bowl of cereal and overhearing the adults’ conversation in the next room: “I remember the music of the stories more than their substance. I sensed their pull and power. I wanted, suddenly, nothing more than to have stories to tell, and to sit at that table and tell them.” “Sidney” shows she absolutely got her wish.

I think I resonated with her responses in the interview largely because of the process in the last two weeks, of writing my blog posts, The Rouge Shadow and Coming to Amerika, based on a longer essay about my father’s immigrant parents. So different from Moffett, who can draw on a deep well of family detail—conversations, rooms she’s spent time in—I know next-to-nothing about my father’s parents. Yet, even from the few stray threads I have, many stories could be woven. To write these essays, I pieced together the backdrop for a plausible narrative from minute clues. Moffett says writing an essay “feels like the hunt for an answer.” And sometimes the answer is that there is none.

Further Reading

Rosalie Moffett’s website includes links to some of her poems, including this one, “Gifts from the 7-11.”

Agni is the ancient Vedic god of fire and guardian of humankind, a messenger to the other gods. You can find out more about this aptly named literary magazine here. And about the god of fire here.

The Art of Subtext, by Charles Baxter– The most eloquent and approachable group of essays on subtext that I’ve found. For only $3.88 used to $10.28 new, you can awaken to new possibilities. Reading it was like seeing, after not seeing.

Life is a Riddle and a Mystery

By Linda C. Wisniewski, Guest Blogger

pen and ink, writing, memoir


At my Unitarian church, we sing a hymn with the repeating refrain, “Mystery, mystery, life is a riddle and a mystery.” I read lots of mystery novels, and I write and teach memoir. For me, the two genres are not that far apart.

Writing a memoir is a lot like unraveling a mystery. Where you think you are going is often very different from where you find yourself at the end. Good memoir writing, and I mean good for the writer as well as the reader, always involves the process of self-discovery.

Just as all stories begin with the main character’s motivation or desire, the same is true in memoir. The writer wants to discover something about his life, or the characters in his life story. Quite often the process of writing changes the motivation of the memoirist.

In my memoir, Off Kilter, I wrote that “I wanted to understand why my mother couldn’t protect me from my father’s verbal abuse. I wanted to know why she cut me down instead of building me up….She let herself be silenced. She silenced herself. More than anything, I want to understand.”

While writing is not therapy, it can be therapeutic. It wasn’t so much that writing helped me understand my mother, but rather that it helped me accept who she was. I discovered the answer to the mystery of my life: I held in my hands the ability to create my own happiness, as a grown woman, apart from her. After Off Kilter was published, friends suggested more ways I could try to understand my mother. Call relatives, research history, read self-help books. But I was no longer interested. My motivation had changed.

In his memoir, Elsewhere, Richard Russo comes to suspect his mother suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder and feels tremendous guilt, seeing himself as her “principal enabler. Because…like other addicts, obsessives can’t do it on their own. As they gradually lose the control they so desperately seek, they have little choice but to ensnare loved ones.” He holds this discovery for the very end, creating a powerful resolution for himself and the reader.

Years ago, I opened my lunchtime talk at a senior citizens center with the rhetorical question, “Why should you write your memoir?”

A tiny woman in the front row piped up so all could hear, “Yeah, why should I?” She made me laugh, but I totally get where she was coming from. I’ll bet her children and grandchildren were always telling her to write down the stories of her life. But she didn’t want to, and I was hard-pressed to convince her otherwise. I listed the mental and physical health benefits of writing about emotionally significant events, but she did not sign up for my class. And she had a very good point. She could see no reason to revisit the past.

Critics complain there are too many “confessional” memoirs, perhaps recalling the confession or romance magazines aimed at working-class women. In the New York Times Book Review Neil Genzlinger wrote a piece called “The Trouble with Memoirs,” in which he asked for a “moment of silence for the lost art of shutting up.” It caused quite a stir, but the conclusion can be drawn that he was complaining about badly written memoirs, of which there are many.

Stephen Elliott wrote in The Rumpus that “…celebrity memoirs are rarely interesting, despite how interesting their lives appear from the outside. The problem is not that they don’t live interesting lives, it’s that they’re not writers.”

Memoir writing is a risky proposition. “I see you in a whole different way now,” said my book club friend after reading Off Kilter. When I started to write seriously, I joined an online group called Risky Writers. We wrote and critiqued short pieces which involved emotional risk when shared. What would others think if they knew we had done these things? We learned to critique the writing, not the life style of the writer.

Despite the temptation to judge the lives of memoir writers, we don’t think of judging fictional characters. “She shouldn’t have done that!” Well, yes, she should have. That’s how she got into trouble, and why we keep turning the page, especially in a well-plotted mystery. Will she get what she wants in the end? Or does she discover something better?

Genzlinger ended his Times Book Review piece like this. “Maybe that’s a good rule of thumb: If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it.” I would add, don’t publish it yet. And don’t give up looking for the mystery.

Linda Wisniewski

Linda Wisniewski (photo: courtesy of the author)

Linda C. Wisniewski lives in Doylestown, Pa., where she teaches memoir workshops and writes for a local newspaper. Her credits include newspapers,  Hippocampus, other literary magazines, and several anthologies. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won first prizes in the Pearl Buck International Short Story Contest as well as the Wild River Review essay contest. Linda’s memoir, Off Kilter: a Woman’s Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother, and Her Polish Heritage, was published in 2008 by Pearlsong Press. Visit her at

What’s Your Green?



Having a political discussion with my friend Don is almost impossible. In conversation, I avoid the hot-button issues I know will set him off. Unfortunately more of those topics crowd the landscape of his mind than I anticipate, and stumbling on one is like setting off a land-mine. Why is it we can’t just have a conversation? It’s because our points of view are so different, there’s little room for mutual understanding, and we might as well be speaking different languages. Point-of-view determines not only which facts each of us takes in, but also what we see when we look at something as quotidian as three people standing on the street corner.

In a recent Glimmer Train essay on point-of-view, Bret Anthony Johnston, director of creative writing at Harvard, wrote that his students get this concept when he trots out the old saying, “To a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.” He says writers need to understand their characters’ obsessions—their hammerness—and those ten-penny features that loom so large in their minds. Sometimes their preoccupations are so consuming they don’t see the pile of screws right nearby or, more likely, interpret it as another pile of nails. “To the brokenhearted, every couple looks happy,” he says.

I’ve read Johnston’s award-winning book of short stories Corpus Christi: Stories, and this year he published the novel, Remember Me Like This (NPR review and interview). The novel deals with a family whose son disappeared, then is returned to them four years later. While he understood going in that this lost, this hiatus in relationships, would color every aspect of his characters’ lives, “what I didn’t know was how different and revelatory their perspectives would be.” Each family member reacted in a unique and shaping way, and required of Johnston—and the reader—different levels of empathy. “In fiction,” he says, “every detail is a Rorschach test” to be interpreted through the lens of the character. We ask about a character’s experience not “what does it mean?” but “what does it mean to her?” If we didn’t, we could never read with understanding the story of anyone not exactly like ourselves, should there be such a person.

Despite the popularity of multitasking and our self-deception about our skill at it, in truth our brains are pretty much wired to handle one thing at a time. This inattentional blindness, Johnston says, is “point-of-view in its purest form.” What captures our characters’ attention demonstrates what they are most interested in and care about the most. This is perhaps why the unimportant details that new writers include in their scenes—in a misguided effort to make them concrete—are so distracting. “Find out what your characters notice, find out where their gazes linger and why, and you’ll find out who your characters are.”

Johnston has published a nifty set of writing exercises, too, and he included one with this essay. You might try it. He suggests grabbing pen and paper and moving through your surroundings making a list of everything you see that’s green. (This will be a long list in my case, as I always say, “I don’t care what color it is, as long as it’s green.”)

see, eye, green


Done? Did you notice particulars you’d forgotten about? Will you see items in your surroundings in a new way for a while? Were memories stimulated? Briefly, “green” was your mind’s obsession. I’ll bet dyed-in-the-wool environmentalists would create a somewhat different list than would a graphic designer.

“Now do the same thing for your characters,” Johnston says. “Find out what their ‘green’ is.” What readers need to know isn’t just what your characters look at, but, more important, what they see.


History, Mystery, or Miss-story?

4th of July, early America, John Lewis Krimmel, Philadelphia

John Lewis Krimmel, Fourth of July in Centre Square, Philadelphia, 1819 (photo:

A panel of six mystery writers explored the elasticity of history at the Deadly Ink 2014 conference this weekend. They were, in chronological order by their topics:

One of the most interesting questions these panelists were asked is how comfortable they are changing facts to suit the fictional purposes of their story, and the division of opinion was striking. Belsky’s point of view seemed to be “It’s fiction—do what you want,” whereas others, including Alfieri and Inglee, especially, believed that if you incorporate real historical individuals, you have to be true to their attitudes and actions.

Belsky pointed out that we may never know the whole story or maybe even the true story of past events—and Irving pointed out that applies to current events as well—freeing the author to fill in the blanks. (My own opinion on this is there’s a big difference between not knowing a fact and making one up.)

When an author must change a fact, a date, or other detail, they can use author’s notes to describe what and why. With that manes, Scott Turow acknowledges some of the liberties he took in several pivotal event in the WWII novel Ordinary Heroes: “There was no ammunition dump at LaSaline Royale, which is actually situated a few miles from the site I describe . . . Heisenberg (Werner Heisenberg, physicist) did run from Hechingen, but not because anyone had attempted to blow up the secret location of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute on Haigerlocherstrasse. FDR’s death was announced near midnight overseas, not in the afternoon of April 12, 1945.” This last detail seems to be one that could have been fictionally accommodated. It was an event, like the Kennedy assassination, that every American alive at the time remembers vividly.

Alfieri created a character drawn from life down to his toenails and gave him his own name, much as real people appear in the novels of E.L. Doctorow, but when her mystery plot required this character to commit a violent act for which there is no evidence, she renamed him. She was able to build the character in the first place because of the strength of her research, and several panelists endorsed immersive research for fiction, which must appeal to many writers’ innate inwardness.

When an author knows enough about a period—how people thought, what they thought about, what they ate, how they made a living, what they feared—new story elements arise organically from that substrate. They fit the story, the story isn’t made to fit them. Such an approach makes for an infinitely richer reader experience, even if most of that research never appears explicitly in the book. The writer moves forward with confidence.

Another reason to get the details right is that readers will be sure to ding them if they don’t. Errors can destroy a book’s credibility and readers’—and reviewers’—interest in it. To avoid mistakes, Kelly and Rubin said they work with historians. Rubin, especially, because he is published by LSU Press, has to meet scholarship standards.

A final difficulty for historical writers is language. The conversations among characters have to read as if they are of the period, yet a precise rendition of old-fashioned language—by writing “forsoothly”—may be unreadable. David Mitchell, discussing the language he used in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (I loved this book!), described writing dialog for characters who were native speakers of Japanese, who were Dutch and speaking Japanese, Dutch and speaking Dutch, English upper-class sea captains, English lower-class seamen, and so on. Plus, the book begins in 1799, with two hundred-plus years of language evolution in between. Mitchell developed a language he called “bygone-ish,” which had the ring of the old and the clarity of the current, with variants for each nationality and class.

Mitchell’s approach points out an important issue that applies not just for words and phrases. Even if an event actually did happen or a word actually was in use at the time a story is set, writers of historical mysteries may avoid it anyway, because it will sound too modern, out of place. In this way, truth is more powerful than fact. And if this seems like another way of saying, “it’s fiction—do what you want,” it isn’t.