#Bloganuary Day 6

Who is someone who inspires you?

Many people inspire me for many reasons, but the one who comes to mind right now is Tony Hillerman.

When I began writing mystery and suspense fiction, I thought I had to know the whole story before I started. It’s like what they teach in English class–first you outline, then you write.*

Good mystery plots are tight. They’re puzzles; everything has to fit. Clues have to be planted in the right places. Events have to happen at the right time and in the right order. Red herrings have to be put in specific places. Advance plotting makes sense.

I admire Ruth Rendell, whose novels are, as far as I’m concerned, perfectly plotted. At the end, the puzzle has been solved. Then, in the last chapter, sometimes on the last page, she slides one more bolt into place. How could she do that without knowing everything from the beginning?

There are a zillion books on how to write, so I read several whose authors stated that plots have to be carefully thought out. One author said every scene must be sketched out in advance on a note card, and always in sequence–never jump ahead.

I was working on a novel. At the time, I knew only the first five or six scenes, and I believed note cards would help me progress. So I bought note cards–and more note cards–and sketched out the same scenes, over and over. Sounds stupid and it was.

I pretended to be writing a novel but my brain was empty. I met with my critique group every week but submitted nothing, and wondered when they were going to kick me out. The other members tolerated me because, first, they were nice people, and, I think, they liked my comments on their manuscripts. I can offer decent criticism. I drank a lot of coffee and enjoyed their company and read some great writing.

Then I came across an essay by Tony Hillerman describing his writing process. He would start a book with a vague idea of where he was going but no set plot. Once, he said, a dog appeared–he didn’t know why, but he wrote the dog into his draft; later, the dog played an important part in the story. He gave a number of similar examples. At the outset, Hillerman said, he didn’t know exactly where he was going, but he got there in the end.

In fact, he said the only book he plotted out in detail before writing turned out to be the worst book he ever published.

That essay gave me hope. I usually begin with a character and a line and a vague idea of what happens next–but not necessarily what happens after that. I’ve published short stories, and every one began that way.

I’m not a plotter. I’m a pantser. I write by the seat of my pants.

My novel is still in partial draft form (Hillerman’s essay didn’t inspire me to get down to business and finish the thing). But I have written a lot more than five or six scenes and have even jumped ahead and drafted the ending. I’ve figured out what characters will do, and when–maybe–but they sometimes surprise me. Their ideas are often better than mine, so I let them lead. I’ve relaxed. Mysteries do have to be tightly plotted, but not from page #1 of draft #1.

E. L. Doctorow, author of Ragtime, said “Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go …It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

I don’t know whether Doctorow was talking about pantsing, but his definition of writing as exploration fits with Hillerman’s description of his process.

So. That’s how I learned I’m a pantser.

I learned something else, too: When authors say, “This is the only way you can write fiction”–what they’re really saying is, “This is the only way I can write fiction.”

We all have to find our own way.

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*If they’re still teaching to outline in detail first, they shouldn’t be. If you can outline an essay, you’ve already written it in your head. Sometimes students’ heads are empty, and they have to start writing to find out what they know about the topic. Then, when they have some ideas on paper, they can organize them. In the words of E. M. Forster, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”

Further note: I taught English and for the first years told students to outline before writing their essays. It had never worked for me, but that’s what I’d been taught, so I passed the word along. Participation in a seminar following guidelines of the Bay Area Writing Project gave me a new perspective, and I gave students a break–write first, outline later.

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Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay

Image by Gentle07 from Pixabay

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Rules for Writers

The following is a guest post I wrote for the Bullet Books Speed Readsblog. In it I explain what an author does when she discovers she doesn’t have a clue about what she’s writing about. I also include a link to a book trailer, but you have to read to the end of the post to find that.

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There are many rules for writers. Two of the major ones: Write what you know and write what you love.

I was pleased that Stabbed, which I co-wrote with Manning Wolfe, was set in Vermont. I love vacationing there: mountains and trees, summer wildflowers and narrow, winding roads, rainstorms and starry nights, white frame churches and village greens.

In Chapter 1, Dr. Blair Cassidy, professor of English, arrives home one dark and stormy night, walks onto her front porch, and trips and falls over the body of her boss, Dr. Justin Capaldi. She jumps back into her car and calls the sheriff. The sheriff arrives and . . .

What happens next? Who takes charge of the investigation? The sheriff? Or the state police? What do their uniforms look like? Where do rail lines run? What’s the size of a typical university town? And a typical university? And several other details not gathered during a typical vacation.

I didn’t know, so, new rule: Write what you learn. Research. Research. Research. The best mystery authors have been avid researchers.

Agatha Christie, for example, is known for her extensive knowledge of poisons. As a pharmacy technician during World War I, she did most of her research on the job before she became a novelist. Later she dispatched victims with arsenic, strychnine, cyanide, digitalis, belladonna, morphine, phosphorus, veronal (sleeping pills), hemlock, and ricin (never before used in a murder mystery). In The Pale Horse, she used the less commonly known thallium. Christie’s accurate treatment of strychnine was mentioned in a review in the Pharmaceutical Journal.

Francis Iles’ use of a bacterium was integral to the plot in Malice Aforethought. His character, Dr. Bickleigh, serves guests sandwiches of meat paste laced with Clostridium botulinum and waits for them to develop botulism. If Dr. Bickleigh had been as knowledgeable about poisons as his creator, he wouldn’t have been so surprised with the consequences.

Among modern authors, P.D. James is known for accuracy. Colleague Ruth Rendell said that James “always took enormous pains to be accurate and research her work with the greatest attention.” Before setting Devices and Desires near a nuclear power station, she visited power plants in England; she even wore a protective suit to stand over a nuclear reactor. Like Christie, James used information acquired on the job—she wrote her early works during her nineteen years with the National Health Service—for mysteries set in hospitals.

Most authors don’t go as far as standing over nuclear reactors in an attempt to get it right, but sometimes even the simplest research is time-consuming. And, even the most meticulous researchers make errors.

Dorothy L. Sayers was as careful in her fiction as she was in her scholarly writing. But she confessed in a magazine article that The Documents in the Case contained a “first-class howler”: A character dies from eating the mushroom Amanita muscaria, which contains the toxin muscarine. Describing the chemical properties of muscarine, Sayers said it can twist a ray of polarized light. But only the synthetic form can do that—the poison contained in the mushroom can’t.

Most readers don’t forgive big mistakes. And why should they? Thorough research is a mark of respect for readers. And sometimes, getting the facts straight in fiction has consequences the author can’t predict. Christie’s The Pale Horse is credited with saving two lives: In one case, a reader recognized the symptoms of thallium poisoning Christie had described and saved a woman whose husband was slowly poisoning her; in the second, a nurse who’d read the book diagnosed thallium poisoning in an infant. The novel also credited with the apprehension of one would-be poisoner.

As to Stabbed—Well, we don’t expect it to save lives or help catch criminals. I knew Vermont, but I didn’t know Vermont criminal procedure. Now, readers will come out knowing what the uniform of the Vermont State Police looks like and what happens at a courtroom arraignment.

And choosing the murder weapon was easy. We considered the book’s title and – well, d’oh – no more research was required.

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More about Stabbed: http://bulletbooksspeedreads.com/book/stabbed/

Book trailer for Stabbed: https://youtu.be/URDtnyRvfq0