Wednesday, April 29, 2015
Earlier this month, I went back and re-read Great Expectations for the first time in a couple of decades. It was the first re-read since I started writing mystery novels myself, and one thing that I can say for certain is that anyone who writes fiction can’t help but feel puny after reading Dickens.
I have a checkered history with this book. I tried reading it was in eighth grade, under orders from my mother, who was concerned that I was reading too much junk. She was right about the junk, but for me, then, Great Expectations was more of a book than I could handle. I got about 50 pages into it, rebelled, and won that argument at least.
Four years passed, and Mrs. Carruth announced that we would be reading it in her senior English class. I was less than thrilled initially, but by then I’d had four additional years of reading under my belt and had been reading adult books rather than the juvenilia that made up my eighth-grade list. I allowed my mind to be opened a bit.
It Helps to Have a Guide
Another factor in the open-mindedness was that Mrs. Carruth knew her books and how to convey what they were about. She had gotten me (and most of the rest of the class) to love Pride and Prejudice a couple of months earlier. And the previous year, my English teacher, Miss Irwin, had showed me how to enjoy and appreciate Moby-Dick, another book I’d stalled on before.
In short, I had seen that literature could be taught, and I had become teachable. And in reading, as in trout fishing, it helps to have a guide — especially early in the game.
Reading Dickens that year was the beginning of a lifelong love affair. I believe I’ve read all the novels now, some of them more than once. In college, I read Martin Chuzzlewit at the same time my high school best friend did, and we took to affectionately calling each other Tigg and Slyme, after two of the raffish characters in the book. We still do, 40-some years later.
In case you’re wondering, I’m Slyme.
Learning From What Lasts
It occurred to me, after this last reading, that if I were asked to recommend a book for someone trying to write a mystery, Great Expectations would be a good choice. It is, after all, a mystery about where Pip’s expectations come from and who he will turn out to be.
And for any writer in any genre, there’s much to be said for reading books that have stood the test of time. If you’re interested in writing a good book — as opposed to pandering to the market — nothing will show you the way better than a novel written 100 or more years ago and still read today. You can safely figure that what works after that long will probably always work if done reasonably well.
In my second novel, Wash Her Guilt Away, I had some good descriptions of the bleak, stormy weather that dogged the characters throughout the story. I felt pretty good about that aspect of the book. Then, after reading the description of the storm the night Magwitch turns up again in Great Expectations, I realized how far I am from measuring up to Dickens. The only comfort I can take is that I’m not alone.
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
I probably could never have been a doctor, and if, somehow, I had made it into that position, I most likely would have done a lousy job of it. Although I have a rational, logical mind, it doesn’t wrap itself around the details of science particularly well, and spending every day with complaining sick people is not my idea of a good time.
If I’d gone into that line of work, I would have been the doctor who threw it up at the age of 40 and bought a vineyard.
On the other hand, I most likely would have made a good lawyer had I pursued that career. My logical mind applies itself to legal problems far more readily than it does to medical problems, and the courtroom holds far more instinctive appeal for me than the operating room.
Actually, knowing how journalism turned out, there’s a part of me that wishes from time to time that I had gone into law.
Oh No, You Can’t
One of the most pernicious mantras of our time — one that will be spoken at many a commencement ceremony over the next several weeks — is, “You can be anything you want to be.” Horse hockey. Not one person in a hundred will ever acquire the political skills or the desire to get elected dog catcher, never mind President of the United States.
A more accurate appraisal would be, “If you find a pursuit that your intellect, temperament and talent suit you for; and if you work at that pursuit for a considerable length of time, until you sharpen your skills to the point where they become intuitive, you can, with a bit of luck, be successful in that endeavor.”
The trick is knowing yourself somewhat realistically. Don’t we all remember kids in high school who thought they were going to be professional ball players when they could barely play catch? Or who wanted to be movie stars when they had no expressive ability whatsoever?
So You Want to Write a Book
Amazon has now made it possible for anyone who has written a book to put it out in front of the world. This has allowed a few people who have written good books to self-publish them. It has allowed far more people who have written terrible books to embarrass themselves in front of a worldwide audience. I’ve published two mystery novels this way myself and am not entirely sure which class I belong in.
I do know that writing a mystery isn’t easy. Almost anyone who succeeds at it will have read hundreds of mysteries to absorb how it’s done; will have been developing his or her writing skills over the years; and will have developed the writer’s mentality that sees the world, always, as material to be mined for fiction.
Without the mentality, and without the intuitive understanding of writing that comes from having done it a lot, almost no one is going to come up with anything passable, no matter how many creative writing classes they take. My old managing editor Ward Bushee used to say, “You can’t teach judgment. A person either has it or they don’t, and the best you can do is help develop it a bit in someone who already has it.”
The same could be said of writing.
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
In my third mystery novel, Not Death, But Love, several of the key characters gather for dinner at an Italian restaurant in a small mountain town, and considerable relevant information is exchanged. But any reader of the book will get more than the relevant information.
I devote a bit of space to explaining the history of the restaurant; to giving the owner a few lines of dialogue that flesh out his character; to describing the interior and furnishings of the place; and to telling readers what music is playing on the sound system. None of this is at all essential to the story or the solution of the mystery. But I put it in, regardless, because I believe it helps to create a real sense of place that, along with other descriptions in the book, ultimately makes the story seem more real, more genuine.
And I do this because it’s often the incidental details — the “feel” of the book, if you will — that linger in my mind long after the story has receded into the mists of memory.
When the Place Is a Character
In my second book, Wash Her Guilt Away, most of the action takes place at Harry’s Riverside Lodge, a remote resort tucked into the dense forests of Northeastern California. I put a lot of effort into describing the place and how it felt to the characters as the story moved along. If I pulled it off, the lodge should have come across as another character in the book, and several readers have told me they felt they had come to know the place intimately by the time they finished reading.
I tried to do something similar for the McHenry ranch in my first book, The McHenry Inheritance. In that aspect of that book, I think I succeeded less than in the other two, but I tried nevertheless and believe I conveyed some sense of the place.
This sort of description used to be de rigueur for a novelist. In Great Expectations, Dickens spent more than a page describing the stormy night on which Magwitch turned up at Pip’s doorstep in London, building a highly charged atmosphere that made their encounter the more memorable.
The Interstate or the Scenic Route
Quite a few authors these days don’t bother much with descriptions. It’s possible to read novels by bestselling authors where the reader doesn’t know what time of year it is or what the weather’s like because the author never says anything about it.
James Patterson and Mary Higgins Clark, for instance, don’t linger much on details and focus on driving the story forward. They sell exceedingly well, so there’s clearly an audience that’s fine with that. But there are other authors, such as Louise Penny and Sue Grafton, who do stop along the way to give some atmospheric description, and they do all right, too.
I liken the two approaches to the difference between driving from San Francisco to Seattle on Interstate 5 or taking Highway 101 up the coast. The first way gets you there faster, but the second way exposes you to sights and places and people. It makes the journey a travel experience, rather than a headlong rush to a destination. Because I believe that reading books should be an experience of discovery, I’m partial to a little well-done description along the way.
Wednesday, April 8, 2015
Long before Twitter, there was Pa Watsonville. And his close relations Tulare Tim, Cuzzin Conejo, and Shasta Sam. They were constructs of the newspaper group I used to work for back in the days when newspapers were more dominant forces in their communities.
The group (it was always “group,” never “chain”) was John P. Scripps newspapers, which, at the time, owned seven daily newspapers and a number of weeklies concentrated on the West Coast. None of them were in major markets, and the largest probably topped out at a circulation of 40,000.
Pa Watsonville, who was well established when I came to work for the newspaper in that town in 1972, was part of what I came to perceive as the group’s attempt to encourage editors to be folksy and informal. Five days a week the paper’s editorial page featured a full-out editorial, but on Saturdays the space was given over to Pa Watsonville, as it was to the previously mentioned characters in other towns.
Commentary for Short Attention Spans
Each week, Pa Watsonville would toss out six to ten short opinions in that space, each one signed “Pa Watsonville.” They ranged from a word of praise for someone who had done a good job to a skewer for someone who hadn’t. True, there was no 140-character limit, but because they were short, they were much better read than the editorials.
The idea was to be punchy, pungent, and tellingly funny whenever possible. The editor would generally write them down as they came to him (it was always a him) during the week and struggle to come up with a few to fill the space on Friday morning.
Writing those pieces wasn’t easy and demanded a certain amount of skill. For all the talk about sound bites, the fact is that a lot of TV and radio commentators get by on out-bellowing the other people on the show. Print is a cooler medium, and you can’t do that. A good item had to be succinct, include enough context to help out those who hadn’t read the news story (a high percentage of readers, I’m sure), and end with a flourish.
A Knack for the Thrust
During the two decades I worked at the paper, I was one of four people from my cohort to serve as editor. A couple of them, I think, wrote better editorials than I did, but I’d like to believe I did a better job than any of the others (and they all did good jobs) at Pa Watsonville.
If correct in that belief, I’d have to attribute it to my wool-gathering mind. I’ve always had the writer’s mentality that views the world through a lens that focuses on every experience and bit of information as possible material for further use. It enabled me to make juxtapositions others wouldn’t have and that worked well in that sort of short, hard-hitting commentary. It constituted a knack for the thrust, if you will.
I could no doubt dig up some examples, but I doubt they’d wear well with age. Like Johnny Carson’s monologues on the old Tonight Show, they were rooted in a specific time and place. The context would surely be missing, and, owing to how the internet has changed our way of viewing things, so might other elements of the craft. But if the jokes didn’t last, they were good while they lasted, and coming up with them was fun while it lasted. No regrets here.
Wednesday, April 1, 2015
A while back I was reading a mystery novel (a reasonably good one, actually) that left me feeling at the end that something wasn’t right about the story. It had to do with several mysterious deaths that turned out to be related to a large corporation trying to cover up pollution for which it was responsible. At the end, the case was cracked and the CEO of the company was frog-marched in front of the TV cameras after being arrested for murder.
And I found myself saying, “I don’t think so.”
I don’t think so, not because I believe in the wonderfulness of large companies and the free market. I concede they do some things well and provide some value, but on the whole I think they need to be encouraged less and tamed more. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about big corporations during my time on the planet, it’s this:
They are incredibly conservative and risk-averse.
Lawyer Them to Death
Few things, really, are riskier than committing a murder. When a body is found or someone mysteriously and inexplicably disappears, the police tend to take it seriously. Once experienced detectives start poking around in something like that, there’s no telling what they’ll find and where their inquiries will lead. If you kill somebody, one oversight, one person talking out of turn could lead to your being in a position where you have far worse problems than worrying about your retirement plan.
So why take the chance when there’s a safer alternative? In the case of a corporation, that would be to keep up the illegal activity until caught, pin it on some mid-to-low level flunky, and have your lawyers negotiate the best deal possible with whatever regulatory agency is overseeing the activity in question.
Once that’s done, you calculate the costs to the decimal and decide whether it makes more sense to stop the illegal activity or keep doing it and pay any future fines and legal costs if caught again. Then you make that decision and move on. Viewed from that perspective, it makes a lot more sense to lawyer your tormentors to death than to actually kill them.
But It Happens on TV
Nevertheless, on TV, in the movies, and in popular novels, corporations are frequently depicted killing people who threaten them. Yet stop and think about it. How many real-life cases can you name of corporations having someone killed? And don’t mention Karen Silkwood, because suspicious as her death appears, there’s no hard evidence to connect Kerr-McGee to it.
Which raises another question: Can it be that corporations are bumping people off wholesale and doing it so well they get away with it? Again, I have my doubts. From my observation and experience, most big companies are at least somewhat inefficient, and it’s hard for me to believe that large numbers of them suddenly become deadly effective if they decide to kill someone.
Unless we’re talking about an outright criminal enterprise, murder is not going to be a standard business practice. Nearly all murders are committed by individuals acting on emotions and impulses they can’t control. Corporations are more systematic and have far more options than individuals. The Supreme Court may have ruled that corporations are people, but when it comes to murder, that’s seldom the case.