Wednesday, October 7, 2015
Yogi Berra's Wisdom for Crime Writers
Lawrence Peter Berra, known to most of the world as “Yogi,” died last month at the age of 90. A Hall of Fame catcher for the great Yankee teams of the late 1940s to early 1960s, he might almost be better known these days for the quotes attributed to him. (By the way, he claims he didn’t say some of them.)
Reading his obituary in the Times, which, of course, was chock-full of said quotes, it struck me that a number of his observations (with a bit of interpretation, of course) are relevant to the craft of crime and mystery fiction writing.
Figuring that someone else must have had the same idea, I Googled it and came up empty. So I decided to run with that idea for this week’s post because, as Yogi himself once said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Wisdom for Writers of All Stripes
That quote, actually, is a decent one to start with because one of the problems writers of all stripes have is reaching a point in the manuscript and not knowing which way to go from there. I suspect that over the course of human history, the amount of wasted time owing to writers hitting such an impasse rivals the accumulated waste of all governments since the beginning of time.
Yogi’s advice — essentially, make a decision and go with it — is well worth taking. Most of the time, either direction will work if the writer applies him or her self, and if there is a wrong choice, trying to make it work will render it more quickly apparent than intellectualizing about it and doing nothing. Action trumps uncertain hesitation.
“If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him,” is another Yogi-ism. Applied to the business of crime fiction, I would take it to mean that writers shouldn’t try to assume the styles of established writers, such as Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Elmore Leonard. They all found their own style, and while we can certainly learn from them, the rest of us have to adapt that learning to something that’s ours.
The Crowded Canon
“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” How many writers, I wonder, waste their energy trying to come up with totally new ideas, when there really aren’t any? Many, many, I’m guessing. The world of the mystery/crime novel is rich and diverse enough to accommodate a fresh work in an area of endeavor that seems pretty crowded.
Or, in other words, there’s always room for another drunk and cranky detective if he or she is rendered with telling detail and a good story told in vivid prose. If you can do that, why waste time on impossible searches for the ungraspable “new.”
And finally there’s my favorite, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” That one should be pretty self-evident. If you want to get good detail and color for your books, a great starting point is to shut up, look and listen.
When my first mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, came out, a lot of people commented that I must have done a lot of research to make the small-town setting so authentic. Actually, almost everything was picked up by virtue of observing, listening, and filing things away. If you eavesdrop in a small-town café, you can learn more about the town’s economy there than you could from reading a dozen government reports. And I can just about guarantee you’ll hear some dialogue you couldn’t possibly make up. I hope you write it down and put it in your next book. I always do.