Writing in a Point of View Not Your Own

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Last week I wrote about hardboiled fiction and the pedigree that began with a writer named Carroll John Daly. I focused on the First-Person PI narrator.

But a hardboiled series can be told in Third Person, too. Frederick Nebel wrote a hugely popular series for Black Mask featuring police captain Steve MacBride and a reporter named Kennedy. These were done in Third-Person POV. More currently there’s a fellow named Gilstrap who writes about a guy named Grave in Third Person. Likewise Coletta’s Sheriff Niko Quintano, Langley-Hawthorne’s Ursula Marlow, Odell’s Chief of Police Gordon Hepler, Viets’s Helen Hawthorne, and Burke’s Tawny Lindholm

We’ll get to P. J. Parrish in a bit.

So what POV did I choose for my series about a crime-fighting nun, Sister Justicia Marie of the Sisters of Perpetual Justice?

I’ve written here before about the genesis of this character. How my son, who loves plays on words, said I should write about a nun who fights crime with martial arts skills. “You could call it Force of Habit.”

He smiled. I smiled. And then I said, “I think I’ll do it.”

“I was only kidding,” my son said.

“It’s a great concept,” I said. “Original, great title, and I think I can do something with it.”

That was back in 2012. Since that first novelette (about 16k words), four more followed, and quite to my delight has built a loyal following.

Now I’ve put the whole series in one collection, and added a sixth, never-before-published novelette. FORCE OF HABIT: THE COMPLETE SERIES is up for pre-pub. If you reserve your copy now you’ll lock in the $2.99 deal price (and this puppy is 90k words worth of action) before it goes to the regular price of $4.99. The titles are:

FORCE OF HABIT

FORCE OF HABIT 2: AND THEN THERE WERE NUNS

FORCE OF HABIT 3: NUN THE WISER

FORCE OF HABIT 4: THE NUN ALSO RISES

FORCE OF HABIT 5: HOT CROSS NUNS

And for the first time anywhere: FORCE OF HABIT 6: NUN TOO SOON

Allow me just a few horn toots from verified reviews:

“This first book was so good that within minutes of reading it, I downloaded book two.”

“Action packed with both internal and external conflict, I was riveted the whole way through.”

“Sister Justicia is kicking butt and taking names! She knows how to clean up L.A. but good!”

“James Scott Bell seems to be able to put more events in a 50 page novella than you’re likely to find in some 300 page novels.”

“Highest possible recommendation! Five Stars!”

“Honestly, they need to make a TV series about Sister J.”

Now, back to the choice of POV. Having never been a nun…or a woman…I gravitated toward Third Person from the jump. That does not mean I couldn’t take a stab at First Person. Unlike some of the “wisdom” of the age, I say let a writer do what he or she will and let the market decide. I just felt more comfortable in Third.

So what about the nun-woman part? Well, friends, there’s a little thing I like to call RESEARCH. It really works! I have a friend who is a former nun, who helped me tremendously with this series. I also made contact with some Benedictine nuns online for further insight.

As for the woman part, I have the greatest research assistant of all—Mrs. B. She reads all my stuff before anyone else, and offers me invaluable editorial advice.

[And if I may be allowed a side note: Today marks the 40th anniversary of the best decision I ever made. It involved the lovely Cindy, a minister, a packed church, and me.]

Once again, here’s the link for the deal pre-order.

For those of you outside Amazon U.S., you can open to your Amazon site and plug this into the search box: B091DRDWRJ

I will note that Michael Connelly is currently writing a series from a female Pacific Islander POV. And our own Mr. Gilstrap’s new series stars a U.S. Congresswoman who is also a single mom, both of which (if my research is accurate) John has never been.

And leave us not forget the sisters P. J. Parrish writing from the POV of one Louis Kincaid.

It can be done!

Do you agree? 

+15

50 thoughts on “Writing in a Point of View Not Your Own

  1. Jim, I would submit to you that anyone who went to Catholic school in the 1950s will love your series, bar-nun.

    Happy Anniversary to you and Cindy!

    • Ha, Joe, I see you got a look at my titles list! Cindy and I brainstormed them on a long drive as we cracked each other up.

      Thanks for the good wishes.

  2. I fear, Sir, we may be blood, if not ink, related as my late dad used to PUN-ish us at the dinner table with this kind of wordplay… if true, my sympathies…

    And echoing Mr. H~ Congratulations and happy fortieth – with more to follow.

  3. Happy Anniversary to you and Mrs. B.
    I was told early on, when I was still learning the craft, that I wrote men well. Now, in romantic suspense (or any romance sub-genre) the readership is mostly women, and they want to read about men behaving the way they want them to behave. However, I do have the Hubster who lets me know when I stray to far afield. My mystery series features a male protagonist, and his sidekick is also male, but I have strong female characters in there as well. When we write, we often write about things we’re not familiar with–or have experienced. I’ve never been shot, knifed, poisoned–but if I wrote only about things I’ve experienced firsthand, it would be a dull book.
    I did a couple of posts here about gender differences.
    https://killzoneblog.com/2020/08/men-are-not-women-with-chest-hair-part-1.html
    https://killzoneblog.com/2020/09/men-are-not-women-with-chest-hair-part-2.html

    • Your comment about female readers “want to read about men behaving the way they want them to behave.” brought to mind a corollary. I was writing a piece about a male protagonist quickly solving the problem of finding suitable employment for the out-of-work English teacher father of a 14-year-old girl. When I ran it by my editor-in-chief (wife), she protested that such a quick solution to a complex problem was not really plausible.

      To my male brain, yes it was. I did it routinely when a quick but not optimal decision was preferable over a better one that could be had months later.

      But the issue became “how to make it seem plausible to the other half of the humans inhabiting this planet?” My solution was to have the protagonist disclose his thought process. Briefly, based on his limited understand of what an English major could do, either teach or write, the protagonist chose write because local teaching jobs dried up with the failing economy. Much like a preschooler deciding which Crayon to use for a picture; he only had two in his box and the blue one was broken. So, red it would be.

  4. Jim,

    Happy 40th to you and Cindy!

    Got a kick out of the exchange between you and your son (“I was only kidding.”). Many’s the time a friend or colleague has thrown out a wild idea that’s “only kidding.” Yet it strikes a chord. Glad you ran with that and created the entertaining Sister Justicia.

    • Thanks, Debbie. It’s so true that often one person’s jest turns into a writer’s gold nugget. There’s a funny running bit in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt where two mystery readers keep suggesting to each other the best methods for murder. We can relate!

  5. Congratulations, Jim. And Happy 40th to you and your wife.

    Thanks for the link to the Force of Habit series. I just pre-ordered. As to the question: Yes, I agree. I’ve read plenty of 3rd person POV that felt “closer” than others in 1st person.

  6. Happy anniversary to you and your bride, Jim!

    As for your question, of course I agree. I have a male writer friend who writes from a teenage girl’s 1st person POV, and does it flawlessly. Research is key.

    I’ve bought so many books lately, but you hooked me with the titles and concept. One more couldn’t hurt, right? 😉

  7. Happy Anniversary!

    There’s a piece of writing advice that I hate: “Write what you know.” If I wrote only what I personally know I would’ve run out of material a long time ago.

    The blissful opposite of that is to write in a POV not your own. Writing is exploration. I don’t see how anyone can NOT write in a POV not their own. Even a PI writing books about PIs is bound to need to research for other characters in their books. That’s part of the fun!

    And yes, I do ordinarily prefer third person though the occasional first person work will grab me.

  8. Happy 40th Anniversary to you and your wife, Jim!
    I jumped and pre-ordered the Force of Habit Complete Series–I love collections and the high-concept of this one sounds like so much fun 🙂

    As to writing in a different POV, I absolutely agree it can be done–all my published novels so far are 1st person female POVs. My upcoming cozy library series is in 3rd person, from paralibrian Meg Booker’s POV. As you noted, it’s important to do research, but also be able to imagine and empathize with what it might be like to be that person (whatever their gender/ethnicity and background).

    Have a great day!

    • Good on you, Dale! You rightly mention empathy, which is essential for writing in a POV not your own. It’s all about human connectivity and commonality.

  9. Happy anniversary, Jim! Love, love, love the title and the premise of this series! Recently I have been attempting to write a male protagonist POV alongside a main female one and I say any and every POV is possible:))

  10. Happy anniversary, Jim, to you and the lovely Cindy! (You look like teens in that pic!)

    I can fully attest to the fun in Force of Habit. I love it! Will post my review in May. And I’m tellin’ ya, getting to know Sister J makes me grateful I didn’t go to Catholic School…would’ve been terrified!

    In my WIP, I have several POVs, four, I think: a Marine vet and his wife, another Marine vet’s wife, and a 14-year-old-girl. It’s been a long time for me since I was 14 and the times have changed…but I have grandgirls. Never been a man, or a Marine, or been married to one…but I have personal friends who have been or are.

    Like some of you have said, I can’t imagine only relying on what I’ve lived or remembered. Too much of the former, and not enough memory to recall everything. 🙂

  11. As a proud alumna of a Catholic girls’ high school, I am delighted to see that you have given the Sisters their rightful place in the crime-fighting genre. I can think of one or two of my former teachers who would have been excellent at kicking butt and taking names. I can’t wait to read about Sister Justicia Marie.

    • I’m also an alumni from a Catholic school, first through twelveth grade. Those nuns could be scary. Our principal stood six foot tall. Even the football players were scared of her!

      I enjoyed reading Force of Habit and am looking forward reading the rest of the series.

  12. Congratulations on your 40th. Lovely lady in the picture, but who’s the guy with all the hair?

    Having read all five and kept only Hot Cross Nuns, I preordered the entire series of course.

    Currently writing 3rd POV thriller about a 42-year-old widowed veteran of WWII in 1947, I can only say I was alive that year and that’s about it. I’m finding that writing close third is a terrific exercise in Show-Not-Tell because the tendency is to become the movie narrator and tell from that distanced, dry angle. I love when I can get inside the head of this take-no-prisoners gal, the product of Victorian mores slammed into 1920s flapper, and view her damaged firsthand life with Resistance fighters and the postwar male-dominated spy realm.

    Thanks for Sister Justicia. I look forward to her adventures in No. 6 as well as a second visit to the rest. Talk about howl out loud…

    • A yes, those golden locks…

      Dan, your character sounds awesome. I did a flapper in my novel Glimpses of Paradise. I love that whole period of American history. Go for it!

  13. Pardon the “double dipping” this morning, but I couldn’t help thinking about Joh Prine and his unique ability to take the POV of older folks (“Hello In There”) and women (“Angel From Montgomery”) early on when he was neither ~

    Prine explained it best himself: “If you come up with a strong enough character, you can get a really vivid insight into the character that you’ve invented.”

    Sounds “simple” enough… but therein lies the challenge…

    Thanks again for a (re-)motivating post this morning ~ Enjoy and celebrate the day…

  14. Do I agree? Hmm. Let me think about that . . . yes, I do!

    Thanks for the nod, Jim. For me, third person is the voice I hear in my head. It also lends itself to my squint on story structure, where I develop the plot from multiple points of view. That said, I find myself drawn to first person when I write short stories.

    Congrats on the anniversary! Judging from the picture, you haven’t changed a bit.

    • Interesting about the short stories, John. For me it’s usually opposite: 1st for my series, 3d for the stories. Maybe that’s just our writer mind taking a break.

      Your focus is a little off. It’s Cindy who is as lovely as ever. I’m more like fine wine.

  15. If I ever wrote me, it would be one dang boring book. Have I ever written characters kinda like me. Yes. The one most like me was a guy, and I’m not. Go figure.

  16. Happy Anniversary to you and Cindy! And many more to come!

    I loved your first nun story and just pre-ordered the whole series. Can’t wait to get into it! And the titles are hilarious and definitely set the tone!

    Close third-person point of view or “deep POV” or intimate third-person is by far my favorite viewpoint to read and edit. And advise on in my blog posts.

    Coincidentally, I’m just reading John Gilstrap’s first Jonathan Grave novel, NO MERCY, and was struck yesterday by how masterfully he captures the voice of the female sheriff, Gail Bonneville, who became disenchanted with life as an FBI agent after enduring too many years of discrimination because of her gender. When her father passed away and she got a sizeable inheritance, “She could afford to tell the Bureau where they could stick their good-old-boy network. She’d never been a boy, never would be, and never even rode a bicycle as a child. She was done with working three times as hard as her penis-carrying colleagues just to get some modicum of recognition,…” And it goes on like this. Kudos, John! I’m hooked to your series.

    I imagine Mr. Gilstrap also has at least one trusted female reader, as you do with Cindy, Jim, and as everyone who gets into the POV of the other gender should. (And of course the same goes for writing in the viewpoint of teenagers, children, and others whose lives are radically different from that of the writer.)

    Thanks for another great Sunday post, and can’t wait to get back to the adventures of Sister Justicia!

  17. I completely agree with this and the comments from others have rang true. I almost always write from deep 3rd POV as it seems to suit my writing style. However, I also get a kick out writing in 1st.

    In depictions outside of my own POV, I’ve written a gay man, a dog, an elderly Jew who escaped Hitler’s Nazi death camps, a male war vet trying to find his place in a modern world, and on and on. And my current WIP is a female FBI agent.

    I have no desire to stay in my own lane–boring. I already know what it’s like to be female past a certain age. Yawn.

    The part about writing outside my POV that stumps me concerns the ownvoices movement. I currently have a completely WIP just waiting for me to pull in all my Beta readers’ input. I’ve temporarily put it in the freezer because the main character is a 14 year old Somali Muslim refugee. That’s about as far out of my own lane as I can possibly get and still be writing about humans. In 2017 I was told by an agent to stop writing it because I’m not black. I didn’t listen and finished it because I love the story, but that agent’s voice is still in my head. I’d like get input from the group about this.

    • Jeanne, this is of course a big issue with a lot of side streets and “lanes.” A bit beyond the scope of my post, but I will say it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game for publishers. Let writers write and let the market decide.

  18. Congratulations and Happy Anniversary to you and your wife, Jim!

    Have I already pre-ordered the Force of Habit series? Of course I have! Can’t wait to dive into the nun-sense.

  19. Your stories about the conversation with your son and the book titles were too much for me to resist. My to-read pile is huge, but I must pre-order these anyway. I am friends with many nuns and priests and can’t wait to read your take on them as crime fighters. Happy Anniversary!!

  20. Well … as a fantasy author, sure, it better be possible to write in points of view that aren’t yours and don’t have much in common with yours.

    I’d have to say that having lived life and paid attention to how people behave is key, not actual research. There aren’t a lot of Ugaro warriors I could have interviewed before writing my first-person male pov novel TUYO. I just wrote it, that’s all. In first person because that’s what worked for the story. Fortunately, that seems to have worked for a good many readers, too.

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