What Is Your Spark?

“He lets down as it were a bucket into his subconscious and draws up something which is normally beyond his reach. He mixes this thing with his normal experience, and out of the mixture he makes a work of art… And when the process is over, when the…novel is complete, the artist, looking back on it, will wonder how on earth he did it. And indeed he did not do it on earth.”  — E.M. Forster
By P.J. Parrish

Where does it come from?

I’m talking about that original impulse, that first bud of creativity that eventually grows into a book. Can you remember? What was it that tickled your brain and set the synapses glowing? What the very first moment when you knew you were onto something?

I’m not talking about inspiration or muses or the “need” to write. I’m trying to focus way way down to that little thing that got you going on whatever it is you are now working so hard to bring to life. What was the spark?

Normally I don’t think much about stuff from the ether like this. Especially since we here at The Kill Zone tend to focus on practical stuff like building credible characters and sturdy plot structures. But sometimes it’s fun — and maybe even a little instructive — to turn the microscope to its finest setting and examine the beginnings of life.

Every writer starts a novel from a different impulse. Some start with a situation, many by asking “what if?” Many writers are character-led.  Often you can trace it back to something as small as an overheard conversation. Or an old man standing a corner glimpsed as you pass by in your car. It can be a line from a half-forgotten poem or the smell of dime store lipstick.

Sometimes that first impulse is too weak to sustain a novel. Sometimes that clot of embryonic cells never quite grows into a character. But sometimes, when you dip a bucket into the subconscious you draw up something special.

I got to thinking about this today because I was trolling the internet boning up on the history of the detective novel. I am going to be on a panel at the Edgar Symposium tomorrow that focuses on the future of the detective novel. And because I didn’t want my fellow panelists to wipe the floor with me I was, I admit, doing a little brushing up on my genre history.

That’s why I happened upon a lecture P.D. James gave in 1997 called Murder and Mystery: The Craft of the Detective Story. (Click here to read it). I’m a huge James fan; she and Georges Simenon were my guiding lights when I was trying to learn how to write detective novels. Jules Maigret and Adam Dalgliesh…those are the guys I’d want on the case when there’s a body on the slab.

So you can imagine how cool it was to read this paper of hers. It’s a great survey of the detective genre. But what I found really fascinating was the part where she talked about how she got her ideas. For James, it always starts with the setting.

I was gobsmacked when I read that. Because that’s what always gets me going. I can’t see a story until I can see the setting. Our books move between Michigan and Florida. Our settings have been, variously, an isolated island in the gulf, an abandoned insane asylum, an old family farm, a cattle pen overgrown with weeds, and an Everglades swamp way down south where the bottom of the state spreads out into the straits like a tattered flag.

Sometimes I almost feel like one of those weird psychics who claim they can see the place of death. When we are starting a new book, I can’t always tell you exactly where we are. But I can sort of feel it. And eventually the place materializes on the page, sort of like an old Polaroid.

Like right now, we working on a new Louis book that takes him back to Michigan. That’s all we knew when we started, that he had to go home. But where? Kelly insisted it had to be the Upper Peninsula (she went to college up there) and we eventually decided to take Louis as far north as we could — way up to the Keweenaw Peninsula, that strange spit of land that extends out into Lake Superior like a crooked finger pointing the way toward the Canadian wilderness. End of earth sort of idea.

But still, things weren’t gelling. There was a spark but it wasn’t catching. Then I saw a photograph someone had taken of a small abandoned cemetery. Its crumbling headstones are obscured by dense carpets of clover. It’s in the middle of nowhere. But it once the middle of somewhere — a lively town where the copper miners lived and worked in the 1800s.

P.D. James said that once she found her setting all she then had to do was begin talking to its inhabitants. Thus came her characters. So it has happened with us. We’re only ten chapters into this new book so we’re still meeting the natives, still learning their histories, still trying to develop an ear for their odd Yooper accents. (it’s somewhere between the nasal tones of Detroit and the lilt of Canada with some Finnish thrown in).

In a bit of synchronicity, I am the editor of the Edgar annual this year and months ago we decided on our theme — the sense of place in the crime novel. The essays are great — Lawrence Block on New York City, Peter Lovesey on Bath England, William Kent Kreuger on northern Minnesota, Cara Black on Paris — each writer talking about how place colors their stories.

Even as I read them it didn’t really occur to me how important setting was to me as a writer. But it is the thing from which everything else comes. If I don’t know where I am I can’t begin to tell you where my story is going. I need to know my place. It is my first spark.

What is yours?

p.s. Forgive me if I don’t respond right away but I am en route to NYC today. Will catch up when I get into Newark Airport. There’s wifi on the bus! 

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Put Away Your Passport

by Michelle Gagnon

A fellow writer asked during a recent Sisters in Crime meeting if we felt it necessary to visit every location where our books are set. A debate ensued between the people who said it was absolutely critical to see a place in order to convey an accurate sense of it, and those who thought that having to visit a place in order to describe it might end up limiting the scope of your story.

Here’s an anecdote that came to mind: I attended one of Martin Cruz Smith’s readings a few years back. Someone asked how long he’d lived in Russia prior to writing Gorky Park, since he had done such an amazing job of nailing the feel of the place, from the muddied politics to the bathhouses. His response? A week.

How on earth did he manage to develop a sense of the place in a week? The person asked.

Smith shrugged, and said, “Actually, I barely saw anything when I was there. Most of it I just made up.”

That story always stuck with me, since as a writer the travel question is something I constantly grapple with. I would love to spend half the year jetting around to exotic locations (wouldn’t we all?), but pragmatically speaking there’s no way that will ever happen (and frankly, I would prefer to steer clear of some of the places where my books are set. For God’s sake, CRIME happens there).

Of course, I could make my life easier by setting stories in the Bay Area – I can’t explain why I developed such an unfortunate tendency to set my books on the east coast, or pretty much anywhere that I’m not currently living.

THE TUNNELS took place at my alma mater. I would have loved to have made a trip back while I was writing the book, but financially there was just no way (and my reunions always seem to conflict with Bouchercon).

Same with BONEYARD: I spent a summer living in the Berkshires, but that was nearly two decades ago. I still remember what the place felt like, but in terms of landmarks, much has probably changed.

For THE GATEKEEPER, which jumps from location to location across the southwest, this became particularly problematic. I’ve never been to Houston, yet a considerable portion of the book takes place there.

And the book I just started takes place almost entirely in Mexico City. While I’d love to justify a visit south of the border, it probably won’t happen this year.

So how do I handle this? I improvise. I read guidebooks. I spend hours scouting places with Google maps (special thanks to them for their satellite view option- that feature has been life changing for me). Boneyard revolved around a particular section of the Appalachian Trail, and I read online journals and blog posts by people who had hiked that section. With each book I probably end up doing as much location research as investigating how to build a dirty bomb, or neo-paganism, or whatever else gets incorporated into the story.

Of course, there are times when I wish I was Cara Black, able to write off a month-long Parisian vacation by setting my books there. But I believe that your story finds you. I’ve never once sat back and thought, “I’d really like to set the next book in the Berkshires.” Whatever germ of an idea I have, it always seems to be one that could only take place somewhere specific. And that somewhere has yet to be a place that I live (Freud would probably have a field day with that).

So my question is, do you think that passport has to get stamped in the interest of verisimilitude? Or will Google maps suffice?

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Cara Black Grills Her Publisher

CARA BLACK The Kill Zone just loves it when guest bloggers visit, especially when their posts provide an inside glimpse of the industry. So when Cara Black offered to rake her publicity and marketing directors over the coals for us, we applauded her (from a safe distance). Courtesy of Cara and the lovely people at Soho Press, today we’re bringing you answers to some of the pressing questions you’ve always wanted to ask but were afraid to…

Thanks for inviting me Michelle! I know the most important thing is to write the best book you can. Then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite as Voltaire said. But after the real work is done and the manuscript has been accepted, copy edited, and slated for publication, what happens after that? I’ve often wondered, and have frequently been asked the same question at conferences. So I thought I’d ask the experts, in this case Soho Press, who publish wonderful books (and mine, too).

I love my publisher and I know they share the love. We’ve been together for nine books over ten years. Soho is a fiercely independent book publisher, based in New York, and their specialty is crime fiction from around the world. The Wall Street Journal has described Soho’s books as, “Some of the most exotic crime fiction in the world.”

But I thought I’d use this opportunity to rake them over the coals, grilling them about what we all want to know: how do the publicity and marketing director of a publisher—in this case mine —promote, market and sell a book? Something that, as either pre-published or published writers, we’d all like to know, right?

I think the answers and insights will prove universal and, hopefully, helpful. So now with my ninth book, Murder in the Latin Quarter, available this week—yes, murder in the latinthis week-I thought I’d politely ask them about what the heck it is they do. I know it’s not a fluke that Soho authors are regularly reviewed by the New York Times and interviewed on NPR. So I spoke with Sarah Reidy, Soho’s publicity director, and Ailen Lujo, their marketing director, both superstars in my book.

Cara Black: Can you describe a sales conference? It’s a mystery to me…who’s there? I’ve heard that the chains can decide a book cover.

Sarah Reidy: A sales conference is basically a meeting in which we (publicity, marketing, and editorial) present our upcoming list (of books) to the sales force. The sales team consists of all the wonderful people who are responsible for actually getting your book into stores. They take the information we give them and share it with Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Borders, Baker & Taylor, Ingram, and all the great indie stores out there. In terms of book jackets, that’s usually determined at pre-sales. I’ll let Ailen explain that one.

Ailen Lujo: In regard to presales: Twice a year an editor and I fly out to Minnesota where our distributor consortium is based, and we introduce our potential titles to the sales and marketing staff. In many ways this meeting is even more important than the actual sales conference because we talk about the minutest details of the book, from price and format (should we do this as an original paperback or hardcover?) to book jacket designs. If our account reps hate a jacket, we go back to the drawing board. We present titles at sales conference. We discuss titles at presales.

CB: What about blogs? Conferences? Bookstore events? How effective are each or do you recommend a combination?

SR: Oh, my. This is one of those questions that really depends on the author. I think blogs are great, and there is such a variety out there almost everyone can find a good match for him or herself. There are straight review blogs, of course, but there are also a number of blogs that do author Q&A’s, accept guest blog posts, or will post podcasts and book trailers. In addition, there are blogs that serve as extensions of “traditional” media outlets, such as Papercuts (The New York Times), Jacket Copy (Los Angeles Times), NPR.com, and Washington Post Live Online. This is a market that is constantly growing and offering more opportunities. For any author, I would recommend researching literary blogs and reading them for examples and ideas. Once you get a feel for a blog, you can start coming up with ideas about how your book could fit in.

Specialized conferences are wonderful. As Cara knows, Ailen and I are both huge fans of Bouchercon for mystery authors. It’s such a close knit community, and it feels like every attendee is there for the love of a good novel. If you are a less well-known author, I think conferences and conventions are a much better option that a traditional book tour.

Bookstore events are good in some cases, and not in others. If you’re Tori Spelling or John Grisham, you should absolutely do bookstore events. People are going to turn out to see you no matter what. You lucky son of a guns. However, if you are a debut novelist with no real connection to a location, it’s hard to turn people out for these. Instead I typically recommend doing one big event in your home town, and perhaps somewhere else where you have a large community of family and friends who will come.

You should also look into reading series. There are some great series out there that set up a night with multiple authors…often at a bar! And everyone knows that drunk people are more likely to buy books (I just made that up, but I imagine it could be true). A reading series tends to have a built-in following, so it’s a good way to expose your writing to a new group of people.

Cara here. I really appreciated Sarah and Ailen taking the time to answer questions.Hopefully this parted the mist of publishing marketing and publicity somewhat. Does this mirror some of your experiences? Or does your publisher do things differently?

Cara Black writes the award nominated Aimée Leduc Investigations set in Paris. MURDER IN THE LATIN QUARTER, the ninth book in the series, was just released and is available online and at fine bookstores everywhere. In MURDER IN THE LATIN QUARTER, Aimée travels to the Left Bank unraveling the trail of a woman who claims to be her sister, murky Haitian politics and international financial scandals that lead to murder.

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CALENDAR OF UPCOMING GUESTS

Mark your calendar for the following guest bloggers at the Kill Zone:

Robert Gregory Browne, March 15
Neil Plakcy, March 22
Liz Jasper, March 29

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