1.) What kind of research do you do on your books? (Please share some of your favorite resource links.)
2.) How long do you spend researching before you begin writing a book?
By Sue Coletta
Crime writers do their research in various places. Many of us have experts we can call on, but I hate to bother friends unless I can’t find the answer elsewhere. A great place to look is Quora. Numerous LEOs volunteer their time to answer questions. If you’re unfamiliar with Quora, you can follow topic feeds, like Police and Law Enforcement, and scan the Q&As. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, ask a new question.
Because I write about serial killers I also follow Psychopathy and Psychopaths. Some of the information is valid, other times alleged “real” psychopaths write in. Although it’s not unheard of for psychopaths to brag, Quora allows anonymity. Any time the poster doesn’t need to reveal their true identity, the information becomes unreliable.
Even if the poster has a valid profile, still double check the information. I recommend confirming with least two or three reliable sources for any internet information you intend to use in a book. Two of my favorite sites are Psychology Today and Explore Forensics, depending on what I’m looking for. I also need to give a quick shout-out to my dear friend Garry Rodgers, RCMP (Ret.), weapons expert and forensic coroner, who blogs at Dying Words. Quora also has its place in the pecking order.
In the Q&A below, I did not edit the answers for two reasons:
1. It’s not my writing; full credit goes to the poster;
2. The voice, including grammar and/or spelling errors, helps with the overall mental image of the officer who’s answering. After all, that’s one of the best parts of eavesdropping.
How many of you have listened in on a conversation while shopping or out to eat? You may not be able to see the person, but their language paints an image in your mind. As you read the following stories, I want you to imagine the officer who’s speaking. There’ll be a fun exercise at the end of this post.
Please note: the s-word is used a few times. Cussing and cops go together like peanut butter cookies and milk. You’ve been warned. 🙂
As a cop, what are the weirdest things you ever experienced?
Scott Conroy, 17 year veteran of law enforcement, answers:
Years ago some construction workers found some human bones in a a concrete patio that they were tearing up in the Venice Beach Area. In looking into the concrete we noticed that there were cavities in the concrete that were made by the now decomposed body. We summoned the Scientific Investigation Unit (LAPD’s version of “CSI”) and we came up with an idea to inject latex rubber into the cavities to get the body contours. Lo and behold we pulled out a latex rubber hand impression of the person to whom the bones belonged.
The detail of the latex replica was amazing. We could see defensive knife wounds and more importantly we saw fingerprints on the latex. We printed the “fingers” of the latex cast and discovered they belonged to a teacher who had disappeared around the time the concrete patio was poured. The ensuing homicide investigation revealed that the primary suspect in this homicide was a nephew who had worked in construction and on that particular patio job.
Epilogue: The suspect, however, had suffered an industrial accident a few years before the discovery of the bones in the concrete and was existing in a vegetative state. In the interest of justice, he was not charged or put on trial for that crime.
What is the scariest experience you’ve ever had as a police officer?
Jim Lee, Former Military Police officer (8 years) answers:
I was running a solo unit one unseasonably cold (for San Diego) November night over 20 years ago when dispatch sends me to an on-base bowling alley; apparently, security personnel were dealing with a D&D (Drunk/Disorderly) individual running around the parking lot half-dressed and beating on cars. I arrive on scene 5 minutes later and see the contact, and something wasn’t right about the situation. As I attempted to make contact with the individual I already didn’t like what I was seeing: no shirt in 40 degree weather but still sweating like a pig; dilated pupils; blank thousand-yard stare and wandering aimlessly. I’d seen these symptoms before, and they had jack sh!t to do with alcohol from what I’d remembered.
As I unsuccessfully attempted to speak to this guy he starts toward me in a threatening manner; I decided to deploy my collapsible baton and warn him off, but he wasn’t listening. That’s when I realized what I was looking at: My new “friend” was on PCP (aka “Angel Dust”).
Officers who have experience dealing with contacts on PCP are familiar with the dangerous situation I found myself in. But for those who don’t know: PCP prevents the actions normally caused when a neurotransmitter, called glutamate, attaches to its receptor in the brain.
It also disrupts the actions of other neurotransmitters. PCP distorts sights, sound and other senses. The user may experience “out of body” sensations that are related to the dissociative effects, feel like they are “floating” with strange impressions of space and time, or imagine things that aren’t real. Some abusers experience euphoria and invulnerability while others experience drowsiness and calming sensations.
PCP is dose-dependent and the effects on the brain intensify with greater doses depending on the methods of consumption and certain biological or psychological factors of the abuser with effects, generally, last from 4 – 6 hours. While the intoxication effects on the brain may be short-lived, the disruptions in neuronal activities can cause the person to feel unpleasant symptoms of depression, anxiety, mood swings, and general dysphoria when the intoxication effects subside.
I threw the baton to the security personnel; I knew, thanks to the effects of PCP, that I could beat the brakes off this guy all night long and he wouldn’t feel a damned thing, so the baton was absolutely pointless. I requested a cover unit to the scene; it usually takes several officers to subdue someone who is on this stuff, and I couldn’t trust the barely-trained security personnel, so I knew I’d have to keep the suspect at bay for a few minutes until “real” help arrived.
This is when things went sideways.
The suspect immediately went for my 9mm Beretta sidearm. I knew I had to keep him from getting to my service weapon at all costs, even if it meant taking an ass-kicking; a bloody nose or broken jaw would pale in comparison to what would happen if he were to somehow get hold of my pistol. Fortunately there were two things going in my favor:
With a simple “bear hug” I was able to slam this guy on the pavement, as I was hoping to knock the wind out of him for a second. That was the easy part.
But now the fun was about to start.
Remember what I said about PCP’s effect of the human body’s nervous system? I finally got to see this effect first-hand; no amount of punching, arm bar holds or pressure point manipulation was going to stop this freak. It took all I had just to wrestle this guy and hold on for dear life (namely, mine). Despite the fact that I outweighed him by such a large amount I could barely hold this guy down, and he was determined to get his hands on my weapon. I’m not sure how long it took the cover unit to finally show up; it was probably about another 5 minutes but it felt like an hour.
Fortunately the officers in the other unit (they were riding a partner unit, thankfully) immediately recognized the situation I faced and helped me hold the drug-crazed nutjob down while security personnel contacted a paramedic unit under our orders. Upon the paramedic’s arrival it took no less than five of us to apply restraints to the suspect, “hogtie” him and prepare him for transport to the medical facility for treatment and evaluation. A subsequent search revealed that he was also armed with a 4-inch blade; I wondered why he didn’t use it but was relieved that he must have forgotten about it (otherwise this story would have been about a police shooting).
After I was also examined by the paramedics (and found to be still intact) my watch commander ordered me back to the station to take a rest and start my report. Good thing, too, because that was probably the longest 10 to 15 minutes of my life at that point; I was worn out, and someone just tried to kill me.
Yeah, fun times.
Benjamin Bender, Retired Police Detective St Louis Metropolitan Police, answers:
For me its almost getting thrown off a 6 story bridge that was over a freeway while fighting a guy who outweighed me by 100 lb or watching a Woman burn alive 3 feet from me that I would have saved if I had arrived literally 10 seconds earlier.
Bridge incident story starts as all my stories do. One day while on “routine” patrol (again on a day my permanent partner had a Kelly Day…which was a common thing for me to get the call of the century while he was off….drove him nuts).
I got a call for a “vehicle accident” on the Freeway, I-55 near the North Bound exit onto the Poplar Street bridge. Traffic often backed up on that on ramp and rear end collisions were common. I was in an area not my normal one because my partner Blake was off I got stuck in a sector car that a guy was off and would be deadheaded. When I got the call it was crucial that I take one particular hidden on ramp to arrive at the location the quickest. I unwisely chose to go to one that was 2 blocks further (because the other was hard to find off an alley hardly marked and it was dark).
When I pulled up 3 cars had been in an accident. A drunk in the rear slammed into a guy who slammed into a 3rd car in front. The furthest car in front had a Mother in Law in it. The Son in law was the middle car. Drunk as I said..in the rear ramming and causing it.
Well as I pull up the Mother in laws car erupts in flame from gas leaking out of the tank by the back bumper. She is trapped in the car but nobody had got her out by breaking the window. Nobody noticed the leaking fuel. By the time I run to her the flame is fully over and in the back seat of the car. I break the window and cut her seat belt …go to pull her 100 LB body out like a kid but just before I can the flame billows over and engulfs both of us…the entire car bumper to bumper. I drop away and lose most of my exposed hair and a shirt. She burned alive in front of us..and the Son in law. I then had to take him to the station and sit there while he called his wife and told her he just rear ended her Mother and she died.
If that was my beat or I knew that exit better she would have lived. 100%
Second was a Home Invasion robber wanted for many crimes was leading Cops from 6 or more jurisdictions on a high speed chase through the City and County. I was listening in on the radio and correctly guessed he would go for the bridge over the Mississippi to get to Illinois. The chase went on for over an hour and I correctly deduced he was circling the rabbit hole to get home to Illinois and couldn’t find the bridge on ramp.
I went to the easiest one for him to get to based on his location north of the city. I then cause a traffic jam on the 1 lane on ramp by ordering 1 car to stop on the ramp and not move until I said ok. 10 Min of round about chase later…sure enough…here he comes. Goes on the side of cars as much as he can till its blocked..gets out on foot and starts running up the ramp to the bridge on foot with me 10 feet behind..letting him run a bit and get tired before we fight.
So…he gets higher up and apparently then did get tired and want to fight. When it didn’t go well for him he tried to jump off the side of the bridge (he didn’t realize that the earth rise fell away to a long drop the higher you went up…he thought ground was about 10 feet down or something). I instinctively grab his forearm as he went and I held a second. Then I felt his weight pulling me over. I knew I was going over now…I saw the terror in his eyes as he realized he had screwed up and was about to get very hurt and or dead. I then made the split second decision to let go. I saw his eyes go wide as saucers as I said…”bye”…and let go. He fell 60 feet and shattered both legs and his pelvis and lived. Almost got ran over too. That scared the shit out of me. He came sooo close to pulling me over head first…not feet first like he fell.
Love the dark humor, love the voices. I hope you enjoyed them as well. Ready for a fun exercise? Take one of these fascinating stories and describe the officer who told the tale. No clicking the name to peek at their profile picture!
Today I have the pleasure of hosting a long time and active member of TKZ – Sue Coletta – and featuring her May 3rd release, CLEAVED, published by Tirgearr Publishing. I pre-ordered her book at the great price of $0.99 ebook and can’t wait to read it. By the time you read this, her book will be officially OUT!
Sue is a talented crime fiction author of memorable characters, who writes in an evocative style tinged with horror. She’s here to talk about torturing characters and how far an author might go…on purpose. Yes, Sue would scare most normal people, but we’re writers. We can take it.
Take it away, Sue.
Being a crime writer tends to spill into everyday life. Not only do I go out of my way to drive by secluded swamps, woodlands, or bogs for potential body dump locations, but I’m also keenly alert and aware of the people around me. The shady guy who takes a few minutes too long while pretending to read magazines in the convenient store he intends to rob. The dude with white knee socks and sandals who sits alone at the lake, his gaze roaming the shoreline from behind the morning newspaper. He doesn’t fool me for a second. Obviously he’s scouting for his next victim. Then there’s the poor woman who’s clueless to her surroundings. In a few days, a breaking news report will confirm she’s Sandal Guy’s latest victim.
Do we really need to discuss driving by a wood chipper? I mean, c’mon! How many of you haven’t thought about stuffing a body in the chute?
Yeah, that’s what I thought.
When crime writing burrows into our DNA, the world morphs into a place of perverse secrets, malevolent acts, and sinful deeds. We can’t help but see the signs. Okay, so maybe “normal” people don’t envision quite as much danger as we do, but I think it makes us far more interesting. Our spouses get caught up in our warped realities, too. My husband’s been known to point out perfect murder sites. Or he’ll hear about a desolate locale and ask if I want to take a ride, knowing I can’t resist.
“You mean that, honey?” I skip out the door, and my excitement bubbles over. “Woohoo! Road trip!”
Research is another matter entirely. When we have no real-life experience to pull from, we’re left with two choices: research until it feels like we’ve lived the scene, or put ourselves in the same position as our character. For me, the latter is much more fun.
My new psychological thriller CLEAVED opens with a woman trapped inside an oil drum. I’ve never been ensnared in any confined space, so I found it difficult to tap into the emotions of the scene. My solution? Lock myself inside an oil drum and hang out a while.
The conversation with my husband Bob went something like this…
Me: Hey, do we have any oil drums?
Bob: Yeah. Why?
Me: Are they empty?
Bob: Yeah. Why?
Me: What size are they?
Bob: 30 and 50 gallon. Why?
Me: If I climb inside, will you close the lid for me?
Me: Awesome. Let’s do this!
Dumbfounded, he followed me out the door. Turned out, he’d loaned the 50 gallon drum to our neighbor, so I started with the 30. The first problem I encountered was this. I couldn’t just step inside and squat. It’s way too narrow. Instead, hung on to the sides, hiked my knees to my chest, and then lowered myself to the bottom. Once crammed inside, I gave my husband the signal to lower the lid, but not secure the hasp. No need to get crazy, or give him any ideas he might regret later.
Pure blackness struck me hard. Also, my ankles and neck bent at odd angles. Pain seared bone-deep. My knees pinned my chest, laboring my breath. No matter how hard I tried I could not slow the adrenaline coursing through my mind, body, and spirit. The oxygen thinned with every patter, patter, patter of my heart, my mind spinning with scenarios of dying this way.
What an awful death—trapped, alone, unable to move more than my arms.
Every few minutes Bob asked if I was okay, which really ruined the ambiance. In order to concentrate, I sent him back inside. Later, he told me he watched from the window. Though as far as I knew at the time, I was alone. No one around to save me. Perfect.
Closing my eyes, I envisioned the scene. The darkness of night. Tree frogs chirping in the canopies of leaves around the marsh. A far off screech owl’s predatory cry pierced the frigid air. The subtle swish of water lapped against my unforgiving grave, rocking me from side to side.
Next, I concentrated on how my body responded. The pressure on my lungs was like being caught under a steel girder, squeezing each pocket of air dry. No longer did I control my breathing, my chest heaving much faster than I could regulate. Thoughts of death consumed me. My remains could stay undiscovered for days, weeks, months, even years. The psychological torture alone could be enough to destroy someone. My only chance of survival was to break free.
That question lingered. Numerous “What if’s” flitted through my mind. I won’t ruin the scene by telling you how, or even if, my character escapes. Since it’s the opening chapter you can find out by reading the “Look Inside” feature HERE.
After about 20 minutes or so, I emerged from the barrel. Next, I sent Bob to ask the neighbor if the 50 gallon was also empty. I needed to experience the difference because the character is entrapped in a 50 gallon drum, not a 30. After the “incident” of begging Bob to bury me in the backyard (story for another time!), the neighbors are all too familiar with my research stunts, so this request didn’t surprise him in the least. In fact, he was oddly excited to participate. I let him duct tape the lid close. This was really more for his benefit than mine since duct tape doesn’t stick well to steel.
Compared to the 30 gallon, my new digs felt like Club Med. Much more spacious, but the body position remained unchanged, ankles and neck seared with pain, knees compressing my lungs. All in all, my time spent inside the two oil drums turned out to be very educational and I wrote a much better scene. Win win!
Some may call crime writers unique or even weird, but no one can say we’re boring.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever done in the name of research?
Author Sage Quintano writes about crime. Her husband Niko investigates it. Together they make an unstoppable team. But no one counted on a twisted serial killer, who stalks their sleepy community, uproots their happy home, and splits the threads that bonds their family unit.
Darkness swallows the Quintanos whole–ensnared by a ruthless killer out for blood. Why he focused on Sage remains a mystery, but he won’t stop till she dies like the others.
Women impaled by deer antlers, bodies encased in oil drums, nursery rhymes, and the Suicide King. What connects these cryptic clues? For Sage and Niko, the truth may be more terrifying than they ever imagined.
Some authors attend real autopsies, spend nights in haunted houses, or travel to exotic places.
I’ve toured FBI: Quantico and CIA: Langley, shot various weapons at the FBI Academy firing range and watched a bomb squad blow up stuff at my local police department. I’ve had a flash bang grenade blown up at my feet to see what it was like, and I’ve blindfolded myself to fumble around in a dark room to see if I could sense walls.
Writers do peculiar things in the name of research. Tell us about your most memorable experiences, what you learned, and how you used it.
I heard Phil Klay on MSNBC talking about his fiction book entitled – Redeployment – and I was intrigued. The first thing that grabbed me was the fact that the book is fiction, a group of short stories. Klay is former military (see more about him below) and from what I’ve seen, many war books written by young men of his experience/background, they tend to write non-fiction, so he had me hooked. I also noticed his book was a 2014 National Book Award Winner. Very impressive.
I wanted to read Klay’s book for research. I’m currently writing a few Amazon Kindle World series books involving the military. Reading pure romance books on the subject of military lifestyle wasn’t satisfying my need for authenticity, especially when I’m in the head of my male characters.
I’ve been watching online videos on snipers and reading books written by Navy SEALS. Klay’s anthology is my latest attempt to get a feel for an authentic voice for the character I will be writing shortly. Since my market is generally women readers, I have to temper any research with how I would write a story for women, but I do love discovering male voices that connect with my own life experiences, similar to the guys I worked with in the oil fields. (Yeah, I have stories.)
I feel I must warn readers interested in this amazing book. It’s taken me awhile to read through it. The first person voices in these stories are intimate, poignant, and gripping. They are presented without judgment. It’s a stark reality without any solutions or answers, but I found an honesty to it. These stories have gotten me down and I find I have to pace myself in reading them. I read at night and there are some days I can’t pick up this book, but I love the rich distinctive style of the voices in this anthology. I highly recommend this book. No question. This book would make an interesting read for anyone looking for a good character study.
5 TIPS ON RESEARCH:
1.) GET IT RIGHT – Research is important for authenticity, to insure your book doesn’t get thrown against a wall. There are women readers serving in the military, so I would have to “get it right” for them, yet still appeal to a woman’s desire for romance.
2.) NEVER OVERDO – Too much jargon or acronyms can bore a reader. In my crime fiction books, I will use police procedural language in dialogue, but find a quick way to explain what things mean after I first mention it. It can be tricky, but reviewers have liked the subtle way I do this, without overkill that can slow the pace. It’s all about balance.
“You have TOD, doc?”
Chambers knew the medical examiner would be challenged to estimate time of death, given the conditions of the body.
3.) CAPTURE THE ESSENCE – Read research related books or watch videos to get a general feel for an attitude, lifestyle, or the types of characters and their backstories you want to portray, but NEVER copy another author’s work. To prevent the temptation, when I read books like Klay’s, I jot down notes of ideas for my own book, then set the research book down for days/weeks before I start on my story and I never read books like this WHILE I am writing. In fact, I don’t read books in the genre I’m writing while I am in the midst of a project. Your mind can put words onto the page subconsciously. Your story MUST be your own, to retain your own voice.
4.) NEED VISUALS – For action scenes or locations, search online for your own visuals. Practice describing what you see, to get your own interpretation as seen through the eyes of your character. If you have video, use your ears too. What sounds do you hear on location? What other senses can you pry from your own experiences? Using all the senses can be a rush, especially if they spring from your own life.
5.) FILL IN THE GAPS – Once you get your character’s voice in your head, add other things that fill in around him. How does he or she dress? How do they live? Who are his/her friends? Who does he/she trust? What baggage does he or she carry? What’s the last thing he or she would do, then make them do it in your story – to face their demons. This gets into character – another topic – but my natural next step after I get a distinctive voice in my head, is to fill in a visual of my character’s life. Then I’m ready to write.
1.) What research books have stayed with you long after you’re written the book?
2,) Do you have any recommended reading for me on authentic military action, jargon, and dialogue?
ABOUT THE BOOK
Phil Klay’s Redeployment takes readers to the front lines of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, asking us to understand what happened there and what happened to the soldiers who returned. Interwoven with themes of brutality and faith, guilt and fear, helplessness and survival, the characters in these stories struggle to make meaning out of chaos.
Phil Klay – Author Phil Klay is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and served in Iraq’s Anbar Province from January 2007 to February 2008 as a Public Affairs Officer. His writing has appeared in Granta, The New York Times,Newsweek, The Daily Beast, New York Daily News, Tin House, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. Klay is a 2014 National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Honoree.
“In Klay’s hands, Iraq comes across not merely as a theater of war but as a laboratory of the human condition in extremis. Redeployment is hilarious, biting, whipsawing and sad. It’s the best thing written so far on what the war did to people’s souls.”
–Dexter Filkins, The New York Times Book Review
Today, I welcome to TKZ my friend and fellow ITW member, New York Times bestselling author, Tosca Lee. Because of the historical nature of so much of Tosca’s writing, I asked her to share her thoughts on research. Enjoy!
I’m asked often how I research my historical novels. I’ve steadfastly avoided writing about this topic until now I think because it’s such a personal process—one dictated by how a person sorts, digests, and stores information. None of us will do it the same. That said, having had to pack the equivalent of a dissertation’s worth of research into six months on occasions before, I have picked up a few tricks.
1) Start pedestrian. Do what everyone else does: Google. Wikipedia. YouTube. See what’s available on Amazon. Read and watch widely.
2) Acquire key references for your library. These are the staple works and experts that books, articles and documentaries about your topic refer to time and again. For the first century, it’s the historian Josephus. For period warfare, Carl Von Clausewitz. Find your staple information.
3) Find specialty outlets. This is where I divert to the History Channel. National Geographic. The Discovery Channel. Coursera. Two of my power tools: The Great Courses and the (in my opinion) less-utilized and under-appreciated iTunes U. These last two, in particular, are rich sources of highly-organized, consumable information by leading experts and ivy-league academics. True, the Great Courses are not cheap. If scrimping, look for the course on eBay, or order only the transcript. iTunes U. is free.
4) Identify your experts—the writers of the staple books (or their commentaries), the leading academics or specialists teaching the lectures or commenting in the documentaries. These may also be area experts or locals living in your setting (travel guides, bloggers and book authors are excellent for this) or doing what they do.
5) Recruit. I never write a novel without at least a small group of experts in my pocket to either point me in the direction of information I need or to directly and expediently answer a question as I’m working. Don’t be afraid to write and introduce yourself and how you came to find them. Be direct with queries and questions, and therefore respectful of their time. Curators of specialized information are eager to help someone who shares their enthusiasm. Offer them the gift of some of your previously published work if they express willingness, and a consulting fee if you have the resources. If you find yourself relying on their help at regular intervals, be gracious with a token of appreciation. And of course remember them in your acknowledgments and with a finished copy of the project. Having made friends with several of my sources, the research has become easier; when I start a project in the purview of one of them, I ask for a starting bibliography, which cuts down on steps 1 and 2.
Of course you need a general idea what you want to accomplish when you start researching. That said, I have found it most helpful to let the research inform my outline, particularly in writing historical fiction. I find it most helpful to let the political, cultural and religious climate of a point in history inform my characters’ backstory and upbringing. In fact, I have three rules as I create historical characters in particular: their lives must adhere to or put an interesting (but plausible) twist on their historical record; their lives and actions must be in keeping with their political and cultural setting (even a visionary is only a visionary relative to setting); and ultimately, their pains, joys and actions must ring true to human nature.
My research library for my first book consisted of some fifteen items. My library for Iscariot, more than 100. There’s an inherent risk in so much information and it is this: the temptation to put every tasty morsel of obscure but fascinating information into your prose.
Don’t do it.
Despite my telling myself this advice, my first draft of Iscariot was 800 pages. Part of that is my own habit of over-writing first drafts. The other part of that was an overabundance of interesting stuff. Too much clever innuendo that required first educating the reader.
Readers are not reading fiction to be educated, but entertained (or else they would be reading the same research material as you). Take the time to read and absorb everything pertinent—not for their sake, but yours. Sort your information in a way that you can find what you need when you need it. These days, I organize information by topic in Scrivener. But having absorbed everything I’ve read, listened to, and watched, I try to push it all away when I sit down to write. I let loose, keeping maps or immediate references nearby if necessary, but adding historical details in very small doses later—and mostly to the first part of the novel, where I am buying credibility with the reader.
Save yourself the trouble of hashing through a barrage of information by cutting to the heart of your story from the get-go. Because ultimately, the storyline that will draw and keep your readers is not the product of your diligent research (that will only keep you out of hot water with the critics)… but the emotional connection with a character’s hopes, dreams, failures and fears—the things that bind us all, regardless of time and place.
Tosca Lee is the award-winning, New York Times best-selling author of Iscariot; Demon: A Memoir; Havah: The Story of Eve, and the Books of Mortals series with New York Times best-seller Ted Dekker (Forbidden, Mortal and Sovereign). Her highly anticipated seventh novel, The Legend of Sheba, releases September 9, 2014.
Tosca received her B.A. in English and International Relations from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts with studies at Oxford University. She is a lifelong world adventure traveler and makes her home in the Midwest. To learn more about Tosca, visit www.toscalee.com.
[Note from Jodie: I’m going crazy with last-minute preparations for my big move across the country
in a few days, so bestselling thriller author and writing instructor Robert Dugoni is filling in for me today. Take it away, Bob!]
I raise more than a few eyebrows when I teach, and that’s usually a good sign. I know I’ve got my students thinking. The first collective class-eyebrow-arch comes when I stand up and say, “No one can teach you how to write.” Students who’ve paid good money to be in one of my seminars or workshops begin to have immediate heart palpitations until I add, “But I can teach you how to teach yourselves how to write.”
So what do I mean by this?
How can I teach any student I don’t know intimately what to write or how to write it? I can’t even teach my two children how to write. Writing is an extraordinarily personal endeavor and each of us brings our own nuances, quirks, insights and experiences to not only what we write but how we write it. All of these things form what we frequently refer to as the writer’s “voice” – how the writer (and really her characters) views the world and others in it and how the character expresses that view. We hope that it is a unique and exciting and interesting. When it is, those are usually the novels publishers clamor to buy.
But the fact is the to-be-published novel will never make it that far if the author forsakes the craft of writing and makes one of those silly mistakes that cry out “amateur” to that would-be editor.
So rather than telling students “I can teach you how to write,” I tell them my job is “to remove as many obstacles in the path to publication as possible.”
One of those big obstacles is when the author intrudes into the story.
Author intrusions into the reader’s experience reading a novel can be deadly. Not only do they raise the “amateur” flag and slow the story pace, they also tend to annoy. It’s like being in a deep and meaningful conversation with one person and having another person continually interrupt that conversation to tell you things you really don’t need to know at that moment or, frankly, you don’t care about!
When a story unfolds, the opening chapters should develop like a play on a stage. The reader wants to see what the character sees, hear what she hears, smell what she smells, taste what she tastes, and touch what she touches. It is not the author experiencing the story. It is the reader experiencing the story through the character. So how does the author intrude?
Let us count just some of the ways.
~ Omniscient narrative
This occurs when you’re reading a scene from a particular character’s point of view and suddenly the author barges in to provide a bit of information that the character doesn’t yet know, couldn’t yet know and may never know. Sometimes this is called bad foreshadowing. Here’s an example:
You’ve just written a killer scene in which your protagonist has arrived at a mountain getaway for three days of R&R and the author ends the scene with something like, “Little did she know that three miles away, Luke Reddinger, a serial killer, had just escaped from the state penitentiary.” Okay, so if the character didn’t know, who’s throwing in this tidbit? Does the reader need it at that moment? Would it be more powerful to see Luke Reddinger escaping, or running through the woods, maybe seeing the cabin she has arrived at? Wouldn’t that raise a story question that would keep the reader reading to find out what happens? Isn’t that what every writer wants?
~ Unnecessary biographical information
Ever read a scene in a book that is going swimmingly when suddenly the author stops the flow of the dialogue and action to tell you where the main character went to high school, their major in college or that their great grandmother was an alcoholic? Unless that high school is going to play a part in the story, the major is important to illustrate the character’s skill, or grandma is a serial killer when she gets drunk, what was the point of interrupting the story? Biographical sketches, if you’re so inclined to do them, are for the author to get to know her characters so the author better understands how the character will act and what she might say in a particular situation or moment. They are not for the reader.
~ Author Opinions
Nothing is more transparent than when an author tries to ram her opinion on a topic down your throat. Even when the author tries to disguise the opinion as a “character’s opinion” it is usually easy to spot. “Mary asked John what he thought about President Obama’s health care reform.” And then John starts spouting off. This is one of those instances where the author would be better off showing rather than telling. If you want to make a statement about the death penalty, write The Green Mile and let us see one of the pitfalls of the ultimate punishment. You want to write about abortion, write The Cider House Rules. You want to write on the evils of slavery, write Twelve Years a Slave. Racism in the south – Mississippi Burning. Greed in the roaring twenties – The Great Gatsby. There’s no place like home – The Wizard of Oz. And so on…
This is usually the cause of the third collective class-eyebrow-arch. Some even snap at this point. Why? Because so many of us use flashbacks in our novels. So before anyone snaps an eyebrow, let me clarify – flashbacks can be used. The author just needs to know how to use them so they are not an intrusion. First, a flashback, despite its name, must still move the story forward. That is, the flashback should impart some information that is relevant to the plot at that moment, drives the plot forward, and/or reveals some important character trait or relationship that will come into play.
Second, a flashback is a scene. Therefore, all of the things discussed above that go into making a great scene still apply. A flashback should not be some character sitting alone at a table reminiscing about something that happened in the past. Put the reader in the scene with the characters and allow the reader to hear and see and smell and taste and touch the scene as it unfolds.
Think about the movie Titanic. Regardless of your opinion on the movie itself, note that it was actually Rose reminiscing about her voyage on that ship. How boring would it have been if the entire three-hour movie was Rose sitting at a table telling the movie audience what happened, rather than the movie audience flashing back to that time and getting the chance to experience it?
~ Information Dumps
This is usually where the writer has done a lot of research on a particular subject and darn it, everyone is going to know it! An information dump is an excessive amount of unnecessary information or details dumped into the story when the character does not need it and might never need it. Like biographies, research is for the author, not the reader. I’d say less than 10% of the information I research and learn about goes into my novels.
Information dumps can take many forms.
Research details. The research dump is when the author has learned a lot of information on a particular subject and dumps it into the story either in omniscient narrative or thinly disguised by creating a “character” to tell the reader everything they needed to know about such things as growing vegetables on rooftop gardens in New York City during the depression.
Character descriptions. Other information dumps are excessive details about what every character who comes on stage is wearing, or looks like. What the character is wearing is only important if the author has set the scene up so that another character has a particular interest in what a particular character is wearing, or the character’s own choice of clothes is important. When your character walks into a high school prom we can assume the girls are wearing prom dresses and the guys are in tuxedos. But if you’ve set the story up so that Billy is determined to make a splash and wears a tear-away tuxedo intending to leave high school by doing the Full Monty, then we want to know the details of that tear-away tuxedo.
Setting. The same is true with excessive details to describe a setting. Authors are not weather men or travel guides so your scenes shouldn’t read like a weather report or travel book. And if your protagonist is running for her life through a forest while being chased by werewolves, please don’t have her take the time to tell us every species of tree and type of fauna they are running past. Necessary details only. Excessive details need not apply!
So when you have the urge to pontificate, opine, brag, or otherwise bore, think about what my friend and brilliant writer John Hough Jr always says: “Dialogue is action and action is dialogue.” Get your characters on the move and talking. Avoid staying too long in a character’s head. Do your biographies and research for you, not for the reader, and give us only those details that will keep the story moving forward.
And above all, once you’ve hooked us with an incredible opening, lured us in with an amazing character, and mesmerized us with a killer plot, then please, BUTT OUT! I’ll thank you to let me enjoy your beautifully crafted story on my own.
Robert Dugoni is the critically acclaimed and New York Times best-selling Author of the David Sloane series: The Jury Master, Wrongful Death, Bodily Harm, Murder One and The Conviction. He is also the author of the best-selling stand-alone novel Damage Control, as well as the nonfiction expose, The Cyanide Canary. Dugoni’s books have been likened to Scott Turow and Nelson DeMille, and he has been hailed as “the undisputed king of the legal thriller” by The Providence Journal and called the “heir to Grisham’s literary throne.” Bodily Harm and Murder One were each chosen one of the top 5 thrillers of 2010 and 2011, respectively. Murder One was also a finalist for the Harper Lee Award for literary excellence. My Sister’s Grave is the first in the Tracy Crosswhite series. Visit his website at www.robertdugoni.com, email him at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter @robertdugoni and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/AuthorRobertDugoni.