Wednesday, February 28, 2007

status: 49,000 words

There's enough story here that I'm starting to see some of the flailing back at the beginning. I'm resisting the urge to go back and make a bunch of changes to the start, based on my current take on what I'm doing. If past efforts are anything to go by, I'll end up doing a lot of that work in 20- or 30,ooo words. Or maybe I'll leave it til the second pass. We'll see.

Yesterday we got out and enjoyed a little more of this lovely land. Two hours following the course of a swift little stream through a lush bit of bush up to this waterfall. A picnic with roasted chicken, beer and grapes followed.

As sometimes happened, my hindbrain didn't dig in to the book until after 9.30 at night. Bloody weird business, this. Stare at the screen for hours and hours, then BOOM, 1000 words in an hour and a half.
As long as it gets written, I'm not complaining. That shuffling little beast is welcome in the clearing any old damn time...

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Mighty McGuffin

46,800 words (storm clouds closer, corpse on slab, where's Igor with that brain?)

I just started reading STAY, by Nicola Griffith. I picked it up because her noir detective is also a six-foot blond female martial artist. And because a couple of short peeks inside the pages showed a style at once lean and muscular and also lyric and poetic. You wouldn't think the two go together, but there it is.

I must be getting pretty secure in my voice, because I didn't worry that the book would throw me off my own track. Good thing, too. These first fifty pages have absolutely *hummed*.

Yesterday's post about stakes got me thinking about McGuffins. That's a word Alfred Hitchcock used to describe the thing all the characters want, the thing they're chasing, whatever it may be. A suitable match for the Dashwoods. Certain pages from Lovecraft's Necronomicon. The truth about the death of Meyer's neice. A better life for the Joads.

Hitchcock felt it didn't really matter what the McGuffin was. The important thing was that the characters' action and reactions to it be human and believable. Probably the ultimate example (at least, before dawn on a Tuesday morning) is the suitcase in Pulp Fiction. What's in it? We don't know, and to a certain extent, don't care. We just need to know that it's worth killing for, worth double-crossing a man like Marcelus Wallace to have, however briefly.

One difference I'd have with Hitchcock is that he always spoke about McGuffins in terms of a bunch of people competing for the same thing. I don't think that needs to be the case, and I'm not sure he really did either. The story drives, and drives hard, as long as one character deeply, deeply cares about the McGuffin. That's all.

I mean, most of the characters in Psycho didn't know or care about Norman's twisted efforts to win his dead mother's love through blood sacrifice. Which is really what's at stake for him, the thing he's chasing. Everyone else falls into his clutches with varying results until he's locked up.

The novel I'm writing right now, I've recently found out that what my two groups of bad guys are fighting over isn't what I'd originally thought at all. Funny thing is, they've been chasing it anyway, with all the morality, mercy and restraint of sharks in bloody water. Now a lot of their odder actions make sense. The shape was there, I just hadn't uncovered it...

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Edge of Our Seats?

44,000 words (stitched-up corpse on the slab and thunderstorms a-brewin)

So last post I forgot to actually hyperlink the Ten Rules for Suspense Fiction. No idea why, none at all.

Seems to me, with a little bit of flexibility about the stakes, those 'rules' come in handy for all sorts of fiction. Any story where the author wants to ratchet up the tension. Which is most anywhere.

Sure, thrillers are easy that way: the tension is built into the stakes. Can Hiro Protagonist and Y.T. stop an ancient Sumerian virus from destroying all computers (Snow Crash)? Can Frodo and Sam destroy the One Ring before it destroys the world (LotR)?

But that sense of challenge, tension, escalating stakes and shortening timelines pop up all over the show. In Tom Joad's struggles to help his family survive (The Grapes of Wrath). In Little Nell's conflicts with Quilp and her grandfather's gambling problem (The Old Curiosity Shop). In the romantic misadventures of the sisters Dashwood (Sense and Sensiblity).

The real important thing there is the reader's ability to buy into the stakes. I've read all of the above at least two or three times, sometimes with varying reactions. Much as I love them, if I'm in the wrong mood, I can't even buy into a favorite work.

For instance, I've found myself asking, "So what if the Dashwoods have to (gasp) get jobs?" or, "I bet Samwise would be a fine dictator if he kept the ring. Why not?"

Food for thought, anyway...

While I'm at it, here's Ed Gorman interviewing the master of suspense himself. Ladies and gentlemen, Miiiiiiisterrrrr JOHN D. MacDONALD!!

Friday, February 23, 2007

Where'm I at?

42,000 words (and happy as Larry)

I'm very much a character-driven writer. Or maybe a better word is situation-driven, since the charcters don't get much input until the defining situation gets rolling. Think North by Northwest: without the goddawful situation he finds himself in, Cary Grant would probably spend all his time being witty at parties.

Anyway, the characters know what they're doing at this point. Some of them hate each other, some love each other, and others are still trying to figure out what they think. Fair enough. At this point, knocking down a thousand or so words a day is cake. Where it gets a little wierd is now that most (And I do only mean most) of the flailing is over, these folks are doing some pretty unsuspected things.

For instance, I had two characters working on one problem in the background for two days (that's story time: probably a month out here on this side of the keyboard). Last night one of the characters found a solution that was simple, elegant, and in all truth she probably would've thought of almost immediately.

Crisis? Disaster? Stop everything and go back to figure out how the hell the story will hang together now that I know this?

Nope. I'm just getting on with it.

By the time I get to the second draft that solution may end up making me rewrite a big swathe of the book. Or it may end up collapsing a few other scenes. Or that problem may have to come out entirely to give some other part of the action more room to breathe. The truth is, at this point I don't really know what's important. By the end I'll know what was a keeper and what wasn't. This stage is about discovery, style and storytelling.

It's a lot of fun. The story's here, trying to tell itself to me. And that's not always the case. I've heaps of fragments that got right under my skin until I started work on them, then turned out not to have the legs to go the distance.

Oh, and for a close, here's the Ten Rules of Thriller Writing. It occurs to me that they can be used to make just about any fiction more gripping, whether literary, romance, or a cozy mystery.

As they say in 12 Step groups, take what you like and leave the rest.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

What's it All About, Alfie?

41,000 words (back on track, sorta)

There are at least a few different kinds of writer's block. My most frequent one is 'Driving with the hand Brake On.' That's where I spend more time second-guessing what I just wrote than I do writing more. It's my inner critic gone mad.

It's also not the subject of today's blog.

Today's about a second, more brutal form of writer's block. You know the one: you've come too far to turn back now, but no matter hwo hard you try, you just can't work out what happens next.

You're blocked.

Near as I can tell, it happens to everyone. It's not happening to me right now, but it has in the past. My last novel, for instance. And the one before that.

When it does, I get away from the keyboard. Long walks, bike rides, tramps up the sides of damn mountains are favorites, but it doesn't matter. The key is to give the body something to do so that the mind can wander. And ponder.

And ask, what the hell am I writing about, anyway? What's the point?

Literary professors get to used high-falutin words like central conflict and theme. But I am a bear of little brain, and prefer simple, working class words. I want to know what the story that's stumping me's supposed to look like when it's at home.

But really, central conflict and theme are what's getting lost in those white-out, writer's block moments. Writing is like building a forest one tree at time. The inner critic wants to see that every leaf and pine needle is just so. The white-out is when you've lost track and started building up above the ridgeline, or onto thin, rocky soil where your story doesn't properly belong.

There's something you love in your story. Something that puts that particular wood (whether a 2000 word grove or a 350,000 rainforest) in that particular place. After all, if you don't have the love, there are heaps of other ways to spend a day. The love of that story, wanting to see how it turns out -- to see it told -- is what makes writing worthwhile.

Find the heart of your story. You'll also find the key to your dilemna.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Writing, a Tale told in Allegory

39,400 words (with good reason)
Today was the Tiny Dynamo's birthday. By ancient and venerable tradition, she got to pick the Honored Activity.

Being both Tiny, and Dynamic, she chose to haul our asses up the side of a damn mountain.

I'm not out of shape (certainly not for someone who remembers steam-powered zeppelins), but when my most recent brithday rolled around, my choice of Honored Activity involved a well-made coffee and a big slab of cheesecake. A visit to a bookstore followed.

There were inducements. At the top of the ridge sat a volcanic-stone camping shelter abandoned in the 1920's and only recently renovated. It sits in a desolate place, and no roads reach it.

Damn it, I wanted to see that hut.

It started out sweet and lovely. A pleasant lark on a summer's day. We passed over sunlit pastures and sparkling streams. It was a little bit uphill, but then, I knew it would be a climb, right?

Then the climb began in earnest. The land slanted up, and further up. The wind stopped, and the sun beat down on the land. Everywhere I stepped, I hit sheep shit.

I slogged on.

Here and there we came across a tree. Those lovely bits of shade, those chances to look out over what I'd done kept me going. Sometimes, the view up the trail ahead made me despair.

A couple times, I gave serious thought to giving up. Just turn and go back down. But, one does not draw so beguiling and wondrous a creature as the Tiny Dynamo to one's side by being faint-hearted, cowardly, or giving anything less than one's best. Giving up simply was not an option.

Besides, I wanted to see that damn shelter. I wanted to see how the walk ended.

And just when I was thoroughly shattered and wondering if I really could walk until I collapsed (again), a roofline came into view. A surge of energy ran through me, and the pack I carried didn't seem so heavy.

The surge to the end was quick. The view from the top was incredible. I was up in the clouds, on top of the world.

It was totally worth it. And on the trip back down, the walk up didn't seem like it'd been that bad.

It struck me then. This was *so* like writing a novel.


Except now I can't quit thinking about the axe on the chain...

Monday, February 19, 2007

Fresh'n ya Drink, Guv'nor?

38,000 words (in and around scratching the blackfly bites)

Ah, dialect...

"Nay, Miss, I'n got to keep count o' the flour an' corn-- I can't do wi' knowin' so many things besides my work..."
- George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

"...he had a monstrous civil tongue of his own, and a jolly, easy, coaxing way with him. I liked him a deal better than my mistress. She was a hard one, if ever there was a hard one yet."

- Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White

Two great classics, both published around the same time, both still in print 160 years later. Which one's dialogue would you rather read?

The Tiny Dynamo assures me that TMotF is full of sex and betrayal and all sorts of ripe drama, but I doubt I'll ever find out. Any three pages of those damn apostrophes makes my eyes glaze over.

It's clear that both authors wanted to catch the flavor of their working-class speakers' dialects. Collins did it with a simple elegance that was way ahead of his time.

Trying to capture the sound of spoken dialogue on the page is an old, old problem, and one that hasn't gone away. Too few concessions to the sounds we make with our mouths, and our character appear to be delivering essays. Too many of those concessions, and the readers start skipping.

Dialogue is a real sore point for me. As an American writing Kiwispeak, I often feel like I'm negotiating a minefield. I want readers to see the characters as real people, and that won't happen if I run around writing every little bit of what I hear when people talk to me.

"Good on ya, mate," will do heaps better than "G'donya, mite," ever will. I try to pay particualr attention to writers whose dialogue hums with the sound of its characters' speech. Marian Keyes is brilliant, as are James Lee Burke, Neil Gaiman, Elmore Leonard and Frank McCourt. George Pelecanos is so good it's scary, but then, he also writes for The Wire.

I don't get it right much, but I'm trying. Getting the sound right seems to be about word choice and word order, and a sparing, sparing use of those intentional misspellings.

And then of course there's the lie at the heart of all dialogue: it's not about speech at all.

Real people um and ah their way through conversations, repeat themselves, wander off in the middle of sentences, etc. Take a glance at a court transcript sometime and see.

Dialogue can't do that. It has to move the story forward. Characters on a page only open their mouths to advance conflict or to deliver information to the reader. If the author does it right, it's like watching a magic act: we zip through the pages watching two or three or however many characters have a conversation. The story moves forward without our realizing it.

Do it badly, and it's a Scooby Doo moment. "Gee, Fred, it sure was nice of your aunt to let us stay in this spooky old house."

Pipe must be laid. But that doesn't mean it can't be laid gracefully. Getting the sound right can help draw the reader in. Getting it wrong can make an irreperable mess.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

For Research Purposes Only

...yeah, right.

36,700 words (but with, I think, good reason)

A big part of life in NZ is the constant presence of the bush at our back door. It's baffling to me that Christchurch has such serious problems with heroin and meth, underage prostitution and suicide and some of the world's most beautiful mountains, ski fields, beaches, and wilderness.

The current book heads into the bush and the next one takes place almost entirely there. So, you see, research was absolutely necessary.

Who'm I kidding? It was bloody marvelous!

(These misty ones were a little before dawn and a little after, respectively.)

I didn't take the laptop, but I did take an actual notebook. Damn compulsive, me...

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Old Man River

34,000 words

Mark Twain used to tell a story about how when he was a kid he loved the Mississippi. It was a place of mystery and wonder to him, and he couldn't imagine anything better than to pilot a steamboat down its wide wet length.

He grew up and got a job sitting in the bow of the boat taking soundings. I can't remember if her eventually made pilot or not, but he did get to the point where he knew the Mississipi like the back of his hand. From St Paul to New Orleans, every sandbar and shoal, every rip and sunken root was as intimate to him as his teeth to his tongue.

And, he said, the river's magic had been lost to him forever.

Like a lot of us, books were tiny worlds of mystery and wonder sandwiched between two covers. Every new story held the potential to carry me away, every bit as much as the Mighty Miss might carry a little boy far from Hannibal, MO. I've never been able to imagine anything better than storytelling.

When I got serious about writing, I realized I was going to have to learn my river just as closely as Twain learned his. I stopped picking up books for entertainment alone and began reading them with a different eye.

"How did the author do that?" I'd ask. "Ooh, I bet she's setting this up for later," I'd say. "What do I like about this dialogue, and what don't I like about that?" I no longer fell so easily into the worlds between covers. Or maybe I fell so deeply that I saw the machinery behind the curtain.

At a point of high suspense, part of me might still be reading with the shivers, but another part was examining the author's use of adjective, adverb, metaphor and sentence length to build that suspense. And comparing it to other examples.

Research also meant branching out. Like a lot of the book-buying public, I sought security in authors with multiple titles on the shelf. "If he's written this many, he must be good," I'd say. Research meant buying every first novel I could find, making a special point to read every award-winning or nominated first novel every year.

Some writers can write just like they always have and still sell books. They're on they're ninth, or nineteenth, or ninetieth, book and it reads more or less like the first one they sold back in nineteen ought-whatever. Newcomers can't do that. The bar is always set higher for us and always will be. We have to be in step with the current voice and style. And we have to beat it by enough to make people notice.

I didn't care if I thought I'd like it. I got reading those books that had done just that. And y'know what? Not a bad read among them. So many fantastic, beautiful, haunting stories I read, I had to take several long walks around my typewriter (it was a typewriter back then) before I got my nerve back.

Sure, I don't read like I used to. I read now the way a magician watches a magic show, or a boxer watches a bout. It's the way a tracker looks at a wooded glade, or a painter at a painting.

And I've decided Mr. Twain was being more entertaining than honest.

The river would've changed for him no matter what. If he hadn't piloted down it, he might have ended up a drummer (salesman) using it to get from A to B, blind and deaf to its beauty. Or he might have ended up as so many of his boyhood friends did, holding a plow and walking behind a mule, the river little more than a source of vague resentment over dusty dreams.

As it worked out, decades later and half a continent or half a world away, Twain could close his eyes and conjure that boyhood love, that spirit of magic and mystery, in ways that a man who knew the river half so well never could.

And he could raise that love in our hearts, too.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Hearken to the Great One (Leonard's Rule's)

32,000 words (and climbing)

I couldn't think about what to write today, since my head's full of book. Better get out of it, too, since it's Valentine's today, and the Tiny Dynamo's getting her piano tuned, there are walks in the hills to be taken and picnics to go on, etc. She's tiny, but dynamic!

Anyway, I think we could all do worse than to heed Elmore Leonard's Rules of Writing. I've shamelessly lifted them from his blog. The full article is here.

Being a good author is a disappearing act.


These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

1. Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues.
They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.
There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s “Sweet Thursday,” but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . .
. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories “Close Range.”

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

And finally:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

I ought to tattoo that last sentence on the back of my hand so it stares up at me while I type. I've got the needles and the ink, but it takes two hands to tattoo...

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Shock and Awe

Status: 30,000 words

Some writers don't read while they're in the middle of a book. Some writers read, but not in their genre. I can understand why. A couple years ago, all it took was one good book to shift my narrative voice. Suddenly, I was piling on the adjectives like Michael Connelly, or waxing poetic like John Connolly. Or trying to reel out the laconic, time-stretched action sequences of Sarah Gran, UPSIDE DOWN by John Katzenbach. Truly fine books, one and all. DOPE was the most intimidating for me, though. It's closest to my own writing style, and she's intimate with the same world I write in. If we weren't on the same bus ride through Hell, we definitely booked with the same tour company.

I'm glad I read it now, while I'm full of enthusiasm for my new work, and not in another month or two, when I'm lost and lonely and not at all certain this thing I'm doing will come together at all.

It will, of course, but a sleepless night or two is a part of that process.

Anybody out there have books/authors they avoid while writing? Or ones they seek out for inspiration?

Friday, February 9, 2007

28,000 words (very, very odd words.)

The big left turn is still waiting around a bend somewhere, but I've been doing the prep work for it. My villain's going through some changes, getting bad and worse.
Part of it was finding out that my initial setup was only possible in Auckland. Part of it was a growing sense that the bad guy I was sketching out belonged in a very different sort of thriller.

And part of it was a sense of connection between him and two other characters, connections that weren't possible as things stood.

Overall, I'm happy with the changes I'm seeing. My new villain's much more gritty and ferocious, and maybe slightly unhinged. Makes him fun to write, and it's been exciting waiting to see what he'll do next.

The last few days, I feel like I'm living Stephen King's archeological metaphor. That's the one where writing is like digging up odd-shaped bits and trying to figure out how they fit together. I feel as though in my initial enthusiasm, what I thought was a bit of arm bone or something actually belongs in the jaw. But then, if that's the case, I need more bits. And that means this thing I'm assembling must have really big teeth...

Or something like that.

Mostly I want to finish so I can see how the story turns out!

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Feeling Pregnant

26,500 words

Not a bad day's work, but there's a lot of flailing in there. In fact, if I look at the last book, I wrote 140,000 words and pared down to 85,000. Agent Anne wanted to see more of the soft side of my protagonists, so that brought the count back up to 90,000. In a way, I could still be twenty-odd thousand words away from anything usable!

Except it doesn't work that way. Not exactly. We'll see how much of these early days makes it in, though...

Feeling pregnant. Yes, indeed. Heavy. Full. Like something big's about to come out of an opening too small. And like I'm going to get more and more uncomfortable until this whatever-it-is comes out.

It's that feeling I get when the story's about to take one of its sudden left turns. And I think it might have to do with my villain. Right now, he's just too nice a guy. And there's stuff missing. What stuff? I don't know.... stuff!

John Ramsey Miller hates this seat-of-the-pants way of working. Elmore Leonard likes it. All I can say is, I've tried to work with outlines. Really, I have.

An outline is part of the reason Poison Door took 140,000 words. I had an outline, character sketches, all that stuff. But all the fun of discovery got used up in the outline. Sitting down to write the book, I got thirty thousand words in before everyone turned wooden. Then balky. Characters kept doing things I didn't want them to do. I started feeling heavy. Full. Uncomfortable.

I threw everything out and started over. Same names, close to the same premise. Totally different story. It flew.

Until the next time I started to feel heavy. And full. And really, really uncomfortable.

I pity the Tiny Dynamo at these times. I'm not the best company, whether or not I've got the keyboard in my lap. BUt I've learned to recognize the signals. The story is about to tell me something exciting...

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Quarter Turn and a Hurdle - Research

25,000 words (75 more to go!)

Yeah, it's a meaningless milestone, but it feel like I've done something anyway. I've been at this almost a month, and I've got major and minor characters strutting and fretting upon the stage, a sense of what they all want and how they all get in each other's way, and everything seems to be shaping up nicely.

Until I hit the hurdle.

One thing about me: I *love* to waste time. I love to read. Writing can be hard. Put those three things together and you have 'research'. I can surf the net for hours, or check a big old pile of books out of the library, or better still, spend half a day in a musty used bookstore looking for something I'm *sure* I need. Calling it research somehow makes it okay.

Except it's not. It's time-wasting procrastination, is what it is, and I don't get much done that way. So these first drafts come rolling out without a darn bit of research. Except for whatever I was reading that got the guys in the basement excited in the first place, of course. Oh, and my street atlas. But even that one's not strictly necessary.

Mostly, I just hit the first draft at a dead run. I use my general sense of people, how we work together and how we don't, the sorts of rules we set to get things done and the ways we shade them to goof off.

The rest of it, I just make up.

Where I *must* have a proper name, date, whatever, I *highlight* it (Like that) and go back and find it later. Later that day, later in the second draft, later. The made-up stuff I also go back and check up on. Weird thing is, I'm right more often than not.

Most of my research (the real stuff, not the time-wasting) comes on the net (thank you wikipedia!) or from the library. I interview real people whenever possible, and that info is gold. Not so much for the dry facts I could find elsewhere, as for the little stuff no one would think to mention (do detectives take their unmarkeds home at night? can a knight in armor really do a somersault? what gets sore first on a street hooker?) (the feet and the lower back, apparently). And more, much much more importantly, a sense of the way my informants look at the world. What do they want? What are they worried about? How do they think their world could be a better place? Do they think it's getting better, getting worse, or staying the same? How do they feel about their job?

I'm lucky. I meet a WIDE variety of people, and I genuinely like *most* everyone I meet. I try to see the world through lots'n lots of eyes. Makes it easier when it's time to make stuff up...

A lot of times, people give you little gems you'd never have thought to ask for. Pour dark rum over the roots of marijuana plants to up the sugar levels. A two-handed battleaxe requires a zone offense and defense; for a rapier, it's all about beats. Tuck folded newspaper or magazines up your sleeves to protect your inner forearms in a knife fight. The street girls can order whatever drugs keep them going through the night by cell phone and have them delivered right to their corner.

So this weekend I met a manager at Paparua Men's Prison. Funny thing, the phrase 'I'm a writer, and I was curious...' seems to relax just about everyone. Enough to open up to a guy looks like me anyway. I got lots of little stuff about the prisoners, the guards, the upper management and the sometimes strained relationship between Corrections and the cops.

And I hit the hurdle.

Turns out the news item about the mall cops handling prisoner transport was only true in Auckland. My book's solidly set in Christchurch. I've got some changes to make.

What am I doing about it? At this point, nothing. Sure, somewhere in the back of my head, the gears are spinning, but mostly I'm just trying to get through my first draft. Baker needs to break jail. That's all I need to know right now. I'll sort out how when it comes to me.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Where Y'at?

Status: 23,800 words (a little behind)

I'm up stupidly early this morning and thinking about setting.

Minnesota was home once. So was New Orleans. Now it's Christchurch, New Zealand. In between I've seen big chunks of the US and Europe, the Middle East, China and Australia. Maybe a bit more I've forgotten, since I'm prone to forgetting the odd detail.

This morning I'm watching FARGO on dvd, and tomorrow is Waitangi Day here in NZ. As a tip of the hat, this post's title comes from a common greeting down in New Orleans.

We've all read books or seen movies that could've been set geographically anywhere. Some stories just don't require it. I've written a few of those myself. Those stories are set somewhere, to be sure, but they don't really have to be. Leather Tales was set in Minnesota, but it could have just as easily been Cleveland or New York, or (with a few small changes to firearms and transportation) the Old West, some quasi-medieval fantasy realm or outer space.

If the characters and their conflicts (the psychological geography, if you will) are vivid enough, the reader may not notice a pale or generic setting. Two of my absolute favorite authors are sometimes guilty of this: John D. McDonald and Robert E. Howard. I love both their work, and both evoke a sense of place beautifully, but setting was still a weak point.

Conan (and Krull, and Bran Mak Morn, et al) traveled far and wide, but the places he visits remind me of the time I had a four hour layover in Memphis. I know it's a vibrant city with a rich heritage, but mostly I just had a cup of coffee in a diner that could have been any diner anyplace. Maybe that's because REH wasn't much of a traveler himself. He was imagining stuff second-hand.

John D McDonald, on the other hand, definitely definitely went to his locales. Lots of research, to the point where you wish he'd maybe shut up a little about it. Thing is, Travis McGee (and many but not all of his other heroes) could have been having his adventures in Mexico, Hawaii, Jamiaca, etc. right back home for the most part, and I often suspected the author of looking for a way to write his holiday off on his taxes.

Sometimes authors actively deny setting. I think F Scott Fitzgerald was trying to make a point that the lives of the wealthy were one long swirl of drinks, and that the houses, restaurants, and hotel bars all had a numbing sameness to them. Or maybe that's just the way it seemed to him and Zelda.

Then I think about James Lee Burke's New Iberia, Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar, Dickens's London, VS Naipal's Trinidad, Carl Hiassen's South Florida, George Pelecanos's Washington DC or the wildly different New Yorks of Tom Wolfe and Andrew Vachss. So vivid and real, they're practically characters of their own.

Derry, Maine and Tuonela, Wisconsin aren't even real, but they sure feel that way.

And one thing all those places have in common: the stories set there couldn't be set anywhere else.

My initial temptation to set my work in Christchurch was convenience. I actually walk the neighborhoods and talk to the sort of people who show up in my books. And I do love it here. This place is home like no other has ever been for me.

But then I saw what was unique about this setting. Cops don't carry guns here, but criminals do. We face a rising crystal meth problem (called P here), but there's virtually no cocaine, and certainly no crack. Prostitution is legal, the drinking age is only eighteen, and Christchurch has just 300,000 people but a raging heroin problem.

Suddenly, my city was trying to tell me stories about itself.

Sometimes we set a story in a certain place because we love the place (I work off the odd bit of homesickness with Minnesota settings), or because the research is easy (putting that holiday, or that degree in Medici Italian History to use, for example). And sometimes that love or that research shines through. It can be powerful.

But even more powerful is when a writer goes past the love, past the research, gets at something of the spirit of their setting. What about your setting (or historical period, or SF/F world) makes your story unique? Or put it another way: what story can only be told in your setting?

Friday, February 2, 2007

The occasional mental kick

status: 22,000

Over on his blog, Neil Gaiman's trying to play a wee practical joke on Penn & Teller fan, m'self.

I was going to write a little bit about 'quiet listening' as a part of the writing process. Then I realized Stephen King said it better here.

Yes, I'm finally getting comfortable with the link-thingy. First it was the Bronze Age, then everyone was going over to iron. Now I have to learn hyperlinks...

The book's trundling along. It's all about the subplots at the moment. I'm getting a clearer and clearer image of where the book ends up, so now the challenge is getting it where it's going. Mostly I listen. Sometimes I have to prod myself a bit.

Last night, I couldn't think of how the next scene would shape up. Mostly I'll go into a scene with a sense of the characters involved, the conflict/tension between them, or at least their different goals so I can found out how that shapes the conflict, but last night I just couldn't see it. I had an odd picture in my head and one sentence.

One mental kick in the ass later, I wrote that sentence. Then the next. And the one after that.

1200 words (I'm saving the extra 200 as a safety cushion in case I need it today) and four lean scenes later, I could have written heaps more. Stupid sleep...