Friday, September 26, 2008

Haven't Been There, Haven't Done That.

Friday=Charles=Happy Hour!

So last week I told you I would be attending a seminar on blogging and would share the secrets I learned. I think the most important thing I learned was this: when a seminar is announced, always read the names of people selected to attend that seminar and don’t simply assume that you’d be one of them.

My colleagues who did attend, however, said it was quite informative.

In their blogs from this week, Rick and Debby wonder what it would be like to write a book that takes place in a specific location without ever actually going to the place yourself. Now if you’ve had the pleasure to hear me ramble on about my books, you know that I go through great pains to visit every place I write about, insisting that there are details you have to actually see to be able to describe accurately. That writing philosophy has taken me around the world a few times and into places that are not even mentioned in the Unbelievably Lonely Planet Guide.* However, I’m currently knee-deep in writing a book that takes place during WWII in Nazi Germany, a place that I can’t go visit even if I wanted to (and I wouldn’t). But you know what? If I do say so myself, it sure reads like I was there.

Fellow Poisoned Pen Press authors Mary Reed and Eric Mayer write a historical series often set in 6th century Constantinople. Now I’ve been to modern Istanbul (see clarification) both before and after reading John the Eunuch’s adventures and let me tell you, the novels make excellent guidebooks. Yet neither Reed nor Mayer have been to Istanbul (or Constantinople). So it can be done and done well.

And it’s also done by most (all?) historical novelists, futurists, inside-the-head-of-the-mad-killerists, Sherlockians, and fantasy writers (both sword & sorcery and Penthouse Forum stories since neither take place in the real world). So why not in a mystery?

But this writing what we don’t physically know is also done by most mystery writers, too. Very few of us have ever been to a murder scene, fired a gun in anger, been held by the cops for questioning, found a clue, been chased across rooftops or held at knifepoint by a naked hooker while her equally naked and quite stoned girlfriend cleaned out your wallet, tossing the keys to your motorcycle into a dumpster outside the hourly-rate motel. Okay, maybe the last one, but there’s so much we write about that we haven’t experienced and yet it still sounds believable. That, dear reader/writer, is our job.

So go ahead, Rick, go ahead Debby, write about places you’ve never seen. I’ve read enough of your works to know that not only will you convince us you’ve seen it, you’ll convince us you live there now. Even if it’s 15th century China.

*You may be thinking that, since I so accurately described an Egyptian jail cell in Relative Danger, I must have spent time in an Egyptian jail. No, I’ve never been in an Egyptian jail so I had to use my experience in other jails to accurately capture the mood.


Jared said...

I loved LPN's version of "Lithium" so much I added it to my Facebook page!

Rick Blechta said...

Yes, but aren't you the teensiest bit worried about people who were in Nazi Germany finding errors in what you've written? It's a small minority of readers, true, but you can just bet you've made boo-boos.

The fact that you can write about Egyptian jail cells without having been in one is a tribute to your writing skill. Very few of your readers will have been in any jail cell, let alone Egyptian ones, but the mark of a good writer is that you can fake it convincingly. It's having been in Egypt that allows you to capture the flavor of even things you didn't do or see there. That's the importance of "feet on the ground research".

As for WWII Germany, it's what you don't know that will kill you. Know any elderly Germans who could read the completed ms for you? It will be enlightening, I guarantee it. If I hadn't told some Viennese cops about the book I was writing, I never would have gotten the title Cemetery of the Nameless and a myriad of other useful material.

And with that comment, I'm off to Paris!

Rick Blechta said...

And just who blabbed to you about my naked hooker debacle that time I was in Cleveland? That is a very low blow, my friend. Come to think of it...

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