Friday, May 14, 2021

Bouncing Back and Forth

Frankie here. It's end of semester and in between reading my students' papers, I am working on a couple of book projects. I missed Charlotte's post last Friday about the "cold, hard reality" of being a writer - that most of us need to have another means of support. 

Charlotte mentioned that I am a criminal justice professor. In the comments about her post, Tanya asked how I work on fiction and nonfiction simultaneously. I thought I would respond to her question today. 

Here's what I do:

1.  Look for connections. 

2.  Do double-duty research.

3. Keep notes and reminders.

4. Have separate writing spaces.

5. Divide the day into blocks.  

Because I'm a criminal justice professor whose academic areas are crime history, and crime and mass media/popular culture, my nonfiction writing has a built-in connection to my crime fiction. I always look for overlap. Am I doing research on a real-life crime or about a movie or TV show that might be useful for a short story or novel? For example, Old Murders, the third novel (soon to be reissured) featuring my crime historian Lizzie Stuart, was inspired by two sources. The first was the dissertation I had read about the real-life case of a young African American woman who was executed after killing the white widow for whom her family sharecropped. In my novel, the lawyer who defended her was inspired by Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.  But Lizzie encountered this other fictional lawyer decades later, when he was in his decline, and the details of what happened in the murder case were more complicated. 

To do double-duty research, I made a trip to the Library of Virginia in Richmond. I was there to go through the papers about the real-life case that were archived there. I wanted to be able to write about the case and to include it in my classroom lectures. At the same time, since I was walking through what Lizzie was going to do in the book, I made a second set of notes about what she saw and her process (as both crime historian and sleuth). Since I was changing the facts of the case for my mystery, I also needed to make notes about that for my "Author's Note" to the reader about what was true and what I had made up.

In Old Murders, Lizzie has a young graduate assistant named Keisha (who is now a continuing character). Keisha is eager to tackle the injustices of the case. She has gotten Lizzie to make the trip from Gallagher to Richmond to go through the papers about the case. Lizzie is trying her best not to get involved in whatever is going on with the old lawyer and the now adult son of the woman who was killed. After going through the archived records, she sets some boundaries for what they will do:

    "All right," I said, hoping I wouldn't regret it. "But an academic paper, Keisha. An article, not a documentary. We leave Sloane Campbell [the son] out of this other than his role doing the trial. We do not climb fences to get onto his property. We do not try to interview him or Jebediah Gant [the lawyer] or any of the other still-living participants. Understand me?"

Of course, the boundaries don't hold. But Lizzie is saying what a real-life faculty member might say to an over-eager grad student. She is not plunging in recklessly. 

So, this is the process that I follow for drawing on my academic research for inspiration. Sometimes I move from the research for a novel to research for nonfiction. For example, I have been plodding along on my historical thriller set in 1939. I needed to know more about what J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, was doing that year. That led me to several books that took me deeper into his life and career than I had gone before. In one book I found a marvelous description of how he dressed. That quote is going into the manuscript of my nonfiction book about dress, appearance, and impression management in American crime and justice. 

I always do research with a notebook close at hand to jot down anything that catches my eye. Or, that I happen to hear on NPR or while listening to music. A Kenny Rogers song inspired my first short story in an anthology. I have referenced that same song when telling my students about murder ballads.

As for the writing itself -- to avoid bouncing around to the point of losing focus, I try to create separate physical and mental spaces for my nonfiction and fiction. It was easier before the pandemic, when I could work at home in the morning than make the physical transition to my office on campus in the afternoon. Simply changing clothes -- from at-home casual to workday skirt and jacket -- began the transition that was completed by the time I had driven the short distance to campus. For the past year, that transition has required more mental gymnastics -- such as moving from my laptop on the dining room table to my desktop in my home office. I am really looking forward to getting back to my bookshelves and boxes in my campus office. 

I admit that my ability to bounce back and forth between fiction and nonfiction has a lot to do with my day job. I have flexibility about how I order my day and what I work on. But I am not terribly disciplined. What is most important for me is that I let my imagination have free play. I was able to do that -- to look for connections -- even when I had a dull job in the housewares section of a department store after I graduated from college. While I dusted china and tried to look busy until a customer walked in, I plotted more than one fictional murder. 

I also broke more than my share of plates, cuts, and other fragile objects. I'm still having trouble with that. A couple of weeks ago, I spilled half a mug of tea on my laptop keyboard while I was thinking about a connection that had occurred to me. Good idea, dead laptop. 


Anna said...

So interesting, Frankie. I recently realized I could use a similar process in constructing my mystery series while writing a memoir about my rather unusual early years. Your practice of having two different writing environments is excellent---so doable. Thanks!

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Hope it works for you, too, Anna. Your memoir sounds intriguing. Let me know how it goes.

Tanya said...

Frankie, thanks for the enlightening look into your work and life! I really appreciate your addressing my question. You've given me lots to think about re: how I can get more of my own writing done while still meeting deadlines on editing and ghostwriting projects.