The Pothole That Ate My Toyota

I headed home one night last fall, driving on a particular block of Twelfth Street in Oakland’s Chinatown – always a challenge, given the traffic in that neighborhood.

I wasn’t expecting to have my left front bumper fall off.

Okay, the pothole wasn’t that big, but it was big enough. The resulting damage to my Toyota cost me more than two hundred bucks at my local auto repair emporium.

That block is on a list of the worst potholes in Oakland, which has some of the worst roads in the Bay Area. With all the traffic, the city’s streets take a daily beating. When I worked on the Berkeley campus, I drove a particularly corrugated stretch of Telegraph Avenue that also merits a position on the pothole list of shame.

Repaving and repairs to streets languish because Oakland, like many other cities in California, doesn’t have the money to invest in its infrastructure. And infrastructure – roads, railways, bridges, transit, hospitals, schools, libraries – is important. Yes, it costs money for upkeep. But we ignore it at our peril. If Oakland doesn’t repair its roads, people like me wind up in the repair shop, credit card in hand, because the pothole ate the car.

Or the bridge falls down and people die.

Writers have to pay attention to infrastructure as well. So I have an idea for a novel. But the infrastructure, the three legs of the stool – plot, character, setting – must be in place, or the novel will not succeed. Without one leg of that stool, the novel wobbles, or falls over.

Within those three legs, I must also work on the infrastructure. Does the plot make sense, hang together, proceed in a logical fashion to its conclusion? Are there holes in my story, big enough to drive a Toyota through?

Then there’s character. When I began writing about my Oakland private eye, Jeri Howard, I visualized Jeri herself, notes to myself describing her physically. I know what she looks like, how she walks and moves, what clothes and shoes she likes to wear, what she likes to eat and drink. I know her passions and her foibles, the kinds of movies she watches, the ins and outs of her relationships with other people. I do the same thing for all my characters, all the better to create well-rounded, believable characters.

As for setting, I know what Jeri’s apartment looked like, and now that she’s bought a house, I can see it in my mind and I know exactly where the furniture is. I also borrow real places. When I wrote Where The Bodies Are Buried, I used the floor plan of a favorite restaurant. In Take A Number, it was important to know exactly what the witnesses could see when they looked out the doors of their apartments into a hallway where a murder occurred. I borrowed the floor plan of a friend’s apartment building and I drew maps, noting who could see what, and when. For my upcoming standalone, What You Wish For, protagonist Lindsey Page lives in a North Berkeley brown-shingle house. The real house is the former residence of a friend, so I’m intimately acquainted with the floor plan.

If I don’t invest the time and effort to build and maintain my story’s infrastructure, my novels won’t hold together. And the reader who is looking for a good yarn gets stuck in the potholes instead.


5 Responses

  1. Bravo! I couldn’t agree more. Do you keep a continuity journal? In the first book of my current series, I had a character so vague to me I couldn’t remember whether she was a Baldwin or a Baxter. She was a little more important in book two, but by book three she had become a major character. If I’d kept a journal I wouldn’t have had to reread the first two books to find out her husband’s name and how many kids she had. Probably should keep a journal for places too.


    • I fear I don’t keep a journal for continuity, though it sounds like a good idea. I too have had to reread earlier books to figure out what I said about a particular character!

  2. Ugh. I caught an error like that just in time recently. I’d made a character a widower with a son in college in book 1 and mentioned him as a childless, never-married guy in book 2.

    I keep logs, draw maps, and so on, but I still end up re-reading earlier books now and then.

    Don’t we have fun, being bookkeepers as well as writers!

  3. The blog ate my comment! I’ll try again:

    Thanks to authors who keep continuity logs, esp over a series. You make the editor’s life easier.

    Real potholes: IMHO they’re caused by SUVs’ large tires. I don’t remember them being a problem in NorCal before the ’90s when utes hit critical mass.
    Thanks for letting me vent 😉

  4. A delightful blog, Janet. I love the way you interweave pothole and novel. That metaphysical pothole! I’m glad I drive a small Subaru and write novels on the short side–that is, not over 300 pages. I wish I could keep a continuity log but I can’t. I’m a random abstract, and have to reread earlier books to check eye color and names. In an earlier series I had to remember the names of two dozen cows as well. Happily I’ve only an occasional cat in my historical series. And I sometimes forget the color and gender of it! Sometimes I think my brain is a pothole.

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