Where Research Leads Me

I write fiction – to date eleven novels in the Jeri Howard series, two in the California Zephyr series, and one standalone. I have two works-in-progress.

I make this stuff up. But when it comes to details, I like to sound as though I know what I’m talking about. So I research a variety of subjects, depending on the plot, setting and characters that feature in my books. Sometimes this involves a lot of reading but other times it involves getting out of my office. The research takes me down twisty paths and I find out things I didn’t know, information that makes its way into my writing.

As a longtime fan of Dick Francis, I always wanted to write a horseracing novel, but when I started A Killing at the Track, the ninth Jeri Howard novel, it quickly became clear how much I didn’t know about the Sport of Kings. Watching the Kentucky Derby on TV is one thing. So is watching live racing from the grandstand. Writing about the day-to-day life on the backside of a racetrack is another.

How to solve my research dilemma? A friend of a friend knew someone who trained racehorses. Which is how I found myself at Bay Meadows racetrack in the early hours one morning, for a day of following a trainer around the backside. I met jockeys, a vet, a jockey’s agent, and the Clerk of the Scales, who gave me a tour of the jockeys’ locker room. The last was unexpected, and it made its way into the book.

When I was researching Death Rides the Zephyr, the first book in the California Zephyr series, I took a special excursion train up the Feather River Canyon, the route of the old California Zephyr, not the Amtrak version. That gave me the experience of traveling on a Pullman car. I also rode Amtrak’s Zephyr several times back and forth to Colorado, during the winter, seeing the frozen and isolated landscape of the Colorado Rockies, and getting a sense for what my characters would see out the window of the train, because that’s where much of the action takes place.

I visited the Western Pacific Railroad Museum, where I drove a locomotive under the watchful and patient tutelage of one of the museum volunteers. My main character in the Zephyr books is a train employee called a Zephyrette. I was fortunate to interview two women who had worked as Zephyrettes and the information they gave me was invaluable in writing the books.

Right now I’m working on the twelfth installment of Jeri Howard’s adventures, a book titled Water Signs. Jeri’s back on her familiar Oakland, California turf and the research involves looking at the city’s waterfront and the development that’s going on now. Who knows where it will lead me? Maybe out on the estuary, in a boat!

Jumping Ahead

When the question is asked – pantser or outliner – I usually describe myself as a pantser.

A pantser is a writer who writes by the seat of her pants.

Or, to paraphrase Tony Hillerman, I write myself into a corner and then write myself out.

But that’s not entirely true. Sometimes I’m an outliner. But I don’t call it that. I associate outlines with something I had to do in school. I suppose that’s why I avoid the term.

When I’m starting a book, I sit at the computer and write whatever comes into my head – character sketches, background information, bits of dialog and plot. I explore, I digress, I run around in circles and meander off in search of box canyons and red herrings. By this time I have a have a good idea of where the book starts and ends, but not what happens in the middle.

Ah, those pesky middles.

So I start a timeline. I write down what happens before the book opens – that’s the backstory. My timeline gives me an idea of what needs to happen in order for my protagonist to get to the conclusion and solve the mystery. But at this stage my timeline may only get a few chapters into the plot. Sometimes I write in a linear, chronological fashion, and sometimes I figure out the order of events while I’m writing the book. I discover that order by writing scenes out of order. I call this jumping ahead.

I did it in my Jeri Howard novel Witness to Evil. I managed to get Jeri down to Bakersfield to look for a missing person. Then Jeri learned about a murder. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. I only knew that Jeri had to go to Los Angeles to follow a lead. So I jumped ahead. Jeri left Bakersfield and headed over the Grapevine to the LA Basin. I pounded out seven chapters in a short time and when I got Jeri back to Bakersfield I knew more about my timeline. I went back to earlier chapters I’d written and inserted crucial action.

Right now I’m working on my twelfth Jeri Howard book, titled Water Signs. I have a good beginning and a good sense of where Jeri and I are heading. But again, I’m at the point where I’m not sure about what goes where.

So I’ve jumped ahead. I’ve written a number of scenes over the past few days and I’m learning more about my book as Jeri talks to people, ferrets out information and visits the scene of the crime.

The technique is working. I’m making progress by jumping ahead.

Why Should You Write Every Day?

Too many writers worry about how many words they write per day. Some get manic about it and some even post their tally on Facebook as if it’s a global competition.

 

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And if they’re not writing at least 500 or 1200 or 2000 words or whatever quota they’ve set, they feel miserable. Why aren’t they working harder? Why are they stuck? What’s wrong with them?  How come everyone else is racking up the pages?

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If that kind of system works for you, fine. But I think too many writers are somehow caught in the assumption that if they’re not actually physically writing a set number of words every single day, they’re not just slacking, they’re falling behind and even betraying their talent. Especially when they read about other people’s word counts on line.

Many well-known authors like Ann Lamott advise beginners to hold to a daily minimum, but some days it’s simply not possible. Hell, for some writers it’s never possible. Why should it be?

Other writers say that you if you’re feeling “stuck” you should re-type what you wrote the previous day. Well, even if I weren’t a slow typist, that’s never had any appeal for me or made much sense.   I’d rather switch careers then do something so mind-numbing.  I’d feel imprisoned.

I don’t advise my creative writing students to write every day; I advise them to try to find the system that works for them. I’ve also never worried myself about how much I write every day because I’m almost always writing in my head, and that’s as important as putting things down on a page.

 

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But aside from that, every book, every project has its own unique rhythm. While recently finishing a suspense novel, my 25th book, I found the last chapter blossoming in my head one morning while on the treadmill at the gym. Though I sketched its scenes out when I got home, I spent weeks actually writing it.

Some people would call that obsessing. They’d be wrong. What I did was musing, rewriting, stepping back, carefully putting tiles into a mosaic as it were, making sure everything fit right before I went ahead, because this was a crucial chapter. I was also doing some crucial fact-checking, because guns are involved and I had to consult experts as well as spend some time at a gun range. It took days before I even had a rough draft of ten pages, yet there were times when I had written ten pages in a day on this same book.

 

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The chapter was the book’s most important one, where the protagonist and his pursuer face off, and it had to be as close to perfect as I could make it. So when I re-worked a few lines that had been giving me trouble and found they finally flowed right, that make me very happy.

I never panicked, because the book was always writing itself, whether I met some magical daily quota or not.

Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie, a Midwest Book Award Finalist, and 24 other books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.

What To Do With Bad Reviews

Unpublished authors imagine that once they are published, life will be glorious. That’s because they haven’t thought much about bad reviews. Every author gets them, and sometimes they’re agonizing.

As a published, working author, you learn to live with the reality of bad reviews in different ways. You can stop reading them. You can have someone you trust vet them for you and warn you so that nasty splinters of prose don’t lodge in your brain. You can leave town or stay off the grid when your book comes out.

Hell, you can be perverse and break open a bottle of champagne to celebrate a dreadful review. Why not? Or if you’re a mystery author, you can have fun with a bad review and kill the reviewer. Of course, you don’t have to go all the way to murder. Fictional defamation, degradation, and despoliation can be satisfying, too.  But getting captured by a review is not healthy.

I remember a Salon piece of close to 3,000 words (seriously!) by a novelist who complained that Janet Maslin killed his novel in the New York Times. Killed? No critic has that power. But Maslin did trash his book. It happens. She also made a gross mistake about his book in her review. That happens, too. One reviewer claimed that my second novel focused on a theme that it didn’t remotely touch, which meant she was probably confusing it with another book of mine.  Reviewers get sloppy all the time.  Sleepy too, I bet….

sleepingstudenty_LargeThe Salon piece was disturbing and at times painful — but not just because of Maslin’s error. It opened with the author describing how he moaned on his couch, face down, while his wife read and paraphrased the bad review, and her having to admit that Maslin dissed the book as “soggy.”

The author teaches creative writing and had published three previous books, so you’d think he would try to set a better example for his students. Instead, while he admitted he was lucky to have been in the Times at all, he focused on his misery and even shared that he’d previously thought of Maslin as a ghost friend because she gave his first book a great review. That was super creepy.

I’ve published twenty-five books and I read as few of my reviews as possible. Why? Because I’ve learned more about my work from other authors through their books, conversations, or lectures than I have from reviews. I don’t look to reviews for education, validation or approbation. I hope they’ll help with publicity, but I’ve seen people get raves in the New York Times without any impact on sales.

More importantly, we authors shouldn’t let our self-esteem be held hostage by the Janet Maslins of journalism, and we should try not to over-estimate their importance or expect them to stroke our egos. Bad reviews? Ignore them along with the good ones, and keep writing.

How do you deal with bad reviews?  Have you ever felt trapped like the writer who wrote the Salon piece?

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk (Guide to the Writing Life) and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.W

Is Hemingway’s Writing Advice Legit?

You often hear the advice that writing is basically just sitting down and doing it.  The classy version is “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

Someone on Twitter asked me if I thought Hemingway had said it more tersely: “apply seat of pants to chair.” Well, that sounds as if it might be Hemingway. It’s matter-of-fact enough–but I was dubious.  I’ve read a good deal of Hemingway over the years and many Hemingway biographies and never encountered that line or anything like it.

 

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As usual, the Internet isn’t much help. Even though it shows up as my Twitter contact says in a book about Hemingway, it’s also attributed on the Internet to Kingsley Amis, Mark Twain (isn’t everything?), and more frequently to someone I’d never heard of, Mary Heaton Vorse.

According to Wikipedia, Vorse was the author of apparently a dozen books of fiction, and an activist dedicated to “peace and social justice causes, such as women’s suffrage, civil rights, pacifism (specifically including opposition to World War I), socialism, child labor, infant mortality, labor disputes, and affordable housing.”

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But there’s that quote…. Did she actually say it? When you check an authoritative page of Vorse quotes, all of which have attribution details, it doesn’t show up. All the quotations listed there are focused on larger issues; here’s a typical one:

This philosophy of hate, of religious and racial intolerance, with its passionate urge toward war, is loose in the world. It is the enemy of democracy; it is the enemy of all the fruitful and spiritual sides of life. It is our responsibility, as individuals and organizations, to resist this.

Of course, Vorse is listed on Goodreads as the author of those words about the pants and the chair. Good old Goodreads, you can always depend on that site for a bogus attribution when you need one.

So is it Twain, Hemingway, Kingsley Amis, or Honoré Fauteuil, inventor of the chair of that name? (I made him up, actually).

Well, the source is more likely the been famed, caustic humorist Dorothy Parker.  The version she gets credit for is snappy: “Writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat.”

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Whoever said it, though, is ass-application really good advice for writers? Plenty of us writers have spent idle hours with butts stuck to our chairs not getting anything more than sweaty and frustrated.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books, most recently Assault With a Deadly Lie, a novel of suspense about stalking, gun violence, and militarized police forces.  His web site is levraphael.com.

Home Again, With Takeaways

To paraphrase my father, it’s fun to get away for a while. But it’s great to get home and sleep in my own bed, surrounded by my cats.

When I am planning a trip, it all sounds wonderful. However, the closer I get to the actual event, I wonder why I’m leaving my comfortable home to travel.

So many things to do – arrange cat care and someone to take in the mail and look after the garden, pack, a ride to the train station or airport.

Why, I ask myself, did I think it was a good idea to go to all this kerfluffle and expense to leave home?

I recently attended the Left Coast Crime convention, held in Portland, Oregon, I had a good time but was glad to get home. LCC is a smaller convention and that’s what I like about it. Plus Left Coast is in my part of the country, the Western United States. It usually doesn’t cost as much to get there, exceptions being the former and upcoming LCCs held in Hawaii. But I did go to the convention that was held on the Big Island’s Kona Coast, because I’d never been there before. And I am going to the 2017 Honolulu LCC, planning a few days of playing tourist before the convention starts.

So that’s part of the appeal of LCC, or any convention, such as Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans. I’m signed up for that one because it’s an excellent reason to visit the Big Easy.

Travel isn’t the only reason I go to conventions, though. I enjoy the opportunity to see readers and fellow writers. I did have to laugh when I ran into writer Steven Saylor. At almost the same time we said, “It’s been ages!” And it had, despite the fact that he lives in Berkeley and I live in Alameda, a distance of some ten miles. Ironic, to go all the way to Portland to see people who live nearby.

But that’s not surprising. When we writers are at home, we’re in front of our keyboards. I even brought my keyboard with me, since I was nearing the deadline on the latest California Zephyr mystery, Death Deals a Hand. I wrote on the train going to and coming home, and even managed a few hours of writing time at the hotel.

The biggest takeaway from Left Coast Crime, and last fall’s Bouchercon, was that I came home energized and eager to write. The panels I attended were interesting and informative. The discussion on novellas and short stories left me eager to try my hand at a novella, since with the advent of electronic publishing there is new life in this shorter form. I also found good information in several of the publishing panels that looked at traditional, independent and hybrid authors.

Once I write that novella I may publish it myself, just to dip a toe into those waters. And since I have finished my latest book, the time to explore that novella is now.

Not today, though. I am going out of town for a few days and I have to pack.

And why did I think it was a good idea to schedule another trip so soon after LCC?

 

Worst Thriller Clichés

We’ve all sat there watching a thriller and suddenly thought, “Are you kidding me?  That always happens. Give me a break!”  Or you shout at the screen (hopefully only at home) when a pair of sleuths splits up, “No!  Stick together!  You’re tracking a psycho–there’s safety in numbers.”  And if you’re a writer: “Seriously?  I would never have written the scene that way!”

There are a lot of clichés in thrillers, but the one that’s been working my last nerve lately is connected to lighting. I don’t mean cinematography. I meant people’s lights.

In movie after movie, TV show after TV show, miniseries after miniseries, I see a heroine or hero walk into an apartment, townhouse, home, condo, loft or whatever without turning on any lights.  None.

The protagonist may put down a purse, briefcase, or keys, but often will just walk from one room to another without flicking a wall switch or even turning on a single lamp anywhere.  Sometimes there’s a stop for a drink–in the dark, of course, with only light from outside or possibly from a nightlight or the inside of a fridge.

Sometimes, if it’s a woman, she’ll even head right straight for the bathroom.  But it’s only at that point she finally turns on a light and the shower or gets the water running for the tub. In that case, you can be sure that she’ll have kicked off her heels en route and started to strip so that we can see her body, and see it outlined against the darkness (that’s the “femjep” cliché at work).

In the darkness, of course, villains can grab our protagonists, terrorize them, strangle them, knock them out, or sneak out of the home they’ve been burglarizing or planting listening devices in while nobody spots them.

It’s a super tiresome cliché. I don’t believe all these thriller protagonists are meant to be models for us of saving electricity. Or that their vision is so good they’re not afraid of tripping or stubbing a toe in the dark.

It’s especially egregious when someone has already been threatened, stalked, mugged, assaulted, shot, kidnapped or otherwise harmed in the story–and still the protagonists don’t seem to care that their homes are dark and anything can happen to them in the shadows.

My parents would approve, though, because they were always complaining that I wasted electricity and left lights on when I wasn’t home. And that was before I was a mystery writer. Now that I’ve published seven mysteries and one suspense novel and been watching and studying screen thrillers for years, I’m extra cautious about turning lights on.

And I’m mighty glad we don’t have a basement because I would never want to go down there even if it were as well-lit as Times Square. Because you know what kinds of mayhem happens in basements….

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I’ve had my say.  So which thriller clichés bug you the most?

Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie, a novel of suspense about militarized police, stalking, and gun violence. You can read about his 24 other books at his web site: http://www.levraphael.com.