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Essays on the Craft of Writing


A couple of years ago I taught an online course in mystery writing. I'm going to use an email I got from a student in that course (with the names changed) to highlight a common writerly problem. I think we could call it an error in perspective.

Her email:

Hello Michael,

Following your comments on my second assignment and also the ones I've read that you have given to other students, I'm quitting this course.

It's of no value to me whatsoever. Very disappointing, but that's the way it is.

For you to comment on the use of "Officer Steve" in my piece tells me you've never been to a small southern town. But then, I see you're from California.

Not only can you not allow yourself to get into the southern mode of an author's writing, you're telling me that "It does sound like Mr. Rogers or Sesame Street. I think if it's going to be Officer someone, it's going to be their last name."

Well, I beg to differ with you, based on the fact that although I'm originally from the Boston area (where we do not call our cops by their first names) I now live here on Tinywee Island, a small island with 800 residents and we DO call our police chief Officer Dan..........hey, that's the south for you and for me to write otherwise with a southern setting would be unrealistic. My southern readers (especially Tinywee Island residents, since this is the setting) would consider me a fake as a writer.

All I can say is, I'm glad I have the confidence I do in my writing and the confidence to keep my writing realistic, because the advice you gave me was very detrimental for a southern setting.

I feel most of your comments have been very subjective and when a critic/instructor loses their objectivity nobody wins. And more importantly, the student does not learn.

Your comments tell me that you and I aren't even in the same book, never mind the same page. Therefore, I'm dropping out of this course and will consider the money I invested another life lesson.



XX may have been right in thinking that my course was worthless,. I always suspected as much. (I think the front office gave her her money back.) But on her specific complaint she is, as an old girlfriend of mine used to say, misshapen. Her error is one even experienced writers have to be alert against. She assumes that because she knows something everybody knows it. I've done it myself, and many of the best writers I know occasionally do similar things and kindly editors have giggled at me and them and corrected the error.

I criticized "I saw Officer Steve standing on my front porch." With no lead in to explain why he was merely “Officer Steve.”

Now I've lived in many places in my life, including several small towns (in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and California -- I've also lived in Seattle, Honolulu, Los Angeles, and Albuquerque New Mexico (and New York City and San Francisco and a small town in Germany and... and...), and nobody ever called the cops "Officer Steve." Not nobody not nohow never. I was friends with an officer in Albuquerque who I called "Pete." But not "Officer Pete."

Of course it could happen, and I have no doubt that XX is telling the truth and it does happen in Tinywee Island. Does she expect all of her readers to live on Tinywee Island? To someone who doesn't, it reads like Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.

Had she added one line:

"Here on Tinywee we call everyone, even the police officers, by their first name. It's just that sort of town."

Now the reader knows what's happening and why.

The problem, of course, is that you can't be standing by the reader as she peruses your story. She gets all the information she's going to get from the printed words on the page. On the other hand if you put in too much information it slows down the action and bores the reader. Nobody ever said this stuff was easy.

If I put something in a scene and I'm absolutely right, but the majority of the readers think I'm wrong, then for the purposes of that story I'm wrong. Why? Fiction has to read true. Non fiction doesn't have that problem because the reader assumes that it IS true. That's why truth is stranger than fiction.


Funny Hats
- the creation of characters

We humans are a social species, like chimpanzees, and we’re fascinated by the doings of other people. That’s why gossiping is one of the most popular indoor sports. Once, on a NY City bus, I overheard a mother and daughter discussing in great detail the tribulations of another family, one they obviously empathized with and cared deeply about. After a while I realized that they were talking about characters on “Days of Our Lives,” a tv soap opera.

So how do we writers go about creating these here interesting and believable characters? Well, a person may exist only on the printed page, but he or she will still have the following characteristics:

■ A name
■ A physical appearance
■ A personality
■ Speech mannerisms
■ A history (or a backstory, as we pros like to call it)
■ A profession (or job, or avocation, or whatever it is he or she does)
■ Friends
■ A reason for being in the story

Let’s look at the possibilities.

What’s in a Name?

The character’s name doesn’t really tell us much about the character, it’s more of a convenient handle to identify him with, and it should sound as much like a real name as possible. It wasn’t always thus. Authors used to give characters names like “Chastity,” “Dogood,” “Christian,” “Greatheart,” for the good guys, and “Pinchpenny,” “Devilshoof,” “Cutpurse,” “Dr. Doom,” for the not-so-nice guys. Then there were comedy names like Shakespeare’s “Toby Belch” and “Andrew Aguecheek.” When these characters appeared the audience prepared to laugh. We don’t use characters’ names as indicators of the characters’ character any more. Really, we don’t. Not unless the work is a children’s book (and even then you shouldn’t) or a farce. This is to help the reader stay in that state of grace that we call "the willing suspension of disbelief." The more realistic you make the basic foundations of your story, the easier it is for the reader to believe the rest. If your victim is killed by a poison-tipped arrow while alone on the top of the Eiffel Tower, your reader just may be willing to suspend her disbelief until she sees what sort of explanation you’ve got. If the victim’s name is Marvin Oywhataschmuck, there goes her belief out the window. So your characters’ names should be realistic and not too strange. Well, I guess you can have one or two strange names — but not funny — per book, if you write novels. (Obviously if you have a reason to give a character a funny name, then go ahead. But not just for, er, fun.)

And, a bit of friendly advice; make your characters’ names sufficiently different so that the reader can tell them apart. Try not to let them rhyme, and vary the word lengths. Don’t have a Tom, Tim, Todd, Sam, Sim, Ron, and Rod in the same story. Same with last names.

Those Funny Hats
The physical appearance, personality and speech mannerisms of your characters can be important plot points, or steps on the ladder of character development to make your main characters come to life for the reader, or they can serve the lesser, but still important, function of “funny hats.” Even after you’ve made sure that your characters’ names are as different as Black and McChesney, you might still want to give your readers a little subtle way to tell them apart. Writing instructors describe this as giving each character a different funny hat. It’s a shame you can’t do that literally, unless you set your story at a costume ball, because it sure would be easy to remember the difference between Professor Puller, in his red, three-cornered hat with the large goose feather, and Mr. Stapple in his black mortarboard with a tassel over his right eye. Most people have visual memories, and giving them something to visualize works as a great memory aid. You write: “Professor Puller knocked on the door.” It’s been 35 pages since you last mentioned the prof, and your reader is, like, “Is he the one who flies the model airplanes? Or is he the guy who was hiding under the bush?” Then you write: “Madam Blavatsky opened the door, and the professor pulled off his three-cornered hat with the large purple goose-feather and made a sweeping bow.”


But it’s seldom that you get a chance to use hats, except in historical novels. We are a poorer civilization for the lack of hats. But you can use other articles of dress or appearance, personal mannerisms, peculiarities of speech, or emotion (perpetually happy, or sad, or fearful, or the like).
— Jones puffed thoughtfully on his heavy, cherrywood pipe.
— Mrs. Faber was so astonished that her monocle fell into her soup.
— “B-b-b-bother,” said Finkle, his stutter even worse than usual.
— “We’ll always have Paris,” Trepp said in his very best Bogart imitation, which was very much like his Jack Benny imitation.
— Peterson pulled at the edges of his red bow tie.
— Sedge’s large, bulging eyes swept around the room

Hopefully (or hopeably, as a pedantic friend of mine insists one should say), your main characters, the detective, his Watson if he has one, and one or two others who appear all through the story shouldn’t need any sort of funny hat to identify them, since your reader will have come to know and love them in the first few pages of the story. But these funny hats are not just used for quick character identification, but also for, let’s call them, handles on the character’s personality. So writers often use them even for major characters who we presume the readers can easily recognize. What detective adjusted his sixth of a ton in his oversized office chair, and put the freshly-cut orchid into the vase on his desk? What detective leaned back in his chair and reached for the hypodermic full of a seven percent solution of cocaine (which was legal then)? What detective manages not to give his name in any of the stories written about him? (There are two answers to this one.) What detective keeps his mustache carefully waxed? If you read these writers, you will have instantly recognized Nero Wolfe, Sherlock Holmes, the Continental Op (or Bill Pronzini’s nameless detective), and Hercule Poirot.

So how does one go about creating a lifelike and memorable character?

Mr. Hammett, Let Me Introduce You To Sam Spade

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. his yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by the thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down from high flat temples and came to a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

That’s how Dashiell Hammett introduces his readers to Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. But how did Hammett himself get to know his blond hero? He explains in an introduction to a reissue of the book written in 1934:

"He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and what quite a few of them in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent bystander or client."

In this introduction he also explains briefly the genesis of the other major characters, including Brigid O’Shaughnessy. He modeled them after people he had met during his years working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency; in some cases melding two people together to create his character.

The first lessen Mr. Hammett offers us with his description of how he created his characters is the assurance that you can use real people as your models. As long as you exercise a modicum of care (changing the names and any outstanding physical characteristics), they’ll never know. Remember, you’ll be describing the people as you know them through your eyes. But the person you’re using has never seen himself through your eyes, only through his own. He doesn’t see himself as the most selfish man on three continents, with severe ego problems and a tendency to say inappropriate things at the worst possible time. Conversely, she doesn’t see herself as a truly beautiful person with a gentle soul who doesn’t realize the effect that her mere presence can have on every male in the room.

It’s useful to have real people as models, and it doesn’t have to be people you know very well. Your imagination can supply the facts you don’t know, and besides you’ll probably want to alter them anyway to fit the character needs in your story. But having a real person gives you something (okay, someone) to hang the rest of it on. The second lessen is that it doesn’t have to be a person you know at all. Sam Spade is the collective image of what real private detectives imagined themselves to be like or wished to be like. You can base your character on an actor whose work you know, or a character he or she played, or for that matter a character in someone else’s book.

The number of fictional detectives based on Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is legion. (I know “legion” isn’t a number. It’s a metaphor or a simile or something.) Can you make up a character completely? Of course. But if you do, and it’s a major character, do a little work up on him and get a good mental picture of his appearance, his background, his likes and dislikes, and what motivates him. You don’t have to do this all at once, but put some thought into who he is each time he appears in the story, so that you create a consistent, believable person.

“What’s My Motivation?”
One of the theories in what’s known to actors as the Stanislavsky Method (or simply “Method” acting) is that the actor doesn’t act as much as react. Every action should be motivated by what came before. The story is told that when a young Method actor was told by the director to cross the stage at a certain point, he replied, “What’s my motivation?”

“Four hundred dollars a week,” the director told him. “Now cross the frigging stage!”

Hopefully what the director meant by that was that the audience would recognize the character’s motivation for crossing the stage, even if the actor playing the part didn’t. Well, your characters also need to be motivated. The big one, of course, is that your detective has to be motivated to solve the crime. If he or she is a police person, then his motivation is simply that it’s his job. If he’s a private eye, then you have to go a little further since people don’t normally hire PIs to solve murders. The police are better equipped, better trained, and they really do want to solve murders that take place in their jurisdiction. And besides, in many states it’s actually against the law for a private investigator to take a case that the police are actively investigating. And a civilian needs a very strong reason to drop everything and take on a dirty, dangerous job for which he or she is not trained. She won’t be earning any money at whatever her real job is; she’ll probably be actively discouraged by the police; she won’t have any standing in the case, which means that she’ll have no right to visit the crime scene or question suspects. She can’t be hired that is, accept money to do the job, even if the police aren’t currently involved; without a PI license it’s illegal.

Driving Your Character
Many of the best stories are what we call “character driven.” That means that the motivations of the characters are what drive the story forward. In The Maltese Falcon it’s Casper Gutman’s insatiable desire to get his hands on the black bird, and the greed and fears of the other characters that compel the story to its climax. (That makes the falcon the “MacGuffin,” a term invented by Alfred Hitchcock for the motivating force behind the crime -- I'll go into this in excruciating detail in a later posting). In Daphne du Mourier’s Rebecca, events put into play by the vengeful and manipulative Rebecca drive the story even though she’s dead before the story begins. In The Count of Monte Cristo, Edmund Dantes is driven by revenge; all his new-found wealth is merely a tool for devising means to get even with those who wronged him.

We the People
A good author can make his heroes and villains larger than life, and make the reader care about them. A great author will also make his minor characters as real and important for their brief moment on the stage as his major characters, and this brings the whole book to life. Let’s see how a couple of different writers do it. Here’s G. M. Ford in Last Ditch introducing a couple of cops:

Two cops, one big, one little, one rumpled, one neat. Naturally I knew the big rumpled one. Frank Wessels and I went way back. Oh yeah. We’d detested each other for decades. For a while, in the tenth grade, I’d dated his younger sister Jean. He was a big nasty bastard about ten years my senior. One of those throwbacks to the rubber hose days of law enforcement who liked to hurt people. I was pleased to see that the years had treated him badly. Since I’d seen him last, he’d put on thirty pounds and grown a veiny red nose with the texture of a golf ball.

Now we have a pretty good image of Frank Wessels. Ford has made him into a person. Not a very nice person, but a person nonetheless. Let’s look at how Don Westlake introduces a character in High Adventure. The action is taking place in Belize, a country in South America:

Innocent [St. Michael] had been graced by God with 57 years of this nice life so far, and no immediate end in sight. A man who loved food and drink, adored women, wallowed in ease and luxury, he was barrel-bodied but in wonderful physical condition, with a heart that could have powered a steamship. The efforts of assorted Mayan Indians, Spanish conquistadors, African ex-slaves, and shipwrecked Irish sailors had been combined in his creation, and most of them might have been pleased at the result of their labors. His hair was African, his mocha skin Mayan, his courage Irish, and the deviousness of his brain was all Spanish.

Westlake has given us a fairly good handle on Sr. St. Michael here. Notice that at the moment we can’t tell whether he’s going to be a good guy or a bad guy. That remains to be seen as the plot unfolds. All the information on a character does not have to be inserted at the first appearance of the character. It can be doled out, a bit at a time, so as not to stop the action with a lot of exposition. You don’t want to say, "...and then Mcswee was suddenly attacked by one of the largest men he had ever seen, who was swinging a shovel that must have been made for giants. The large man, whose name was Fiffer Abardly, had grown up in an orphanage until the age of seven, where he escaped and got a job as a tap-dancing dental assistant..." You want to get on with the fight. Any necessary exposition or explanation can be supplied later, when your hero has a chance to catch his breath.

Show, don’t Tell
One thing you'd hear a lot in writing courses is, “show, don’t tell.” This is not an absolute proscription, but the ratio of showing to telling should be on the order of 80 to 20. What do they mean by that? To “show” a scene rather than “tell” it is to make the reader see it as it’s happening, rather than as how someone would relate it later.

I went into the room and there was this girl lying there, dead, on the floor. At first I didn’t know she was dead, but she was so still, and there was this pool of blood under her head.

Not bad, actually. It almost gets us into the scene. But...

As it’s happening:
The bedroom was at the end of a long hallway, lit by two fixtures with, maybe, 20-watt bulbs, one at each end, which did not much to penetrate the gloom. The door made a strange swishing sound as I pushed it open and peered in. I could see that the door was pushing across a brand-new carpet, with the nap not yet worn down, which explained the swish. But the meager hall light couldn’t penetrate further than the doorway, and all was black within the room. I pulled out my 18-cell flashlight and flicked it on. At first I thought there was a pile of laundry lying on the floor at the foot of the big four-poster bed. But after two steps toward it, I realized that it was a skirt and sweater with a young girl inside; her unshod feet emerging from the skirt at strange angles, and her long brown hair flaring wildly out around her head, which seemed to lie in a deep shadow. I took another step forward and shined the light on the girl’s head. The shadow turned out to be a redandbrownandblack pool of drying blood. As I fought down the sick feeling that punched at the pit of my stomach, I had the random thought that the management was going to be annoyed now they’d have to replace their brand-new carpet.

I’d Like To Thank The Little People
What about characters who are just going to appear briefly and then fade away: doormen, cab drivers, waiters, witnesses, suspects, extra cops, and other supernumeraries? You can bring them to life and make them interesting in one well-chosen line, describing a physical attribute or an action and implying ever-so-much:

The bartender, a slender young man in an immaculately clean light green apron, came over and spritzed the bar in front of us with a spray bottle of Lysol and wiped it down with a disposable paper towel. “Germs,” he said. “What’ll it be, gentlemen?”

An old woman at the next table, her long gray hair braided and stuffed under her Brooklyn Dodgers baseball cap, pushed herself to her feet and raised one pudgy arm high in the air. There was something green in her clenched fist. “You call this a pickle?” she screeched.

Here’s a character I introduced in a novel called The Girls in the High-Heeled Shoes, that takes place in New York City in 1935:

Cholly is a big man, large in all dimensions; but you wouldn’t call him fat. Not if you were standing anywhere within reach of his ham-sized fists, you wouldn’t. He had been a prize fighter for a while, where he was known as Charles “the Mountain” Finter, and perfected the art of falling down. He fought some of the big names in his day: Dempsey, Tunney, and some others, and mostly he lost; but he quit one day when his head stopped hurting. “Your head’s supposed to hurt when you get hit,” he explained. “When you can’t feel it, it’s time to find another racket.”

There are almost as many ways of delineating characters as there are fiction writers. As Kipling said in a poem called "The Neolithic Age," “There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right.”

(If you have questions or want to comment on this, send me an email through the "Contact" window.)