This week (Sept 1 2014) I was invited to add my two bits to the new and busy Off the Cuff blog, hosted by Dietrich Kalteis, author of Ride the Lightning. Here’s a re-posting of his blog:
From the monthly archives: "September 2014"
Martin J. Frankson and I are back with week five of freestyle conversation with no rules, no editing, and no net under us. We discuss what we’re working on, writing in general and just whatever comes to mind – real off the cuff.
We’re pleased to have another one of Peter Rozovsky’s great noir shots to jazz the page. And we’re also pleased to have as our first guest, ER Brown, author of the Edgar-nominated Almost Criminal, also shortlisted for an Arthur Ellis Award. He’s here to share his thoughts with us.
And this week we’re taking on challenging characters. So here we go:
DK: One of the most challenging aspects of writing any character comes when I need to do a lot of research to make them believable. Specialized police work or medical practice for instance, where particular procedure is required. And sometimes that kind of research isn’t a simple matter of googling. For me, making phone calls to non-emergency hospital numbers or walking up to a cop and asking questions isn’t fun. And while I try not to get too hung up on that kind of detail, I do want enough of it to make the characters believable.
ERB: I’m up against that “specialized knowledge’ wall in my new novel-in-progress, which has a Canadian cop – a high-ranked RCMP officer – butting up against FBI and Homeland Security. All kinds of issues of rank & protocol issues come out of this, and I’ve been merrily writing away without any concern, not wanting to let reality get in the way of the creative impulse. But I have a couple of RCMP officers on my side, and I just sent off a set of questions to one of them. Some things, you just have to get right.
Here’s a research-related tip: if your novel is in the first-person, you don’t need to know — and in fact you can’t reveal — any technology or deep levels of detail that your first-person character wouldn’t know. My teenage kid knew nothing about grow-ops or the marijuana business. So he learned as the reader learned, and I never had to get into potentially boring textbook-level detail.
MF: I’ve never been a details-man myself, even in everyday life. I don’t measure recipe ingredients to the gram or milliliter, but instead rely on spoonfuls of this and dollops of that, so long as the dish is just as delicious in the end. I do however perform a good degree of research to ensure credibility of character, geographical topography, vehicles, weaponry and procedure. Although procedures are prone to change, I like to think I get the basics right, but I don’t go to the n-th degree. While I wear my reader-hat, I do suspend disbelief completely, and I may not know if something is technically inaccurate, and as long as the story rocks, and everything else is within the bounds of credibility, then I’m ok with that. You must have more approachable cops in Vancouver than we do in Belfast. haha. As for medical procedure, the funny thing is I don’t go into anatomical detail, but if I did, my wife who is a nurse in Accident and Emergency (ER in the New World) would provide me with detail on tap. Perhaps I should take advantage of this, but not over dinner. Oh, one thing I wanted to ask, do you have difficulty writing female characters?
DK: I haven’t had any trouble writing female characters. I actually had fun writing my protagonist’s love interest in Ride the Lightning, and one of my favorite scenes was the banter between her and her teenage daughter over using college funds for a boob job. Dara, the teenage daughter goes on and evolves into a main character in my next one, The Deadbeat Club, and she’s been one of my favorites to write.
One thing I love about writing characters is studying the way different people speak and behave. I think so much of a character’s description can come through in just their words.
ERB: I’m having lots of fun writing the female lead in my new novel. Women readers have been pretty enthusiastic so far, so fingers crossed. I remember Le Carre’s female lead in The Little Drummer Girl and how wooden and tone-flat she felt, so it’s something I want to get right.
MF: I’ve read conflicting advice about writing accents and dialects into dialogue, but in my opinion, it’s ok to write phonetically to capture the sound of a character if his/her accent is outside the norm of the setting. Coming from Ireland, we have many expressions that would not be understood outside our shores, and this poses a challenge. I remember recently I sent you a short story set in Sligo, Ireland, but I felt I had to accompany it with a glossary of terms as many references would have flummoxed you or anyone else. In the Anglosphere, American/Canadian/British English is familiar to all, but if one comes from smaller countries, such general familiarity does not exist as much. I fear that if I use too many terms and expressions peculiar to where I’m from, I could drastically reduce my potential reach of readership across our many oceans. Yet, if I chose not to use such expressions, the dialogue would cease to be credible and even become too generic and dull. This is why I seldom set my work in Ireland, as I would feel a fraud to iron out/expunge our many rich verbal ways which are just as valid as anyone else’s. It would be interesting to bring in writers who like to include vernacular in their work into this conversation to see what they think about this. On the subject of the male writing the female character, do you base females on those you know in real life? This is what I do as well as basing them on characters from wider entertainment.
DK: No, I haven’t based my characters directly on anyone I know, although there may be habits or expressions I may have borrowed from time to time from someone I know. Now, what about favourite characters in books you’ve read?
ERB: Back to the accent/dialect question: you can do more with it – with perhaps more reader interest – than simply using the typical vocabulary or syntax of a place. You can use dialect-like giveaways and ‘verbal tics’ to reveal many aspects of character, while also making your characters separate and distinct from one another. There’s regional syntax, of course, plus there are turns of the phrase that give away educational level, profession, and so on. Elmore Leonard was brilliant at telling you a character’s back story in their syntax.
When I was writing Almost Criminal, I spent a few years inside the head of a teenaged male, and it was a real experience. Tate McLane had to have a personal, idiosyncratic way of expressing himself that reflected his giftedness and his gullibility. In the early drafts, Tate was based on a couple of gifted-school kids I met, who had a fascinating combination of off-the-charts IQ and social immaturity, shyness, awkwardness and — in their areas of expertise — confidence bordering on arrogance. Plus, of course, the hormone-addled self-absorbed personality of most any young male. By the time Almost Criminal was done, I was ready to write about someone older and more mature!
MF: Let’s finish up talking about favourite characters we’ve read. Harry Chinaski (Charles Bukowski’s character) is one of mine, just for the sheer fun and hilarity. It has to be said that there isn’t much of a character arc to Chinaski, he’s just a cartoon character who does the same goofy things day in day out but he’s written in so entertainingly. For more serious characters, ex-detective Jack Taylor from the works of Ken Bruen, Inspector Rebus from the novels of Ian Rankin and George Bowling from Orwell’s Coming Up For Air are amongst my favorites. How about you?
DK: Yeah, Bukowski writing as Chinaski is one of mine, too. Then there’s Holden Caulfield in JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Lee Harper’s Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. In crime fiction Elmore Leonard’s Chili Palmer in Get Shorty, classics like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer in I, the Jury are hard to beat.
ERB: Great choices! I’d only add one, while teenaged characters are on my mind. Russell Banks’s great book Rule of the Bone features my favourite teen of all time, Chapman, or “Chappie”, who later calls himself Bone, after a tattoo he gets. The voice, with its individual syntax and odd vocabulary, grabs me from the first paragraph.