Hither and Yon

One of the problems with writing commercial fiction is that you can start to feel like you’re writing the same old crap. Good detective character, trail of clues, quirky companion  . . . yawn. You decide you can do better. Book readers are educated, and they want more than TV slop. As one of those readers, I am fully in agreement—depending on which new developments you choose to pursue.

Given that writing in-depth characters is the hardest job in fiction writing, it is not surprising that an author will pick from the range of other alternatives. One choice is to educate readers about each plot development. If an investigation is to lead the detective team on a chase around New York City, for example, a clue that leads them to Mott Haven in the South Bronx might be expanded by research into Robert Moses and the federal highway that split off a slice of the neighborhood in the 1950s. From there research (oh, I mean the detectives) might follow the highway south to the Triborough Bridge and what it replaced on Randall’s Island. Across the next river into Queens, hopefully to take in a Mets game, means investigating how Astoria was riven by several highways . . . 

I’m not disinterested in research about the city, particularly the more obscure corners, but the novel can start to take on the feel of a travelogue. Be it New York, Chicago, or the Wild West, if you dig enough, you can turn up interesting tidbits about any locale. If you are clever, you can assemble pieces of an entire history about it. Wherever the “detectives” go, there is gold in them thar hills.

The sticking point? If I wanted to know that stuff, I would read a nonfiction book. Skip the novel altogether. You are outsmarting yourself. Every time I have to pause for a page of research, I’m losing out on the two main reasons I read a mystery. One is the tension of the chase for the perpetrator, and the other is the immersion in the characters. 

Locale can be a terrific tool if you concentrate on looking through the eyes of the characters. If a detective’s Aunt Louise lived in Mott Haven and when her house was demolished to make way for the highway, she went batshit crazy, I am interested in Robert Moses and city planning. But not so much Moses and a lot more Aunt Louise, in proportion.

Exercise: In amassing locale research, try to assign the place in a progressive fashion: to a more featured character each time. That’s because readers will become bored if you keep traipsing off, using somebody as an excuse each time. If you’re really clever, Mott Haven contains a vital clue, buried for generations, that solves the mystery.

“If you wish to travel far and fast, travel light. Take off all your envies, jealousies, unforgiveness, selfishness and fears.”  —Cesare Pavese

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.