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Wednesday, 05 January 2011 20:32

Just shut up and bang it out

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I’ve never been big on New Year’s resolutions. But this weekend I decided to list five and work seriously toward accomplishing them by year’s end. The only resolution of mine worth sharing (unless you find personal self-improvement goals such as exercising regularly and eating more fruits and vegetables interesting) is the quirky one that made this very short list.

I’m going to write a mystery novel. Never mind I’ve yet to reveal any aptitude for fiction writing — quite the opposite is true, in fact. I’m a nonfiction writer to the very marrow of my bones.

I get nonfiction. After almost two decades of being lucky enough to earn my living as a professional writer, I’ve learned a few gee-whiz, golly-wow writing tricks. I’m not unlike the small-town magician who volunteers for a local library program, and, on a good day, convincingly pulls a rabbit out of her hat.

I enjoy playing with structure, and find it fun sometimes to use unusual, or at least unexpected, narrative voices. I get a kick out of tinkering with pacing. Or, to be truthful, I get a kick out of those things when I’ve devoted the hours needed to writing a really good article. When I’m feeling lazy or haven’t allowed adequate time, I rely on experience to just bang it out, which is what a former colleague and I used to bark at one another as deadlines neared and editors increased demands about getting the story NOW. “Bang it out” was our verbal spur to hurry up and get the work done.

In this case, familiarity has bred comfort. I know how to get the job done, and get an editor off my, well, let’s say case. Fiction, however, is another matter. Here I feel adrift at sea, unsure even how to make a beginning.

Where does one start when a girl’s fancy turns to fiction — with an idea, maybe? But once an idea is settled on (which I haven’t, yet, actually accomplished), how does said writer — me — turn that thought into a convincing story? How does one develop characters from thin air? What narrative voice to use?

This is all so intimidating I feel like going to bed and burying myself in a good mystery, one of my favorite forms of escape. I lean toward classic British mystery writers such as Agatha Christie and Ngaio March (a New Zealander who set most of her work in merry England). But I also admire contemporary writers such as Martha Grimes and Ruth Rendell. And I like the late Dick Francis, who told the same good yarn over and over, just changing the names and plot a bit for each new novel produced. That was a man who found a good formula and milked it to fame and fortune, entertaining thousands along the way.

I read and enjoyed Anne Perry until I stumbled over the fact (widely publicized a few years ago, but missed by me) that she is an actual murderess, having helped bludgeon a friend’s mother to death in 1954. This icky fact intrudes whenever I try now to read one of her books. I like my murders and murderers imaginary, thank you very much. I’ve seen enough of the real stuff as a newspaper reporter to not enjoy actual suffering and pain.

As an aside, I admit to enjoying science-fiction fantasy. This embarrasses me because much of it, if not almost all, is appallingly written. You really have to scrounge to find readable sci-fi. Buying or checking out sci-fi fiction at the library requires true bravery on my part. I have to override the snob who resides inside. One cannot take life too seriously and walk through a bookstore or library carrying books that feature such lurid covers as these. They inevitably feature sword-wielding buxom girls and buff studs posing against a backdrop of dragons and castles. No self-respecting individual over the age of 15 should be seen anywhere near such books.  

Which brings me back to trying to write fiction myself. I will certainly be less free with tossing literary criticisms about since I’m getting ready to try my hand at a mystery, that’s for certain. Something about the pot calling the kettle black comes to mind. And, what goes around comes around.

But having honestly faced my limitations, and they are indisputably vast, the truth remains. I have a yen, a yet unscratched itch that cries out for appeasing. So, what the heck — I’ll write a mystery. No matter how bad the finished product might be, I’m by golly planning, as my good friend Jon Ostendorff with the Citizen-Times would tell me if we still worked together (and does, to this day, tell me when I call him because I’m stuck on a story) to just shut up and bang it out.

 

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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