Please welcome guest Keith McCafferty to Murder She Writes!
If it is true that the three most powerful words in the English language are “I Love You,” I believe it is equally true that the four most powerful words one can string in sequence are “Tell Me a Story.”
Human beings have a fundamental need to tell stories. The first stories that anthropologists are aware of are recorded in the pictographs painted on the cave walls of Lascaux in southwestern France. They are more than 20,000 years old. Paleolithic scholars believe that these drawings of bison, cats, bear and rhinoceros are accounts of past hunting successes and are a mystic ritual to improve the chances for success in future hunts.
Before I became a novelist, I made my living, such as it was, by writing non-fiction hunting and fishing narratives, mostly for Field & Stream magazine. I was drawn to that form by this most ancient of impulses. I have never kept a journal, I wish I had, but I’ve written hundreds of stories and they run together to form a sort of diary. Those stories are what I read aloud, hour after hour, as my father lay in a bed from which he would never again rise, and those stories are the legacy I will pass to my children. This is who your father was. This is who his father was. This is what I thought about taking you into the mountains and along the rivers with me, before you were ever born. These are the paintings I leave for you on cave walls. Take from them what you will.
Recently, I was asked to speak at the 86th annual conference of the Outdoor Writer’s Of America Association, held in Lake Placid, New York, where I was surprised to find myself in the position of being a celebrity (I would be brought to my knees a few days later at Bouchercon, the annual gathering of mystery writers and readers, where I was a small fish indeed).
Part of the notice from the OWAA was because I had a long career at a major magazine and won some awards, but part of the appreciation was not so much for me as for the form of writing I championed, which is rapidly disappearing from the pages of magazines. Today, editors have become so fixated on the so-call service article — how to do it, where to do it, what to buy to do it better — that they can’t see the tree standing behind the leaves. They have lost sight of the story as the one form of writing that endures, that has roots, and that has the power to move people.
When I decided to trade a profession that is difficult to make a living at for one where people assure you it is impossible, I was drawn to mystery suspense because of the importance of story in the genre. In literary circles it has become fashionable to ridicule story as being a lesser art form, that story should only serve as the coat rack on which to support the character’s growth and arc, and so to illuminate the human condition. Such is the proclamation of those soulless city dwellers who read literature with a capital “S,” in which nothing much happens but naval gazing and bad behavior. I suspect that much of the vehemence directed at story is that anything entertaining can’t possibly be art, that just as the writer suffers for his art, so must the reader.
I would argue the opposite, that genre writing is not only the higher art form, but more difficult to pull off, for stories require a doctorate in the skill of consecutive thinking. You put a lot of balls into the air writing a story, and it works only if the balls fall back to earth and bounce again in an intricate and precise rhythm. As a mystery writer once told me when I confessed my ambition to him, “I only have one piece of advice to give you. Quit smoking dope.” I wasn’t, but then he wasn’t asking a literal question. He meant, and I was soon to understand the truth of his words, that you need to have a clear head to write a story, you need to train as if you are preparing for the ring. By contrast, writing the inner dialogues of an angst ridden family in a novel with a cerebral white jacket design requires only the literate regurgitation of a perennially knotted stomach.
Okay, I’m making the point by exaggeration. But I do firmly believe that a good story can stand without the decoration of implied higher meaning. It does not have to instruct to be worthy of the cave wall, though it can instruct. Nor does it need to illuminate larger issues or reveal fundamental human truths, though the best of it can do that. too. Its primary purpose is simply to carry on the imperative that began 20,000 years ago with scratching on rock, and that have progressed to the pages of papyrus, wasp nests and finally wood paper. To tell your stories so that others might be inspired to tell theirs. And thus to record the history of mankind. It is a calling of the highest order and we should all be proud to be called story tellers.
I’ll make a confession. I didn’t used to think this deeply about writing, or in fact, to think much at all about the process. I simply wrote because I had to tell stories and was lucky enough to find markets in which to sell the work. But the transition from wiring narrative non-fiction to writing novels had unforeseen mental consequences. For one thing, when you write a novel you become totally immersed. A magazine article takes two hours, or two days, or two weeks. You are out of it and on to something else before it can sink its claws into you. But a novel is a year of nothing else — okay, B.J., I’m not counting you cohort of romance/suspense novelists who pile up books like stacks of wheat. How I despise your prolific ways. My point is if you are a mere mortal, then a lot of time goes by during which you think about nothing but the story you are working on. You live and breathe it, it is there in the middle of the night when you wake up, and it is . . . well, it’s just always there. And if you step back to regard this obsession of yours with a cold eye, it dawns on you that it isn’t even real. You are being driven crazy by something that is a figment of your imagination. If that doesn’t make you take a hard look at the object of your madness, i.e. the novel, then lucky you. I didn’t escape.
The other thing is that when you are a working novelist, people ask you questions about it. Many of you will know what I’m talking about. In the past three weeks alone, I’ve had to explain myself to round tables of book sellers in Portland and Denver, which is speed dating, telling people why I deserve their love, as well to prepare hour long presentations for the Outdoor Writers on making the transition from fact to fiction writing, and on the craft of the narrative. Between the OWAA, Bouchercon and the Festival of the Book in Missoula, Montana, I’ve served on four panels of writers. Just three days ago in Missoula I was asked to explain the importance of pacing in the mystery and then, at the wrap up, to condense the process of writing a novel into a three minute recitation. You can’t just sit there and say, well, I’m an instinctive writer and leave it at that, even if there’s some truth to it. You have to, as they say, lead an examined life.
I’m going to close here with the comments I prepared for that last panel discussion, though not because I think that you’ll find them instructive. We all work in different ways and I don’t presume my method is better than yours or anyone else’s. But if I put them down before I forget to, then if someone asks me again, I’ll have something ready. It may not be cave art, but it is a record of how I felt at that moment.
The first question, the one about pacing, the moderator of the panel, Caroline Patterson, threw at me with a bit of a last second curve. She wanted me to discuss pacing in relation to the rhythms of fly fishing. The question was inspired by the protagonist of my mystery series, private detective slash fishing guide slash watercolorist Sean Stranahan. Cherie Newman, who hosts the “Write Question” for National Public Radio, says that I have invented my own genre, fly fishing noir, but in fact my novels are not fly fishing mysteries so much as mysteries that have a smattering of fly fishing in them. And while I sign many books to women who are buying them as gifts for sons, fathers or husbands who fish, most of the readers I hear from are women who have no interest in the sport. Which does not help answer the question Caroline posed.
So I tried to think of something elegant to say — fly casting is indeed a form of aerial poetry — but the fact is I often do an awful lot of fishing between fish, fish being a fickle lot, and as readers are an impatient one, I wasn’t sure of the relevance. I said I didn’t think that a book written with the rhythms of fly fishing in mind would draw flies and moved to the question of pace, which is a very good question.
The foundation of the novel is its plot, and it is to pace what lyrics are to music. Plot is what happens. Pace is the rhythm in which it happens.
It is commonly held that that mystery/suspense novels are plot driven. That is a mistake. Plot is important, but who can recall the plot of any novel that, say, Robert Parker or Nevada Barr has written? What you remember are Spenser, Hawk and Anna Pigeon. Mystery novels are, with rare exceptions, driven by pace and character, and of those, character is the most important. Look at Alexander McCall Smith’s “Number One Ladies Detective Agency” series. There is precious little plot and the pace is indiscernible. Nothing happens and it happens very slowly. You turn the pages only because you become invested in the character. Write someone as vivid and sympathetic as the traditionally built Ma Romotswa and pacing becomes irrelevant. The second thing to remember is that narrative non-fiction is driven by the declarative sentence. Fiction, by contrast, is driven by dialogue. String together thoughtful, articulate paragraphs and the reader skips pages until he finds one broken up by conversation. To paraphrase Elmore Leonard, readers don’t like to see a lot of words on a page. He has a great term for such writerly indulgence: Hoop-ta-doodle.
A couple of weeks ago my book the “Gray Ghost Murders,” was selected by the Oprah Winfrey Book Club as one of the “5 Most Suspenseful Novels” out now (it’s also listed as one of “5 Addictive Mysteries We Can’t Put Down).” I now have a shrine to this most gracious, beautiful and intelligent of all women in my bedroom, complete with photograph, rose and candle. But what exactly does that mean — the word suspense? How can a writer build suspense into his or her novel. The answer is so simple that you wonder why you didn’t think of it before. Suspense is the withholding of information. That’s all. Posing questions and making the reader wait for the answers. Write an interesting character, put him on the track to the truth or, better yet, in peril, and the reader will be held in suspense. She’ll want to find out what happens. Revisit “The Da Vinci Code.” Dan Brown ends each chapter with a cliff hanger. Personally, I don’t think his protagonist, Robert Langdon, is a very interesting character. A man who bitches about getting up early doesn’t hold my attention. I read the book, though, because I wanted to find out what happened next.
When I started writing mysteries, my inclination was to to keep the big question of “who done it” open, but to tie each chapter up with a neat bow. I got away with it because writing sympathetic characters came naturally to me, and readers forgave my sins because they liked the people who lived on the pages. Now, I try to leave more questions hanging, and several unresolved until the bitter end.
As Mickey Spillane said, “Nobody reads a novel to get to the middle.”
The second question was more daunting. How do you describe the process of writing a novel in three or four minutes?
Well, there are basically two schools of writers. There are the outliners and there are what my agent, Dominick Abel, calls the “muddler throughers.” C.J. Box and Craig Johnson, both of whom were kind enough to blurb my books, are outliners. Box told me when the going gets tough, he clings to his outline like a lifeline. P.D. James wrote that she often spends a year or more on a book outline, longer than it takes her to write the book. All I accomplish trying to write an outline is waste time. I’m a hopeless muddler througher and I’m not alone. My friend Barb, whom you know as B.J. Daniels, has muddled her way through some 70 novels. The upside of writing off the cuff is spontaneity; instead of bending characters to your will, they come fully alive. The downside is they can lead you into places the book can’t follow, and when you write yourself off the edge of the map at 60,000 words of a 100,000 word novel, the water you find yourself in is deep.
The challenge, I think, is to let the characters have their heads while keeping a light rein on the story, and to keep the big picture, the overall arc of the novel, in mind at all times.
E.L. Doctorow said it best. “Writing a novel is like driving at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
To use my own analogy, writing a novel is like setting sail for a foreign land. When you cast off, you can see as far as the horizon, which can take you maybe 30 pages into the story. And near the end of the voyage, you can smell land and follow the birds to the shore. You can see that pinpoint of light that is the beacon and it can take you last 30 pages. But the 250 or so pages in the middle of the book, you are lost at sea. There are pirates there and sharks, and very big waves, and they want to kill you. The trick is ignore the voices that tell you to give up. Those who keep wind in the sail are novelists. Those who jump overboard aren’t.
And my three minutes are up.
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Keith McCafferty is the Outdoor Skills and Survival Editor of Field & Stream. A recipient of the Traver Award for angling literature, he has twice been a finalist for a National Magazine Award. Recently, he has made the transition from fact to fiction, or as he likes to say, “from stretching the truth to writing the outright lies my wife accused me of doing all along.” His first novel, “The Royal Wulff Murders,” published by Viking/Penguin Press, is a book of the month club and mystery guild selection and received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. Keith is one of three finalists for the 2013 High Plains Award for the novel, along with Pulitzer Prize Winner Richard Ford and National Book Award winner Gretel Erdrich. When he loses later this month, he’s going to go fishing. His second novel featuring Montana artist/fishing guide/private detective Sean Stranahan, “The Gray Ghost Murders,” was recently selected by the Oprah Winfrey Book Club as one of the “5 Addictive New Mysteries We Can’t Put Down.” His third in the series, “Dead Man’s Fancy,” will be released in hard cover this January.