Mark Terry

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Choosing Your Story

November 25, 2008
I'm one of the judges for ITW's Thriller Award. The result of this is that I'm reading a bunch of thriller novels, in many cases by people I've heard of before and have never gotten around to reading their books. In some cases, reading books by people I've never read before.

There's a confidentiality agreement, so I can't really talk about anything specific.

But one of the things that has come to mind from reading a couple of the books that are more military-based thrillers is how I could not have written these books. The authors just have too much familiarity with the military. With the hardware, the organizational structure, the mindset, the culture.

Granted, Tom Clancy never served in the military and made a terrific living writing about this, but he was a military buff and hung out with military people.

I have realized recently that most of my manuscripts deal with professionals of some sort--private eyes and cops and soldiers. Not all. DIRTY DEEDS was about a computer troubleshooter. CATFISH GURU is about a consulting forensic toxicologist. And Derek Stillwater, though military, is really a biochemist and microbiologist with a gun. I'm no expert on the gun and military part, but I have often hobbed and nobbed with biochemists and microbiologists and still do. That's just part of my culture.

What I've never really written about before is an ordinary person who gets caught up in something nasty.

And I confess, I don't really hang out with cops or soldiers, although the number of toxicologists and other lab people is pretty extensive.

I suppose it goes back to write-what-you-know. 

I've long argued you should write about what you're interested in, and you can always do the research. That said, reading some of these novels makes me realize just how research-intensive some of these really successful thriller authors are. Sometimes you read one of these books and think, "He HAS to have worked in the military in order to write this." Or at least to really hang out with military people and get immersed in their cultures.

This might partially be why my interests have shifted toward YA and middle-grade fantasy. I do research for these, too, but I don't have to go far to find the age group and my research on monsters can come off the Internet or out of my own imagination. Just like FORTRESS OF DIAMONDS, there aren't really any Anasazi around to interview (unless you believe, like I do, that the Hopi are direct descendants of the Anasazi, as probably are Aztecs and some of the other Native American tribes, but it's not like they're going to tell you much about what happened 1200 years ago). 

Harlan Coben comes to mind on this topic, simply because he writes about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. I've noticed that some of my more ambitious thrillers, ones that wander into foreign countries or require particular research into certain areas of expertise, often get stalled at the point where my grip on the facts gets weak. It may be time to write a story about people I know--writers and musicians and scientists and engineers--just to see if I can.

Or not.

Mark Terry


Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I rarely write outside what I know. My books are nearly always about ordinary people caught up on unusual circumstances. Even when I had a forensics person (my Billie Quinn series) . . . her entire family was in the mob or they were bookies . . . and she hung out with them far more than her peers so the forensics was there but only to a small degree. The real centerpiece case always had to do with her trouble family and the drama they created.

In Double Down, it was about gambling addicts and bookies (sensing a theme here? LOL!). I basically asked certain . . . family members or dear friends about how they ran their "business," but again . . . the personal dramas were front and center and there was "just enough" about how bookies run their business to make it authentic.


5:36 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Well, I do think there are ways to "write around" technical problems. My way around the military stuff with the Derek Stillwater novels was to have him no longer in the military, but working for Homeland Security. And even in the DHS arena, Derek's a maverick who's more or less on call and it's his job to observe what else is going on and if he thinks there's an unexplored avenue of investigation (or prevention), to take it himself. That's rather convenient for storytelling, because it puts him at odds with the establishment.

I would have a much harder time writing about a DHS agent if I were trying to write a procedural based on reality.

6:18 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

Great points. I definitely feel there are lots of things I could not qualify to write about even if I researched. The level of realism often demanded today is very very high. Sixth century Constantinople works for me because nothing much remains of it except what's been written and I can read history as well as anyone else.

9:32 AM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

I hang out with vampires and shapeshifters all day that have washboard abs.

Just kidding.

9:54 AM  

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