We’re back with week seven of our freestyle chat – no rules, no editing, and no net under us. Dietrich Kalteis (author of Ride The Lightning) and Martin J Frankson (author of Dark Introductions and Party Girls collection of short stories) I discuss what we’re working on, writing in general and just whatever comes to mind – real off the cuff.
This week we have a very special guest: Robin Spano, the talented author of the page-turning Clare Vengel Undercover novels Death Plays Poker, Death’s Last Run and Dead Politician Society
And our thanks to Peter Rozovsky for use of yet another great noir shot from his vault.
So here we go.
MF: So far, the characters in my first two crime novels were not police officers, therefore I was free from having to research process and procedure, as they could just follow their noses and do what they wanted. However, when it comes to geography and technology, I do my homework. I like to refer to real streets, buildings, bars, coffee houses and stores so that readers may say ‘I was there’ and perhaps visualize the story taking place interwoven with their own memories. Right now, I’m doing something I haven’t done before, and that’s more detailed planning for my third novel that’s set in Vancouver. During my time there earlier this year, I took extensive notes on my travels, and these have proven valuable as I want to infuse as much realistic detail as possible. Not just geographic but societal as well. I have started creating character cards detailing things like the kind of car they drive, personal likes and dislikes etc. I’ve just spent fifteen minutes on a used car website in Vancouver to give me the lowdown on the real makes and models that are driven these days. Google Maps is wonderful too. Sometimes though, I make something up. If I need a motel where one doesn’t exist, then I invent it. What’s your take on research and what do you like to include and leave out?
DK: I like to keep towns, landmarks and major cross streets real for the most part, but I also like to throw in a location that doesn’t actually exist if it better serves the purpose of the scene (maybe a store, gas station, bar or restaurant). As far as characters like police officers, I haven’t written a story that is heavy on procedure either. Most of my lead characters have been from the shady side of the tracks, and they’re usually avoiding the law.
RS: I’m glad you’re researching Vancouver so intensely, Martin. It means we’ll get to see more of you. I’m with you guys on keeping street scenes true to life unless I need to change them. In Death’s Last Run, I invented a bar because nefarious stuff was going down (like drug money laundering) and I didn’t want to taint a real Whistler business with a negative brush. But in my head it is the same bar where I’ve had apres ski beers a few times, same layout and position in town. I use Starbucks way too much, which I’m pretty sure reveals my own addiction. And like Martin, I use Google Maps street view a lot, too. I find that especially useful in cities where I’ve spent time and remember the feel of the place, but want extra detail, like was that street paved with concrete or cobblestone?
MF: Thanks Robin. Mrs Frankson and I are planning a 3 week visit to Vancouver next May/June time. Vancouver will be an annual visit for me. I totally love the city. I too sometimes base fictional bars/cafes in place of ones I frequent, but its best to give them fictional names when derrings-do are set there otherwise it could be a legal minefield for sure, not to mention unfair to the owners. Shady characters are probably the most fun to write about. However, I do like stories about corrupt cops. They have to work within tight bounds and procedures, therefore have to be imaginative when trying to work outside the system without being caught. I once read there are two kinds of corruption, corrupt for greed and corrupt for the job. The former like to line their pockets, whereas the latter break the rules to put away criminals who would get away with it if the letter of the law took its course. One of my favourite writers, the late Derek Raymond wrote several crime novels featuring a lead but nameless detective who constantly broke the rules for the greater good as he saw it. For books like that, knowing procedure would be vital, otherwise how would one know how such rules are bent or broken? They also make for a good read. Nightmares of the Streets and The State of Denmark are two of his books that come to mind, but I digress.
I strongly believe that art, least of all novels, should not be set in a societal or political bubble. If there is a major national or world event, the world within the novel should at least acknowledge its existence. It may or may not affect the characters or the story itself, but it does demonstrate a grounded and historical relevance the reader may appreciate. It also adds another dimension to the characters. They don’t exist in a world by themselves. It may be fiction, but there is a world beyond the walls of the scenario the writer creates. Do you like to read work where the real world permeates through the fiction, and if so, how has this manifest itself in your own work, or do you think it’s important at all?
RS: That’s a great observation. Another Canadian crime writer, Robert Rotenberg, recently gave me the advice to always have a big, world story going on at the same time as your own narrative. Sometimes it can tie into your plot, and other times it can parallel it, and other times, like you say, it can set the novel in its place in history. I think Rotenberg uses his own advice really well in Stranglehold, which takes place in the midst of a Toronto mayoral campaign.
DK: I can see such events lending certain believability to the story. It can make it seem like real life is going on, even if it just floats in the background. Another great example of this is Black Rock by John McFetridge. The story’s set in Montreal in 1970. It’s about a cop hunting a serial killer amid the riots and bombings that actually went on at the time – a great read by the way.
MF: That sounds like an interesting book to explore. I don’t think I’ve read crime fiction set in Quebec, and it has seen dramatic political intrigue over the past 45 years. There are many crime novels set in Ireland where the ‘Troubles’ as they were so-called form the backdrop. Stuart Neville comes to mind here. This does add gravitas and credibility to the story. Fiction maybe, but a branch from the tree of truth. It also shows that the writer doesn’t live in an ivory tower. These days, social awareness by the artist is gaining greater currency in society.
Putting on my reader hat, I really don’t care if correct police process or procedure is followed, within reason of course. For example, we all know the police can arrest suspects, but I don’t know what paperwork they then need to prepare afterwards. I do find that stuff boring and unnecessary unless the paperwork or other forms of process are in themselves, a falling domino that triggers a chain of events. If so, such detail is fine. If the writer is just putting the detail in to show off his/her homework skills, then it’s not moving the story forward; but, if it it’s kept to a minimum, then that’s okay. We can’t be absolutist on anything in art can we? There is always room. However, in the crime/thriller genre, the story is what matters. I know some people are keen for 100% accuracy, but that’s a little pedantic in my book, if you pardon the unintended pun, but everyone’s entitled to what they appreciate. I can only speak for myself and my own tastes. Is factual detail a keynote of your own writing, and how much leeway do you think a writer can have ranging from total faithful adherence to fact to the other end of the scale in just making stuff up?
DK: As I said, I haven’t had the need to cite exact police procedure, but if it was needed, I would seek it out. But if it’s something general like a cop character filing paperwork, I agree, it’s probably enough to just give the broad strokes, and leave out the boring details. I always try not to throw so much detail in that I feel I’m slowing the pace of the story.
RS: I’ve asked a few cops and lawyers—who, surprisingly, like to read crime fiction—if procedural mistakes bug them. Every single time I’ve asked, the answer has been no. They’re bugged if the error is egregious, but only because the mistake takes them out of the story they were enjoying. They’re unfazed by technical mistakes. Like you guys, I could not care less about procedure—and neither could Clare, my protagonist. She works within the system, but she’s undercover, so off on her own most of the time. There’s a cop in LA who I play iPhone chess with. (If you’re reading this, Domino King, sorry I’ve been away from the game all summer long!) who helps me keep it real enough to be credible.
MF: I’m with you on that. On the point of historical writing, it would be interesting if Google Maps allowed one to look at a historical view in streetview as opposed to just a snapshot of today. Imagine the possibilities, the old cars, the old stores and buildings.
RS: That would be SO cool. Though I so far haven’t been tempted to write anything historical, I’d enjoy walking down my old street in the 70s from when I was a kid. It would also be a neat way to teach history to future generations.
MF: I think Google is actually working on this. Imagine the possibilities of putting on a headset and being immersed in a new city, virtually walked down its streets at any point in time. I work in IT, and I can see this happening within 20 years tops. It’s exciting, not to mention a boon for researchers and history buffs and writers too, but I can imagine it being quite a distraction. I guess in the meantime, we have to rely on old-school methods for that, but going down the rich avenues of research can be fun, too. For example, one of my characters in my next novel is a figure from the past. I chose him to live in a small village of Old Crow, Yukon. I then found a great website about Old Crow and its cultural and current heritage, and that got me going down some wonderful side-roads, finding out about things like the Gwitch’in language which would be criminal to ignore. Research does add armoury to the pen and the imagination and does enrich a writer’s own knowledge, even if what we read or find doesn’t filter into our work.
DK: Absolutely. I’m currently working on a period piece that takes place at the beginning of the twentieth century, and that requires quite a bit of research to bring the story to life: the architecture, the type of vehicles they drove, cultural habits, the way they dressed, even the way they spoke back then. All of these details have to be handled carefully and not overused, but they do help to bring the story to life for the reader. It’s amazing what I found for my story: entire newspapers of the exact dates I needed, numerous articles, books and personal accounts, historical maps (one with overlays of then and now), a phone directory, a business directory, lots of photos, even a short film clip from the early 1900s. And you’re right, Martin. You do unearth some interesting facts along the way.
more next week …