Saturday, January 16, 2010

Life vs. Reality

by Michelle Gagnon

Michael asks:
Michelle, you describe yourself as a former modern dancer, dog walker, bartender, freelance journalist, personal trainer, model, and Russian supper club performer. In THE TUNNELS, THE BONEYARD, and THE GATEKEEPER you write wonderfully suspenseful stories about serial killers and worse. I’m curious: in what senses do you or don’t you “write what you know”?

I usually keep my hidden past as a serial killer out of the bio since it tends to make people uncomfortable.


The truth is, as my bio indicates, I'm completely unqualified to write the books I write. I've never worked in law enforcement (although I dream of one day making a citizen's arrest), I was never a doctor, lawyer, PI, or anything else that would provide a solid knowledge base (all of this will seem even funnier when you read my amateur sleuth post tomorrow- because ironically as it turns out, those are the only books I am actually qualified to write.)

But I really did want to feature an FBI agent as my protagonist (more on that tomorrow).
So to compensate for my ignorance, I always do as much research as possible. Then I hand entire sections of my WIP off to experts for vetting during the editing process. (In spite of that, as one FBI agent told me at a conference, there are oversights, especially in THE TUNNELS. But she claimed to have enjoyed it anyway as a work of fantasy :). )

I firmly believe that as fiction writers, very few of us write what we know- if we did, it would probably be marketed as non-fiction. Few of us (hopefully) have stumbled across a murder victim. And fewer still have been assigned the task of tracking down the perpetrator.

People like Doug Lyle MD, FBI agent George Fong, and others have been tremendously helpful in helping me close that information gap. For THE GATEKEEPER I had a nuclear physicist, bomb expert with the ATF, CIA operative, and K&R negotiator on speed dial (note: most of them do not enjoy being called at 3AM to answer specific questions. They are surprisingly unsympathetic about impending deadlines. Apparently their sleep is more important--go figure).

However, what I do possess is a good grasp of is basic human nature. If you go back over my bio, notice the "bartender" bit. Slinging drinks provided a license to observe people, sometimes when they were behaving terribly. I got to be very good at guessing what different conversations revolved around: which couple was on their first date, which was breaking up, which guy was ready to strangle his buddy over something. In crime fiction, take a minor conflict you've observed (say, a guy going into a rage over a parking ticket) and imagine how exponentially greater it would be if he just found out his wife was cheating on him. Or that he's about to be fired. Amplify the reaction. Because when it comes down to it, we're pretty simple beasts. We just have a knack for complicating things.


Michael Wiley said...

Thanks, Michelle.

Like you, I've long thought that we don't do best when we "write what we know (already)" but should write what we want to know and are willing to find out.

Still, a lot of friends and acquaintances from my other incarnations as teacher, political speech writer, counselor in a last-chance group home for at-risk teenage boys, bartender, etc. want to know how I know enough to write about the things I write about, always with a supposition that I must've been there myself.

But as you also suggest, I really have been there in some senses. We all have. Rage is rage, whether one is angry about a speeding ticker or about the killing of a lover. The difference is in volume and intensity, not in kind.

Anyway, I'm impressed by the friends you've made while doing your research. If I were to call up my sources at 3:00 a.m., they might come to my house with real homicidal rage. Then, of course, I would be able to "write what I know (already)" -- if I survived.

Shane Gericke said...

Imagination is far more important than truth in writing fiction. As long as readers believe it's true--whether it is or not--we've done our job. As one editor told me, "There's real truth, then there's fiction truth. They are not necessarily the same."

Michael Wiley said...

Keats called it negative capability. Ian Watt called it formal realism. For the rest of us, maybe it's just good story telling. Still, if we get the facts wrong, we'll hear about it.

Gabi said...

Remind me not to drink around you. I'd hate to be the one who makes that citizen arrest dream a reality.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

A writing teacher once told me "Write what you want to know." I like that idea.

I really don't want to be arrested by Michelle either, Gabi. So, let's see what I've learned from this blog: don't eat with Gabi (not after all that poisoning talk), get rowdy around Michelle, misquote Latin around Kelli, bring up underwear design with Shane, go near a toolshed with, screw it. Too many rules. Am just going to have to take my chances... (except maybe eating around Gabi)

Michelle Gagnon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michelle Gagnon said...

I really want to know more about that underwear design.

The funny thing to me has been that (aside from that FBI agent) the main complaints I've gotten from readers have been about the most arbitrary things. For example, in Boneyard I apparently misspelled the name of a particular bird mentioned in passing. I received countless emails from enraged birders who said that error ruined the book for them, even though it had absolutely nothing to do with the plot.

Gabi said...

For me, the underwear design conversation with Shane is a chance I simply must take!

What if I double dog dare you to eat with me, Rebecca? Or corner the world's chocolate market? I'm thinking you wouldn't be able to resist.

In the meantime, I'm going to be careful around those birders.

Shane Gericke said...

Underwear design? Me no remember the reference, but GOD someone please remind me cause it sounds so good ...

Kelli Stanley said...

How did I miss the underwear conversation? And is Shane designing for men or women these days??

(Hey, if Howard Hughes could design Jane Russell's bra ...)

Wonderful points, Michelle!! I worry about our culture's collective imagination quotient sinking even lower, as "reality" television and tabloid trash becomes the aspirational norm for so many people. Sometimes you just imagine ... and that starts with the ability to empathize with your fellow humans.

(which, admittedly, is harder to do at 3 AM. ;) )