Thursday, April 7, 2022

Get Your Motor Running (with apologies to Steppenwolf) from James W. Ziskin

What do you read to blow out the cobwebs and invigorate your inner writer?

When I’m ready to write—really ready to dive in and write the first draft of a novel—I stop reading other authors’ work for the duration. Unless it’s research, that is, which is usually non-fiction. The research certainly can inspire me and give me new ideas. That’s often the case, in fact. I start writing a book with the beginning and end in mind, get the car moving, then interrupt the journey with detours for research. Some of my best ideas come to me that way.

While writing Cast the First Stone, for instance, I checked the weather in Los Angeles in February 1962, when the book’s action is set. It turned out that month was one of the rainiest on record. That new information gave my story an entirely different mood, as I drenched LA and poor Ellie Stone for 350 pages. A leak in a roof, caused by a clogged rain gutter, even played a pivotal role in the discovery of an important clue. The hidden object in question would have made for a terrific MacGuffin if Ellie hadn’t actually found it. But she did, of course.

A similar thing happened with the next Ellie Stone mystery, A Stone’s Throw. While researching the 1962 Thoroughbred meet at Saratoga (New York), I came across a video of the Travers Stakes from that year. The Travers is the signature race of the season in Saratoga, one that has featured the sport’s greatest champions over the past 150 years. And the greatest Travers Stakes of all just so happened to have taken place on August 18, 1962, right in the middle of my story. An epic duel from post to wire between the two heavy favorites, Jaipur and Ridan. It took a mile and a quarter of neck-and-neck back and forth to decide the winner—by a nose—in a photo finish. They led the entire way, never separated by more than a neck. A moving, powerful, beautiful performance.

You can read A Stone’s Throw if you want to know which horse won. Or you can watch the race here. Two magnificent champions. Neither deserved to lose.

After stumbling across that superb race, I gave the 1962 Travers Stakes a prominent place in the story of A Stone’s Throw. It is the event of the season in Saratoga, after all. To have left it out would have been wrong. A sin of omission. Especially since it was the greatest duel in the history of the race.

Similar scenarios have played out in all my books. Something I read somewhere gives me an idea that works, improves the story, adds a plot twist, emotional depth, or much appreciated flavor.

All of this to say that I find lots of inspiration to invigorate my “inner writer” in reading and researching. But I don’t rely solely on books to get me going. Far from it. Instead, there’s a deep drive within me to create. To tell a story. To play with language and emotions. Imagine living in a world with no books. A prison, if you will. It would be hell, of course. But even without books to read and inspire me, I would still write.

Because I’ve got to. I like to think other writers feel the same way.


Ann Mason said...

So what are you reading now ?

James W. Ziskin said...

Dear Ann,

Right now I’m reading Like a Sister by Kellye Garrett. It’s really, really, really good. Almost finished.