Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Frequently Asked Questions

by Sandra Parshall

I’ve never quite understood why non-writers are so interested in the way writers work – our “process,” as it’s often called. I’ll admit I’m always curious about the way other authors work, but that’s not surprising. We’re doing the same thing, producing stories out of thin air, but everyone does it in a different, personal, fashion. Maybe I can learn something from other writers. Maybe hearing about their methods will at least reassure me that I’m not doing it wrong.

My theory about non-writers – and I hope some of you will either confirm this or offer another explanation – is that they want to understand how we concoct an entire fictional world, populated with distinct individuals, out of nothing. They hope to find an answer in the mechanics. But the answer is far more elusive, hidden within that mysterious region of the brain that some humans are blessed, or cursed, with: the writer’s imagination. And that is something I can’t explain. It mystifies me as much as it does the non-writer.

But I can answer the questions I hear most often at appearances and in interviews. I’m working up an FAQ list for my website (which will be totally revamped before my next Rachel Goddard mystery, Poisoned Ground, comes out in March). Let me know if I’ve left out a burning question to which you want an answer.

Where do you get your ideas?

I could be cute and say, “At the Idea Store. It’s over on Leesburg Pike, next to the Container Store. I always stop and pick up a sturdy container for my new idea before I take it home.”

But the truth is: I look around. I listen. I watch people. (You may not think I’m watching you, but I am. Closely.) I read and listen to the news. A writer can make a story out of anything simply by asking, “What if?” The trick is finding an idea that excites you and will hold your interest for a year or so. An idea that will grow roots and branches and become something far more complex than the tiny seed you began with. Characters you can bear to live with day and night for many months. Every author is an individual, of course. What interests me will bore another writer. I have to love an idea enough to stick with it long-term.

How long does it take you to write a book?

I wrote my first published novel, The Heat of the Moon, in six months. I have written other books in a year. I need about 18 months to write Poisoned Ground, but that was primarily due to life events, not the difficulty of the writing. In today’s publishing world, a book a year is best, and I would like to keep to that schedule. I have cozy-writing friends who turn out three or four books a year, and all I can do is gape in amazement.

What is your daily writing routine?

Ideally, I come to my computer after breakfast, write until lunch, then write for another couple of hours after lunch. Life sometimes interferes, in the form of dental appointments and sick cats, but I get the most work done when I keep to a routine.

Do you use a laptop or desktop?

Desktop. I have a laptop but can’t imagine using it to write a book. The touchpad makes my fingers hurt.

Do you use any special software, such as Scrivener?

I own a copy of Scrivener. I have it installed on my desktop computer. I have yet to use it. One day I will, I’m sure, but I can’t predict when. For many years, I have used Lotus (now IBM) Word Pro, an old word processing program that I love and hate to part with. I can use WordPerfect if I must. I will never use Microsoft Word for writing.

Do you have animal companions while you write?

Of course. Miss Emma is my tireless muse, nearby in the same room and ever ready to offer a pithy comment or suggestion.

Gabriel pops in for comic relief and to remind me to take a break (during which I am welcome to give him my full attention).


What other writers have influenced you?

Flannery O’Connor has probably influenced me more than anyone else, with her sharp, clean prose and her clear-eyed view of humanity and the world we’ve created. Living writers I admire – I will spare them the embarrassment of being named as influences on my own writing – are Ruth Rendell, Thomas H. Cook, Edna O’Brien, Louise Erdrich, Tess Gerritsen.

Why do you write crime fiction?

Although I enjoy a lot of literary and mainstream fiction, I find I’m impatient with books that don’t have a strong narrative drive – stories that aren’t moving toward a definite goal. I want a novel with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and I want the ending to be a true conclusion rather than an arbitrary stopping place. I want a story that has a point. In my reading, I don’t always demand that the villain be punished at the end – sometimes it’s more realistic if he escapes to wreak further havoc – but any villain who turns up in one of my own books is going to get what’s coming to him.

What question or complaint do you hear most often about one of your books?

Some readers think Rachel should have made a different decision at the end of The Heat of the Moon. I don’t agree, obviously. She made the only choice she could under the circumstances. Some readers think a certain character should have been more severely punished at the end of Broken Places, but in fact I left her fate a bit vague. Under the law, very little could be proved against her, so a harsh fate would have been unrealistic, but her actions cost her everything she valued, so I wouldn’t say she got off free and clear.

Do you mind when readers criticize your choices for your characters?

Not if they’re polite about it. I do mind if they become insulting and aggressive. The book is written and published. It isn’t going to be changed because a reader doesn’t like some aspect of it. I respect the right of other authors to make their own creative choices in their own work, and I believe readers should respect that right too.

Of all your books, which is your favorite?

I will always love The Heat of the Moon the most because it was my first attempt at suspense and it was the story that introduced me to Rachel. But I’m also proud of Disturbing the Dead because of the complex plotting and the characters. I like my upcoming book, Poisoned Ground, a lot too. It has the kind of  multi-layered plot I love and a set of quirky sisters I thoroughly enjoyed writing about.

Do you go on book tours?

No. Few writers do these days. If you’re not a bestselling author, or someone your publisher is trying to turn into a bestseller, you have to pay all expenses out of your own pocket, and the return on that considerable investment is dubious at best.

Is your desk neat or messy?

Always messy, except when I am photographing it for some reason. Then it suddenly becomes extremely neat. What the photo never shows is the mess I’ve dumped on the floor temporarily. I don't do that too often because it's so much work to get everything off and then back onto the desk. This photo was taken years ago. I have a different computer and monitor now.

Have I left out any questions?


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this. I admire your excellent way of being frank, yet you rarely toot your own horn. You are a rara avis! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

Sherry Harris said...

Great article! You put into words how I feel about crime fiction!

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Sandra,
Excellent post...I'm off to modify my list of interview questions I send to prospective interviewees.
Except for your not using MS Word (I agree, it's a terrible package), we have a lot in common. Want to write a novel together?
Just kidding. Although I'm happy to call you a friend, albeit an e-friend, what most people don't realize is that writing is best done alone. WD has an article on partnering up this month. After reading it, I still don't get it. It seems that the partners were still writing alone. Any opinions? Maybe enough for another independent thread?

Vicki Lane said...

Excellent post, Sandy and good answers to those questions. Yes, I have a FAQ section on my website that covers most of these plus some unexpected ones... I'm always trying to tell people that there is no one secret to writing -- it's different for each writer. Still, I too find it interesting to see how others work.

Karen Hall said...

Great post with interesting answers! The only question I'd add is one I always seem to get: Do your characters stem from people you know? And its corollary, have any people been angry because they don't like the way they're portrayed in your books?

Sandra Parshall said...

Ah, the characters question -- how could I have forgotten that one? My answer: Yes, I sometimes use a real person as a starting point for a character, but by the time I've written a single scene with that character, the real person has disappeared. Fictional people grow and change with the story and become unique individuals. I do sometimes use the names of friends for characters, but usually with their consent. I use other people's pets, too. (For example, Mr. Piggles the guinea pig is in my books because Meg Born donated a lot of money at a Bouchercon charity to secure him a place.) No one has ever complained about being in one of my books or about the way I've used their pets. (So far. Fingers crossed.)

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this too!

The only other FAQ I can think of that people new to your work might want to know is how soon you started writing and how soon you knew you would.


Kaye George said...

This is a pretty comprehensive list. Love your answers! Now I'm wondering if I want an FAQ page on my website. It's an excellent idea.

Kate L said...

Hi Sandra,

I enjoyed your FAQ's, and plan to 'borrow' (read: shamelessly plagiarize!) your reasons for writing crime fiction when I am asked why I read crime fiction.

One question-and-answer that you may want to add: was your first published book the first one you wrote? Or, what was your path to publication?

And another just came to mind: how much time out of the year to write a book is involved in editing/revising/rewriting?