Saturday, March 5, 2011

Fresh from the masters!

This weekend I attended Sleuthfest in Ft. Lauderdale and saved some great tidbits. I enjoyed many fun and inspiring panels, including one on forensic entomology by J. H. Byrd. Among the information for crime writers, I learned always to wash the car after delivering a body to the Everglades. (The presence of a particular species of mole cricket that only hops around at night will convict you every time.) Also, beware, the blood in crab lice is enough to connect you sexually with a murder victim. Fascinating stuff!
I asked for any comments on Silence of the Lambs and was told that the beetle in the film was misidentified. Also, when prodded, Dr. Byrd admitted to having a chess set with pieces in the shapes of bugs--not too far from the entomologists characterized in the film. Fun, fun!

More toward the subject for this blog, I attended a panel on writing technique with James W. Hall, S.J. Rosan, and Dennis Lehane. James W. Hall, my former professor at F.I.U. made the comparison of a novelist who outlines, with a friend who plans his vacation trips down to the moment--not only a completely mapped out route and hotel reservations, but the location of gas stations, and what time to reach them. The wife wants to stop at the restroom after lunch, but no, the Texaco isn't scheduled until 3:30!

This pleases all of us non-outliners. Hall himself admits to starting with a plan and almost immediately discarding it when a better idea presents itself. Might as well plan to head North, for example, and enjoy the adventure. All three writers agreed that if you are enjoying the story, there's a much better chance that your reader will than if you're not.

Hall also gave an example from his novel Island of Bones, where a character, Dougie, who has no pain threshold, blurts out this information to a woman he meets in a bar. The woman asks, "If I stick a fork in your arm, does that mean you won't do anything?" Given the affirmative answer, she adds, "I've been looking for you all my life." This is the birth of a new character, someone unbidden who comes into a novel and demands to stay. This is what Dennis Lehane refers to as listening when his characters talk to him, what he finally had to do last year when Patrick wouldn't let him alone, resulting in Moonlight Mile. This is what I think of as letting the characters write themselves. It's so much easier than forcing them to behave.

S.J. Rosan brought up the necessity of moral ambiguity to create depth of character. She used, as an example, her creation some years ago of a Chinese woman as the girlfriend of her protagonist. With the difference in cultures, nothing is right or wrong; even what one considers normal to eat for breakfast comes into question. To me, this is a technique that will keep you from running out of interesting situations and conflict even between dramatic scenes.

Lehane brought into the conversation a simple and memorable metaphor explaining the difference between plot and story: the plot is the car and the story is the journey. In other words, the plot is the vehicle that allows you to create the story, story being based the theme, the understanding of life that will evolved. Theme comes about because of the main character's psychological need (Look back at my "Fast Start" blog about "need." Dennis and I were classmates). "For a story to be worth telling," Lehane stated, "a piece of the character's soul must be changed."

By the way, thanks, Joanna Slan, for telling me that my blog is appreciated!

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