Sunday, March 18, 2018


Writing fiction doesn’t look scary to anyone else.  Perhaps writing an autobiographical novel with recognizable characters is as  scary as it gets. In that case you might want to decide how much you want to antagonize your family and friends.

I don't do that. I write mysteries. There are recognizable places, bits from my own life no one seems to  spot, puzzles and social issues. Nothing is very violent or very gruesome. I don’t intend to scare my readers, but I do sometimes scare myself. 

A scary thought for the writer is the possibility that the skills are not up to the subject. That is much scarier than any suspenseful scene you could write.  If you don’t challenge yourself then you are writing the same book over and over.  True, there could be a reason for that. It could be laziness but it is likely to be an editor or agent you says, “Give the reader what worked before. Why mess with success?”

For many writers, though, taking a leap in a new book is the way to stay interested.  Stretching those writing muscles is as important as stretching the physical ones.  (Maybe more important) It’s scary. That is good.

For me, just getting the first few books in the Brooklyn series written was enough of a challenge.  My books are about neighborhoods and the people who live there, the history, issues and changes unique to each place. The first, Brooklyn Bones, was about my own neighborhood.  I had it covered. The second, Brooklyn Graves, was about a famous place, not far, and easily researched.  I had that covered too. For Brooklyn Secrets, the third? Ah. Another situation entirely.  I wanted to write about a neighborhood where I used to work. It has a surprising history and I soon realized I could not write it without also writing about the neighborhood in the present. But could I do it?

My time working there was decades ago.  The library where I worked was then closed for renovation, so a visit was not possible. It is, and was, a tough, poor neighborhood, a culture not my own, and not easy to research. Newspaper stories told me it had not changed much from when I worked there, but nothing told me how it felt. I didn’t know if I could do it and it wasn’t worth doing if I could not do it well.  Could I portray a more complex world than outsiders usually see? I grew anxious each time I drove near it on the way to other places. There were some sleepless nights.  I was scared the whole time I was writing it. 

The next book, Brooklyn Wars, was about a famous place, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and it was scary for a different reason. There was so much to tell, the history was so rich, could I select the right pieces to both tell a compelling mystery story and also convey some of the flavor of the place and some of the stories of the people who worked there?  It was a challenge every writing day.

Now I am immersed in a neighborhood with even more history, and it is even harder to line it up into a story.  I know this one, I even lived there many years ago, but there is a religious element added to the usual political issues and it can’t  be ignored. Or at least I can’t ignore it. Can I write it fairly? Honestly? With some complexity?

Doing what scares us is how we get better at this writing game. I will be reminding myself every day until the first draft is done.