March 25, 2021, will commemorate the 110th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The 1911 fire was the deadliest workplace disaster in NYC before 9-11. It was significant not because 146 workers died, but because it instigated significant reform. At the time workplace safety was barely regulated and rarely thought about . . . except, perhaps, by the workers themselves. Other workplace disasters had occurred in the past and would again in the future. You may remember a similar fire at a factory in Bangladesh several years ago.
When I decided to write a mystery against the backdrop of the Triangle, I had no idea what I was in for. Research took me in several directions: the forensics of fire, the consequences of “defenestration,” that is, vertical falls from high places, the difficulty in identifying bodies falling from such heights, the safety hazards for garment workers, women’s rights, workers’ rights, changes in the American workplace.
But I also researched the time and place of the disaster. 1911, Greenwich Village, New York City. A time when Ellis Island kept its arms open to immigrants from many countries — immigrants who came for a better life, but often wound up in sweatshops, or worse. A time of Tammany Hall and corruption. A time of women’s suppression. But also a time of new beginnings, hope, and freedom in a new land.
I am a native New Yorker and was amazed at the fantastic bits of information I dug up. I learned, for instance, that Washington Square Park is built on what was once a potter’s field, where 100,000 people were buried for a century and a half. I walked the streets of Greenwich Village, saw the buildings my characters would have seen, drank in bars they patronized, and gazed up at the ninth story of the Asch Building (now part of NYU) to visualize the flames bursting through the windows and the workers leaping to their deaths.
The cover of my book is a photo I took of the building in 2010, with smoke and color added for dramatic effect. For those of you who write about history, or simply enjoy reading it, I know you’ll agree that real-life events in the past make a grand backdrop for a fictional story.
Murder, in particular.
The dictionary defines conflict as “a struggle or an opposition.” Conflict comes from the Latin word for “striking,” but it isn’t always violent. Conflict can arise from opposing ideas. But conflict, in any form, is essential for a good story.
Characters must struggle with conflict, even in a simple form. If your character is torn between two different desires, say, marrying a woman who lives in Boston, but dying to take a job offer in Saskatoon (where is that, anyway?) he’s conflicted.
Conflict is key to your characters’ relationships. If everyone gets along beautifully and there are no differences of opinions, arguments, debates, fisticuffs . . . no screaming, pulling hair, beating up or murdering someone, well, there’s not much conflict. And not much interest.
Conflict can occur within a person’s mind. This is the most interesting of conflicts and can define the character’s character. When a character confronts another character, there is drama. When a character confronts his/her own self, there is drama plus. Now, the stage is set for future interactions with everyone he/she meets.
In The Triangle Murders, my protagonist, Frank Mead is overwhelmingly conflicted about his relationship with his daughter, whom he feels he has abandoned after his wife’s suicide. The daughter feels similarly. However, circumstances bring the two of them together, creating not only conflict, but often tension. There is great strain between them and the reader must wonder if it will ever be resolved.
Emotions play a large role in portraying a character’s conflict. If a character keeps his emotions hidden, any conflicts he faces may stretch these hidden emotions to a breaking point. As a reader we need to know what’s happening in his head–how this conflict is affecting him. We also need to see how it manifests itself in his behavior. Do serious money problems cause him to drink more, abuse his wife and kids, or retreat further into himself? How your character handles conflict makes him unique . . . or not. Unique is better, by the way.
Conflict between characters can take many forms. It can be job-related, school-related, socially-related, sexually-related, family-related, or other-related. Often all. However, too many conflicts in too many places can cause the reader to get worn out. Give your character, even a cranky one, at least one amiable relationships, even if it’s with another cranky character, please, or we won’t like him very much.
I like to find new ways to help my characters resolve their conflicts. For instance, in Frank’s case above, he enlists his daughter’s help to solve an ancient murder. They form a tentative truce to accomplish this, which may, or may not, last into another book.
My advice is to maximize the use of conflict in your story. It is a great tool to keep readers turning the page.
In my role as Science Center director some years ago, my staff and I were tasked with developing a high-tech exhibition on smoking. Rather, a powerful way to demonstrate the dangers of smoking on the human body. In my research, I came across myriad forms of propaganda about smoking through advertising, first in magazines and newspapers, later on radio and television. One of the more prevalent means of marketing “smoking,” however, began in the thirties and forties (and continues today) in the movies.
Hollywood has always glamorized smoking (think Humphrey Bogart or James Dean) and, no doubt, perpetuated the myth that smoking was cool. As I dug deeper into this phenomenon, I found that Hollywood was very reluctant to cut smoking out of their movies, long after they knew the dangers. For one thing, cigarette companies paid the studios to “show” their product. (You’d see a pack of Marlboro on a side table.) For another, they felt it added to the glamor of the characters. Note: On-screen smoking in PG-13 films has doubled since 2010.
Hollywood has done us a disservice by minimizing or ignoring the dangers of smoking by displaying it in the movies. Making the practice “all right.” But what about history? As I watch the stories in the news about the tearing down of monuments, statues, and flags, I wondered about this very thing. What role does Hollywood play?
I wrote a novel about the Civil War. (Aha! Fiction writers may share the blame with Hollywood in perpetuating historical inaccuracies. A blog for another time.) In my research, I read fiction, non-fiction and, of course, indulged in movies about the subject. The Ken Burns series and book, The Civil War, epitomizes to me the true story, with accurate narrative and real photographs.
Armed with my research, I could watch Gone With the Wind and recognize the many inaccuracies of the film. But then there was the movie, Gettysburg. Reasonably accurate, I did notice one thing that stood out. The southern characters like Generals James Longstreet, Lewis Armistead, and Robert E. Lee were made very sympathetic and likeable. (Although I had my misgivings about General George Pickett. I didn’t like the actor!)
The point here is that when Hollywood displays characters as sympathetic, eloquent gentlemen, it is hard for the viewer to make the connection to historical treachery. Let’s not forget, these generals were committing treason. They fought against the union to preserve their way of life, a life that defended and preserved the practice of slavery.
Perhaps it would do writers well to think about the consequences of their portrayals of characters and events in their books and scripts. Are we doing a disservice to future generations by changing history for dramatic effect?
Yes, the title is correct. Rather than “write what you know,” I believe you should ”know what you write.”
I’m a native New Yorker, transplanted to the West Coast (and now in New England.) In my early writing classes I was told, “write what you know.” What did that mean? I couldn’t write about Alabama or Vancouver because I wasn’t from there?
When I was sixteen, I was strolling through Manhattan, minding my own business. I came across a group of tourists looking up and pointing, shooting pictures at something in the sky. What was it? I looked up and realized they were photographing a tall building. Big deal. So I walked to the building in question and saw a plaque that read Empire State Building. Aha. This was the famous Empire State Building.
I lived in NYC but didn’t even appreciate what was around me. On the other hand, when I moved to San Diego, I scouted out every attraction, neighborhood, restaurant, park and beach within the first two months. I knew San Diego better than San Diegans and often surprised them with my knowledge. My point is that growing up in or living in a place is not necessarily “knowing” a place.
In other blogs I talked about the importance of research. Here is a perfect place for it. You don’t need to set a story in the place you grew up in (not that there’s anything wrong with that.) You can set a story anywhere you like, but, and I repeat, but, you must visit that place to make it authentic.
An example from my upcoming book, Deadly Provenance: “They drove on the Avenue de la Grande Armée, right up to and around the Arc de Triomphe, down the Champs Elyseés to the Place de la Concorde with the tall obelisk at its center. Henri then turned left into a steady stream of traffic on the Rue de Rivoli, made a dizzying series of rights and lefts and wound up on a narrow alley way called Rue des Pretres-Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, which Maggie did not even attempt to pronounce. He pulled the Peugeot onto the sidewalk in front of a tiny building with glass front: Le Relais du Louvre, their hotel.”
I’ve never lived in Paris, but I have visited a number of times. Can you tell?
If you’re writing about a fictional town, you can have fictional streets and neighborhoods, fictional bars and fictional buildings. But if you’re writing about a real city, you need to make it authentic, by visiting. Maps on the Internet can help, but places change, restaurants close, old houses are torn down and replaced by condos. You must see it first-hand. This is especially important if you want to appeal to readers who actually live there. They will call you on your mistakes.
A dilemma I encountered when writing about Washington, D.C., during the Civil War, was how did it look back then? First of all it was called Washington City, an important note that would have bollixed up everything, had I gotten it wrong. Since I couldn’t transport myself back to Washington City in 1860 (darn), I lucked out when I chanced upon a book called “A Guide to Civil War Washington.” Thank you author, Stephen M. Forman! In this little gem were maps of the different areas in the District, including street names and famous attractions like Ford’s Theatre. Without this book, I would have had to research maps of the time and spent lots of hours at the Library of Congress, if I could get special permission. Whew.
One caveat about the benefit of actually living in the place you’re writing about is that you will know the “locals” better. Their habits, peculiarities, popular night spots, and idiosyncrasies of speech. But this is a post for another time.
For now, “write what you know” is not bad advice. “Know what you write” might be better.
Years ago I saw a terrific IMAX film called To the Limit. In it was a scene I never forgot. A champion downhill skier was sitting on top of a mountain, skis and poles by her side. Her eyes were closed and she was moving her arms and upper body as if she were skiing downhill. She was picturing the course with its turns and moguls as she traveled down the mountain in her mind. She was teaching her brain to prepare for those bumps and curves by visualizing the course over and over. Something similar to muscle memory ie: when you play an instrument and your fingers seem to move on their own, almost apart from your brain.
This visualization technique is crucial in writing. Close your eyes. Picture the scene you’re about to compose. Perhaps it’s a cop getting ready to interview a suspect. From Val McDermid’s The Torment of Others, visualize Detective Chief Inspector Carol Jordan:
“Carol stared through the two-way mirror at the man in the interview room. Ronald Edmund Alexander looked nothing like the popular image of a pedophile. He wasn’t shifty or sweaty. He wasn’t dirty or sleazy. He looked exactly like a middle manager who lived in the suburbs with a wife and two children. There was no dirty raincoat, just an off-the-peg suit, an unassuming charcoal grey. Pale blue shirt, burgundy tie with a thin grey stripe. Neat haircut, no vain attempt to hide the way he was thinning on top.”
Picture the room and a man seated there through the glass. Visualize the suspect, very possibly a child molester, and feel Carol’s frustration at his very ordinariness, the exact antithesis of what she expects a monster to look like. Could she be wrong? Are we being misled by his description?
Follow Harry Bosch in Michael Connelly’s Reversal, when he makes a trip to Fryman Canyon Park, an unexpected natural enclave above the madness of LA.
“Fryman was a rugged, inclined park with steep trails and flat-surface parking and observation area on top and just off Mulholland. Bosch had been there before on cases and was familiar with its expanse. He pulled to a stop with his car pointing north and the view of the San Fernando Valley spread before him. The air was pretty clear and the vista stretched all the way across the valley to the San Gabriel Mountains. The brutal week of storms that had ended January had cleared the skies out and the smog was only now climbing back into the valley’s bowl.”
Harry has been here before and is familiar with the area, its quirky smog patterns and unpredictable weather. Now, so are you.
Visualization is more than “description.” It’s about engaging the senses (see an earlier blog I wrote about this) to get a visceral feel for the scene. Picture a brown leather couch sitting atop a Persian rug in front of a teak coffee table. Now give the couch history–every crack in the leather represents a different house it has lived in or a different person who curled up on its soft hide. It was loved, it was beaten, it was ruined. Even a couch can have personality. What does it say about its owners?
Visualize a woman. She’s not just a blond in a blue dress, wearing high heels and red lipstick. She’s a woman, teetering outside a motel room, black roots showing through the teased mass, blue dress torn at her hem, lipstick smeared like a clown. Picture her. There . . . there she is. You can see her clearly. You know her.
Write your scenes as if they were movies. Let us see what’s happening through your words. You’re the director. Direct.
When my third book was published, I had originally titled it Provenance until a friend thought readers might confuse it with a city in Rhode Island. Of course it is a mystery and contains several murders, so I decided to call it Deadly Provenance. The story revolves around the confiscation of art during WWII and a missing Van Gogh painting. “Still Life: Vase with Oleanders” is an actual painting by Vincent, which disappeared around 1944, and is, in fact, still missing.
The research on this book provided so many possible avenues to explore, it was hard to know where to begin. First, there was the Nazi confiscation of art: the logistics of stealing, storing and moving millions of pieces of precious artworks. Next, what happened to all that displaced art? How much was recovered and how? How much is still missing? Then there’s my world — the museum world. How have museums been involved? Have they helped or hindered the search for missing pieces of art?
Then there are the players. An important character in the historic part of the book is Rose Valland, a woman whose heroic efforts during the war truly saved a great deal of artwork. She is portrayed in Deadly Provenance as the heroine she truly was. Like Rose, another real character in history is Hans van Meegeren, art forger extraordinaire. Van Meegeren, a Dutch painter, bamboozled the art world in the 40s with a series of false Vermeers. Did he ever forge a van Gogh? In my book he did.
There is the modern story, where the mystery is solved years later. Protagonist, Maggie Thornhill, a digital photographer, must try to identify and authenticate the painting from a photograph. Can it be done? Has it ever been done? What is the science of art authentication today? How are x-rays, infrared and multi-spectral imaging used in scientific analysis? Don’t freak. I won’t get into this too deeply here.
As mentioned in a former blog, I always visit the places I write about. During WWII, a great deal of art was stolen from Jews and other “undesirables” and stored in the Room of Martyrs at the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris. The museum is located on the west side of the Tuileries Gardens and is now a museum of Contemporary Art. Visiting was a treat, although the “Room” is no longer there. Most of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works originally housed there are now on display at the Musée d’Orsay, on the banks of the Seine, in an old converted railway station.
And last but central to the storyline, is Vincent van Gogh, the mad genius whose painting is lost, perhaps forever. “Vase with Oleanders” is not typical of his vibrant colors, his wheat fields or his starry nights. But there’s no doubt this is Vincent’s work, even if his signature wasn’t in the lower left corner of the painting. Which it is.
The painting was owned by the Bernheim-Jeunes, a French Jewish family of art collectors. When they realized their art was about to be confiscated by the Nazis, they hid their collection, including the Van Gogh, at a friend’s mansion – The Chateau de Rastignac, near Bordeaux. Unfortunately, in 1944, the Nazis raided and looted the Chateau then burned it to the ground. Was the Van Gogh trundled aboard a Nazi truck and whisked away? Did a soldier steal it? A civilian in the town? Was it burned with the Chateau?
Today, there is still a great deal of interest in this subject and the world of art looting and theft. I’ve spoken about it to a number of different audiences and each time I must update it because new information appears almost weekly in the news. Lost paintings found, fought over by heirs in the courts, and, sometimes, won. Like Maria Altmann and the portrait of her aunt, The Woman in Gold.
History can never remain solely in the past. Past events have a profound influence on the present and the future. I believe they should.