One common thread that runs through most, if not all, of the writing how-to books and articles is the admonishment to read a lot. Of course, there are several reasons
for this. I tend to gain inspiration from the really good writers, and I get ideas, too. Something that’s a toss-off concept in one of their novels might spark a scene in mine. Take it, alter it, make it my own. Maybe it’s just a line of dialogue that makes me ask what if? Maybe it’s a scene in their novel that helps me handle part of my own, even if neither scene seems to have much to do with one another.
What it all amounts to, though, is that you pick up stuff by reading other writers’ works. And, if you’re like me, a lot of times you pick up more than you realize till one day it just sorta seems to show up in your own writing.
For instance, I love foreshadowing. I like throwing things at the reader that seem unimportant or even puzzling, only to have them show up later as having importance and making sense. Maybe it’s something minor, just a meeting with a character who shows up later as a key witness (so to speak), or an event that foretells a major plot development. I’m still learning how to do these things, and up until now, I’ve generally had to work that kind of thing in on my edit.
But I’m learning how to put them in on my first draft, and it’s exciting.
I’m picking this kind of thing up from reading Michael Connelly. He’s probably the best I’ve ever seen at it. You can’t discount anything in his novels, and I mean not the least little thing. If the main character buys hot dogs from a streetside stand, you better pay attention. The vendor might turn out to be an important part of the case.
Of course, it’s a basic principle that everything in your story is supposed to contribute in some way, whether it’s sense of place items, such as watching a car drive by outside the house, or character development, such as getting in an argument with another character. Ever good writer puts these kinds of things in his story, even if he sometimes needs outside help to do it (“This is a good scene, but I have no idea where we’re at here.”)
But with Michael Connelly, sense of place and character development more often than not contribute to the plot itself.
For instance, in Angels Flight,a prominent attorney who made his rep by suing the LAPD for civil rights infractions, beginning about the time of the Rodney King riots, is murdered in downtown LA, not far from his office. Because of the
scandals the department has been going through lately, and because the nature of the murder shows that it was somebody intimately familiar with marksmanship with a pistol, a good part of the LAPD can be counted as suspects. The lawyer had taken a lot of cops to trial.
Eventually, a detective in Robbery-Homicide Division (RHD), the elite squad that works out of headquarters and takes on the really tough cases, is arrested for the murder, then cleared. For Harry Bosch, the main character, it smells of politics and using the other cop as a scapegoat. Harry worked with the suspect in the past and knows he’s a good cop. Thanks to the atmosphere in the city, though, Harry offers to take the other cop—I can’t remember his name, so we’ll call him Jack—and let Jack stay in Harry’s house. They drop by Jack’s house so he can grab some clothes and Harry stays outside in the car. It’s night, and he notices a car pull to the curb down the street and shut off its headlights. He watches for a few minutes, but when he doesn’t see anything else, decides it was probably someone who lived down there. It’s only toward the end of the book—when you’ve already all but forgotten the incident—that it’s revealed it was the bad guy, and he was following them.
I was only starting to realize how important details can be in Mr. Connelly’s books when I read this, so I chalked it off to sense of place, but did keep it in mind. And when it wasn’t mentioned again—the scene happens early in the book—I decided it was a sense of place thing: Harry’s not just sitting there in a vacuum. He’s in a living, breathing city, and there’s gonna be traffic on the streets. And Mr. Connelly could have easily left it at that: a minor thing that rooted you in the scene.
But he doesn’t do that. He makes it integral to the plot while still getting sense-of-place mileage out of it. I can’t think of a better example of economy of writing, of making everything count.
I recently wrote a scene in my tentative rewrite—and I do mean rewrite—of the first Lyle Villines novel. He’s had his meth lab blown up and has to find materials to build a new one, so he starts out by stopping at a farmer’s co-op store to see if they have empty five-gallon buckets, the kind farmers would buy their hydraulic fluid for their tractors in. Lyle passes it off as he needs them to store odds and end in, though, to be honest, using buckets that big for nuts and bolts—he specifically names these as some of the things he wants to put in them—is a little silly. A five-gallon bucket of nuts and bolts would be heavy.
Anyway, the kid who’s working the counter goes to the back to “look” for the buckets, but really tells the manager what’s going on. To me, it makes sense that they’d be on the lookout for that kind of thing, since they’re good material for a lab. While the manager makes sure he knows what Lyle wants, the kid goes out into the store.
Lyle doesn’t pay him much attention, and what he doesn’t know, but will figure out later, is that the kid was getting his license plate number. To Lyle, it’ll look as though the kid wasn’t sure how to take care of his request and got the manager, who then helped Lyle out. Once he leaves the store, the manager will call the cops and report what happened.
All of this will play into him being pulled over later—by the same cop who originally arrested him for cooking meth in the backseat of his car. This cop will be a sheriff’s deputy who takes his job seriously. He’s a good cop, but in this case he’s causing complications for Lyle. And since Lyle is working undercover for the task force, he can’t just tell the deputy what he’s up to, and the cop will keep a lookout for him through a lot of the rest of the book, maybe even through all the books. Since I write seat-of-the-pants, I can’t say for sure. I doubt I’ll use it through all the books because it’ll get stale after a while.
Now, is this on a par with Mr. Connelly? Not really. Not in my mind, at least. But it’s getting there. The kid going out into the store looks like sense of place. It is sense of place. But it’s also part of a developing subplot.
So, while I’m not making any claims to being as good as Michael Connelly, I am learning from him and hope to get close. I can’t pull off some of the things he does, because I’m not writing mysteries, where minute clues are more important than in a straight-up crime novel.
But I’m going to do my best to take his methods and adapt them, because I want my books to be more than just garden variety crime novels. I want you to care for the characters, for them to have real issues outside of the plotline, things that will get you involved in their lives for more than just the stuff they pull off through the course of the story. That I picked up from reading Robert Crais. Working minute details is something I’m soaking up from Michael Connelly.
So, even though in a way it seems like a guilty pleasure, don’t neglect your reading, because you never know what you’ll get out of it. And be able to put into your own stories.