|Taking a windblown break from writing
By John C. Sheldon, AKA: Gayle Lynds’s domestic accomplice and occasional co-author
What’s it like to live with a thriller writer? I’ll tell you, but first, let’s clarify: does the question ask what it’s like to live with a thriller writer, or does it ask what it’s like to live with a thriller writer?
Answer #1 is easy: it’s fun. Well maybe not all the time—not, for example, when an editor’s deadline looms and said writer is pulling all-nighters. And not when she’s trying out the new garrote she just got from Amazon, on my neck. In the middle of the night (as required by her plot). Or accidentally blowing up the garage with the C-4 she got from the Army-Navy surplus store downtown. (Just kidding—it was only dynamite.) But otherwise it’s great. Especially when I get to read drafts and suggest ever more clever ways to grease the bad guys.
Option #2—what’s it like to live with a thriller writer?—involves a more complicated answer. The reason is that I’m a writer too.
I usually write legal stuff. Want to know the difference between res judicata and collateral estoppel? How about a city’s liability for negligence under the Maine Tort ClaimsAct?
Not interested? Of course not, because there’s no plot, no characters, no excitement. So when Gayle and I first worked on a story together—for an anthology to which she’d been invited to contribute—I had to learn to write fiction.
|Now we’re on the backhoe. Will we ever finish the story?
I’d never done fiction. Fiction, as far as I knew, was all about, well, making it up by yourself. But all I’d ever written about (since college) was law, and in the law, everything’s about precedent. You want your client to win, you gotta show there’s precedent for it. If there isn’t precedent for your argument you’re in trouble; if your argument is brand, spanking never-heard-of-before you’re looking at a malpractice suit.
Fiction, of course, is the opposite: avoid all precedent, eschew everything you’ve ever read. Retired CIA agent who prefers to tend his begonias but is reactivated to combat an unprecedented enemy? Forget it—more common than trucks on the N.J. Turnpike. Wanna try the road less taken? Forget it—“less taken” means “already been taken,” and you’re angling for pink slips and charges of plagiarism. It’s gotta be the road never travelled by anyone before, and even better, never thought of before.
That means inventing a “plot.” I didn’t know how to “plot.” With legal stuff the plot’s a virtual given. Consider O.J. We know the location, the characters and the evidence—Los Angeles, glamorous victim and defendant, the glove. The lawyers argue within the boundaries set by the characters and by the evidence that already exist. Not an ounce of thriller.
But in fiction, nothing exists until you invent it. You make up a story line: Woman stops at motel for the night. You imagine the characters: woman is a thief, has stolen money from her employer and is on the run, while the guy who manages the motel has (shhh—had?) a mother who abuses him. You mix in pizzazz: someone stabs the woman to death in the shower. Creepy, thrilling.
And stop to think about it: had anyone ever done that story line, with those characters, with that particular pizzazz before? And would anyone ever use those things again?
|Meriwether Lewis asking directions.
Now you understand why, when asked to do fiction for the first time, I felt like Meriwether Lewis, out there in the frontier with no map, no roads, no paths even—no idea where I was going or what I’d find if I ever got there.
Talk about feeding my insecurities. When Gayle and I did that first short story I needed reassurance, so we agreed that the bad guy should be a judge. We set it in Lewiston, Maine—somewhere I knew. The good guy was a prosecutor—something I’d been. The story worked, and I’d successfully groped my way a couple of hundred feet into fiction’s wilderness.
A few more stories and we got more adventurous. The most recent one takes place among the grottoes of an island and involves a time warp.
A time warp. Think I learned that in law school? Think my next submission to the Maine Law Review will involve a time warp?
Precedent, I disown you. From now on it’s Gayle and me and Meriwether Lewis. We’re heading back to where thrills flourish.
P.S. In case you’re interested, our short stories are “A Card for Mother,” in Ice Cold; “A Triumph of Logic,” in A Study in Sherlock; and “Time & Tide,” The X-Files: Trust No One.
Who are the thrilling people in your life? Please leave a comment and tell us!