I caught up with an old friend the other night, an ex-journalist from my Atlanta days, and the conversation took its inevitable turn to the writing game. For both of us, journalism is a rapidly diminishing speck in the rear-view mirror. But the words still matter.
She’s writing poetry. I’m writing hard-boiled crime fiction. No matter. What was interesting to us both was how the same skills and fascination with words and how to make them dance is at the core of how we create in these very different writing forms.
For me, writing a novel isn’t that much different than writing the long-format journalism I practiced for much of my career. It is vastly different from the formulaic stuff I crank out now as a utility industry flak. But when I was in the journalism game, I used the tradecraft of literature to tell my stories and was mindful of the sound and texture of the words I used, the importance of mixing it up and changing the pace and the primacy of creating a vivid scene and giving voice to the people swept up in my story.
Writing a novel is little different. It’s bigger, there are more moving parts, but the things I deemed important when writing a Sunday takeout or a magazine piece are just as important to writing a damn good swashbuckling crime story.
I’m a junkie — addicted to the hard-boiled, noir masters. Hammett, Chandler, Cain. I revere writers such as Lawrence Block, James Ellroy, James Lee Burke and the late, great and vastly underappreciated James Crumley. I learned something by reading each of these guys. From Chandler, I learned the importance of dialogue and character development — plot seemed secondary to him.
Chandler also reinforced my existing belief in creating such an evocative sense of place that it becomes a character unto itself. So did Burke. To see what I’m talking about, pick up a book by either of these giants and see if they don’t make Los Angeles or the Cajun country of Louisiana leap from the pages. My novels are set in Texas and northern Mexico and I try to do the same. Check them out to see if I hit the mark.
From Crumley, whose hard-bitten novels are laced with sex, booze, drugs and violence, I learned the importance of being frank with the reader. My books are about revenge and redemption and are full of nasty folks doing bad things. It seems like an insult to shy away from a direct description of sex and violence — using euphemisms, such as a tarpon leaping out of the sea for the male orgasm, seemed like a cop-out. Crumley hits those topics head on, unblinking in his depiction of sex, violence, booze and drugs. I do the same — not to shock and titillate, but to tell a grim story as honestly as I can.
My old friend and I talked about writing. It was good for our souls.