If you’re a seasoned author, you get asked the same questions by non-writers. If you’re a beginning author and haven’t yet found your stride, sometimes you find yourself asking the same questions. It’s always beneficial, even for the most seasoned pro, to note how other craftsmen do things. I’m always learning. I think that’s why Killer Nashville is such an incredible experience for me every year. An interesting writer for me is Del Staecker who literally locked himself in an isolated Idaho cabin to write his first novel by longhand just because it was something he always wanted to do. From there, success followed. So here’s the questions Del might have asked back in those days and here also are the answers he gives from his seasoned hand. Experience is always the best teacher, unless you’ve got someone like Del and you’re willing to listen. Thanks Del for taking the time to share.
At readings, signings and other appearances, readers often ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” “How do you create characters?” and, “Do plots just come to you?” I encounter questions such as: “Where do your characters come from?” “Do you create profiles?” “What makes a character a good one?” and, “How do you make dialogue sound so real?”
I have not been trained to be an author. By that, I mean I have not received instruction through an MFA program, or writer’s seminars—formal or informal. For me, writing has come from a life of reading and personal experiences, and although I attended college and received an excellent education, I am a self-taught writer. Correction, I am more a storyteller than writer.
But let me share what I know about creating, developing, and (upon occasion) completing written works worthy of publication.
Q- Where do ideas come from?
A-I allow my memory to wander and my imagination to work. I jot down ideas and occasionally thumb through stacks of notes. If an idea has life—staying power—it jumps out of the pile and demands more thought. I have the beginning of a story, then the characters go their own way. For example, Tales of Tomasewski began when I imagined the experience of searching for a street hustler I knew many years ago. What the character and the person searching for him did is the story—it emerged from their actions.
Q-Are plots outlined?
A-Nothing is planned. I never know where the story is going. What happens is inexplicable and devoid of method. Strong characters extend good plots. When I began writing The Muted Mermaid, it was one story that grew into three books (Shaved Ice and Chocolate Soup being the other two parts). Tales of Tomasewski started as a single short story and grew into a novel. Subsequently, it has led to contracts for two additional books based on the lead character.
Q-Where do characters come from?
A-From life’s experiences. Each character is a person, or parts of a person, that I have met. Sometimes the traits from several persons blend into one character. Jake Thompson (aka Jan Tomasewski) is a blend of an acquaintance from my college years and many of the people I grew up with on Chicago’s Southside.
Q-What about constructing and using character profiles?
A-No. Characters are represented by their actions and their participation in the situations in which they are embroiled. In fact, the characters take off based upon their own energy, and as real personalities, they are finding their place in a particular universe. I believe the author’s imagination is a creator of that universe. More than once, I’ve awakened from a sound sleep to overhear their conversations. Occasionally, they talk to me.
Q-What is the secret to a good character?
A-They are engaged in activities that seem plausible for them, they exchange thoughts in believable dialogue with other good characters, and they perform deeds in settings that are a fit for them. If their conversations sound authentic and the settings seem real, then the characters are real to the reader.
Q-How is realism attained?
A-The characters do it all on their own. Once their universe exists, I am just a storyteller—an observer, a reporter, informing readers about the world the characters inhabit. My job is to get the description right.
Q-Getting back to profiles—what if a character “goes rogue?”
A-If they are real, then characters can be contradictory. In fact, at times they must be. Also, characters develop. Over time, we all change. Sometimes we grow, and sometimes we regress. Strict adherence to a profile would stifle the “real-ness” of a character. Remember, consistency can be boring. Granted, characters have recurring traits. Ledge Trabue’s quirky stomach and The Professor’s love of food are elements that are timeless and solid for them. Jake Thompson’s sarcasm is eternally his.
Q-How about killing a character?
A-One reader gushed, “I love how you kill people!” Telling that reader the truth was easy. I do not kill any characters. Simply, the characters do their thing. Characters are eliminated by other characters as action unfolds.
Q-What’s the key to writing believable dialogue?
A-Listen to the conversations that characters are having and simply repeat them. After letting things set for a while, I return to each dialogue and read it aloud. Listen as if you are there.
I hope I’ve been helpful in shedding some light on the writing process. My coming to the world of writing books for publication was based upon a lifetime of reading and experiencing life. I do not claim any special expertise, just love for a good story.
Del Staecker is an Executive committee member of the International Association of Crime Weriters, Chair of the 2014 Dashiell Hammett Prize Committee, and author of five crime thrillers. His Ledge Trabue trilogy, The Muted Mermaid, Shaved Ice and Chocolate Soup, is set in Nashville and New Orleans. Visit his website at www.delstaecker.com.
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