Archive for the ‘Boundary Waters’ Category

When You Make Mistakes #@!

Monday, August 9th, 2010

Every good author does research to make sure the facts are right.  But sometimes mistakes occur.  More often than not they’re just stupid errors, things we think we know, so why look them up?  Or continuity errors—we start with a particular make of automobile in a scene and somewhere along the line change our minds and don’t catch the shift from a Camaro to a Mustang.  Until astute readers call our attention to the faux pas.

Examples from my own work:

In my second novel, Boundary Waters, the opening scene has a man deep in the wilderness of northern Minnesota holding a burning stick from a beech tree.  Why a beech tree?  I wanted the stick to be a particularly hard wood, so I chose beech.  I’ve seen beech trees in Minnesota, so I figured I was on solid ground.  The book comes out, and immediately I get an email that praises the story but very clearly points out that there are NO BEECH TREES IN NORTHERN MINNESOTA!  Not true, I think, and consult my Minnesota tree handbook.  Where it states emphatically that there ARE beech trees in Minnesota, but none north of a line running approximately through the middle of the state.  Crap.

In Red Knife, I committed two egregious errors, caught by many readers.  The first involves a statement by a character in which he quotes a famous Southern commander in the Civil War.  The statement is one we’ve all heard.  To win a battle the bottom line is that you have to get there “the firstest with the mostest.”  I’ve known that line since the 6th grade and I know it’s attributed to Nathan Bedford Forrest.  In Red Knife, however, off the top of my head, I gave credit to Jeb Stuart.  Man, do I get a lot of email about that one.  But that’s not all.  There’s a significant continuity error in a scene that’s only recently been pointed out to me.  In a climactic confrontation between the Ojibwe and some very bad drug runners, an important gun magically morphs from a Beretta to a Glock in the course of a couple of pages.

One of the funniest errors deals with chronology.  In one of the books, Stevie, Cork’s son, begins the story in the third grade.  Near the end, he’s in the second grade.  Stevie’s a bright kid, so the fault isn’t his.  Just a stumble from the guy who created him.

All authors make mistakes.  We’re working on such a large and complex scale in our thinking that sometimes we err in the small stuff.  Or we hope that it’s only in the small stuff.  But even these errors are embarrassing and unfortunate, because any error, no matter how small, can pull a reader out of the story.  And no writer wants that.

If you find an mistake in my work, I don’t mind that you write me and point it out.  Just don’t gloat, okay?

Suspense vs. Violence

Monday, July 27th, 2009

Back to the journey and to my final blog on Boundary Waters.

Tony Hillerman is, of course, one of the major reasons I write what I write.  He was one of the first mystery authors I discovered.  I confess that before I began to write mysteries, I didn’t really read them.  My father was a high school English teacher and I was raised on literature with a capital L.  Like many people who don’t read in the genre, I came to it with a lot of preconceived, ill-conceived notions about the quality of the work, about the formulaic nature of the storylines, about the thinness of the characters.  Hillerman opened my eyes.  I discovered an author who was, first and foremost, a fine writer.  His work had a great sense of place, finely drawn and compelling characters, and the Navajo cultural element was fascinating.

My only complaint about Hillerman’s work was that it was, generally speaking, tame.  Very seldom was there any overt violence, at least in the early work.  There was suspense, to be sure, but Leaphorn and Chee were seldom in danger or threatened in a visceral way.  And I wanted them to be.  I wanted something violent, I admit.  Something that would kick up the action.  Though I’m not the kind of guy who likes watching movies just because there are lots of pyrotechnics and flying bodies, I don’t mind a good gun battle or a knockdown drag out now and then.  And the threat of physical violence almost always intensifies the suspense.

So when I wrote Boundary Waters, which was going to be an exploration of suspense in all its forms, I wrote what I now realize was a very violent book.  The body count is fairly high and the deaths fairly graphic (though in my own defense, I don’t believe I linger on the graphic).  I wonder now, in my re-reading of the work, if this was necessary.  The violence and the deaths are all integral to the plot, but does suspense have to be so much about people in danger?

I occasionally teach workshops about suspense, and what I’ve learned over the years and try to communicate to my students is that suspense is created in many different ways, not just by putting someone’s life or safety on the line.  Suspense is simply establishing a situation in which the outcome is uncertain.  Conflict, for example, is suspense: two forces in opposition, and who will win?  Antagonist vs. protagonist.  Corrupt cops vs. righteous hero.  Even, and this is one of my faves, a character involved in a situation in which two parts of his or her nature are at odds.  You create suspense not only by posing a threat, but by asking a question and delaying the answer, by raising a concern and delaying the addressing of that concern.  And it’s in the delay, the time between posing the threat and resolving it, between asking the question and answering it, between putting two forces in opposition and declaring a winner that suspense occurs.

That said, the most intense read, I believe, involves the ultimate threat: Someone will die.  The stakes can’t be any higher.  The heroine or hero has to find answers, has to act before the ax falls.  This is still my favorite form of suspense, the kind that really gets my gut taut.  I love to read it and I will probably always include it as an element of the suspense I create in my own work.

I’ve noticed that, generally speaking, I’ve toned down the violence of my books since Boundary Waters, with two notable exceptions.  The Devil’s Bed is violent.  But it’s a stand-alone thriller, not a mystery, and is a different kind of ballgame.  The other exception is last year’s release in the Cork O’Connor series, Red Knife.  But it’s a book about violence, a book that suggests some observations about our violent nature as a culture.

Okay, so Boundary Waters has a high body count.  And some people may find that objectionable.  On the other hand, it’s a whale of a good read, and a book I’m very proud to have my name on.

Next up: Purgatory Ridge.

A Hell of a Ride

Monday, July 20th, 2009

Dandy-LoinBoundary Waters was the second book in a two-book contract that included Iron Lake. When Pocket Books (now Atria Books, a division of Simon and Schuster) bought the books, they knew nothing about the second book.  I didn’t even have a title for it, only a vague idea.

Contractually I was obligated at some point to supply my editor with a synopsis of the second manuscript.  When I did that, I sent copies of the synopsis to both my editor and my agent on the same day.  A week later, I got a call from editor and my agent on the same day, both saying the same thing:  Eek, this isn’t Iron Lake!

I explained to them that I’d written Iron Lake and that I wanted to write a different kind of book this time.  I explained to them about my desire to explore the element of suspense in order to understand it.  From the tone of their voices, I knew they weren’t entirely convinced.

So I wrote the second book under a cloud of doubt.

In re-reading Boundary Waters, I can see what a complex plot is involved, something that has now become part of the gestalt of a Cork O’Connor novel.  I remember how hard it was to work through all the elements that needed to come together in that story.  There are contract killers, uncertain paternity issues in high places, dark forces at work from the outside world, secrets that crawl out of the past.  There is a boy being brought into manhood in a bloody, dramatic way.  And there’s Cork O’Connor and his family trying see to the threads that hold them all together.

It was Boundary Waters that helped me discover my process.  I thought that book through from beginning to end before I set pen to paper, so that I would understand the complexities of the design and see how the whole tapestry.  I outlined it chapter by chapter.  And when I wrote it, I knew where I was going.  That helped immensely, and it has been the way I’ve written most of the books in the series.

Readers who know the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness often write to tell me that they believe I’ve captured the setting well.  And they almost always ask why I haven’t used real locations.  My answer is simple: I wanted the story free of geographic reality so that I could move the action in whatever way was necessary.  But I also wanted the essence of the Boundary Waters to be there, to be true to all the senses.

I’m glad I stuck to my guns, paid little attention to the fears of my agent and editor, and wrote the book I wanted to write.  I’m enjoying immensely my re-reading of it, and although I know the story from beginning to end, I find myself racing along, rapidly turning those pages to find out what happens next.  It’s like getting on a roller coaster I’ve ridden before.  I know the twists and turns, but it’s still a hell of a ride.

The Darkness of My Imagination…And Yours

Friday, July 17th, 2009

Gooseberry-fallsBoundary Waters opens with a scene many readers consider horrific.

A man—a good man, a strong old Ojibwe—is being tortured for information that, in the end, he refuses to give.  Some readers can’t get past that opening.  But what I point out to them is that nothing graphically violent happens in the opening scene.  In fact, much of it is spent simply paying homage to the integrity of the old Ojibwe, homage paid by the man responsible for the brutality.  What this indicates is an important lesson to me as an author—that readers imagine far better than I write.

This second book in the Cork O’Connor series was always meant to be an exploration of suspense, pure and simple.  Many people had told me they found Iron Lake to be a suspenseful novel.  Although this pleased me, the truth is that it was suspenseful largely by accident.  I didn’t really know what I was doing.  But if people were going to call me an author of suspense, I figured I ought to know what it was all about.  So I set out to learn.  How do you create suspense?  How do you heighten suspense?  How long do you hold the reader in suspense before delivering the payoff?  From that taut opening scene, until the final confrontation of good and evil near the end, I tried to create a novel that would twist a reader’s gut with anxiety and terrible anticipation.

It was meant as well to be a showcase for that extraordinary region in northern Minnesota called the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness—two million acres of forest and fast streams and crystal clear lakes, all of it accessible only in the way of the Voyageurs and the early Ojibwe—by canoe.

RelaxationAnd finally, I wanted to approach the Ojibwe culture from another perspective: their marvelous stories.  The Anishinaabeg are an oral people.  Stories are the way they’ve passed their heritage, their knowledge, their wisdom down generation after generation.  Yet I didn’t want to trespass.  I didn’t want to steal their stories for my own purposes.  Instead, I created my own tales in the style of the Ojibwe storytellers, which proved to be a great challenge and, in the end, a wonderful experience.

I begin this part of the journey thinking about that first scene, horrific or not, which wasn’t the original opening of the book.  What is now the second chapter was the original opening.  It’s a fine chapter, full of quiet menace, but it just didn’t pop.

The current opening came to me this way.  I was at the first and only national Sisters In Crime mystery conference, which was held in Houston, Texas, in, I believe, 1996 or 1997.  I was sitting at the back of the room during a not particularly interesting session, and this scene simply appeared to me.  Like a vision, honest to God.  Suddenly I wasn’t in that room; I was in the middle of the Minnesota wilderness, seeing a man strung between two trees, naked, and lit by the flames of a campfire.  And I heard the opening lines.

I whipped out my notebook, which I always carried, and before the session was over, I’d written that entire scene.  Horrific in what it suggested to a reader’s imagination, it was undeniably gripping.  The perfect opening, it seemed to me then.  And still does.

Sometimes the journey is like that.  The way is clear and the road rises to meet your feet.

But not always.  And I’ll talk about that next time.