When I teach, I like debunking the mythical dictates carved in the Styrofoam pillars supporting the shrine built to deify the Real Writer. (Picture the Lincoln Memorial, but it’s Ernest Hemingway up on that throne, fountain pen clenched in a fist as big as a Thanksgiving turkey.) There’s a reason, I point out, that novelists do not have to pass exams to practice their trade. Architects and sea captains, sure. Surgeons, you bet. Why not novelists? Simple: Our form of malpractice won’t kill anybody. The worst we can do is bore you silly, fail to suspend your disbelief, make you waste a little money. So we get to do this thing we do by whatever rules and rituals we devise.
Prominent among those dictates (close on the heels of Write every day) is Write what you know. Which holds true, admittedly, to the extent that every journey begins at home. But I like Grace Paley’s retort: “We don’t write about what we know; we write about what we don’t know about what we know.” Write what you want to know, and start out pretending you know a lot more than you do. Surmise, invent, and bluff your way through it as far as you can. Flex your imagination. Why else are you here?
One of the ancillary pleasures in writing fiction, however, is finding out stuff; “real” stuff; stuff you never knew before; stuff you need to know if the story you’re telling is to hold up as true. Curiosity is the apprentice to your imagination. Yet I have found that the longer I can put off my research, the stronger and tighter my stories are. This is personal, of course; maybe you, setting out to write the great modern Western, need to pack up and live as a Wyoming cowhand before you can write a single word. Herman Melville went on an honest-to-God whaling voyage — no luxury cruise — before sitting down to write Moby-Dick. I hasten to add that I am not writing historical fiction, so the broad context of my work is the world we live in now; nevertheless, I delve deeply into my characters’ personal histories, which means I’m facing history with a capital H. I may need to find out about, for instance, the rationing of farm equipment during World War II. (Wars of the last century have influenced the lives of my fictional people as dramatically as they have the lives of actual people.)
I won’t deny that laziness factors into my method. Years ago, I loved nothing more than a good excuse to roam the library stacks. Now, even heading down screen to Safari seems like a chore when all I want to do is hang around with my characters, eavesdrop on their secrets, and get them in trouble just to find out how they’ll endure (or not).
In every story, I challenge myself to create characters outside my know-it-all zone, but never arbitrarily. Though I may not understand why, I will have felt a deep curiosity to inhabit the psyche of a wildlife biologist, a pastry chef, a Guatemalan gardener, an elderly widower, a music critic, the devout Catholic mother of two gay sons, a cancer patient, a cellist, a lonely film star, an insolent young man bent on what he sees as constructive anarchy.
To know their passions, preoccupations, and afflictions, I have researched the infrastructure of wedding cakes, the culture of a 1960s summer camp for teenage musicians, the pathology and treatment of AIDS in the 1980s, the training of Border collies, the politics of water rights in the Southwest, the conservation of grizzly bears — but I began by writing from instinct and hearsay. The problem with doing research too soon is this: If I uncover too much captivating knowledge in advance, I cannot resist including it, nor can I tell when it dilutes or distracts from the story I’m trying to tell. If, on the other hand, I must pack it into the brimming suitcase of an existing story, only the pertinent details will fit. (The vast lore I uncovered on the variously eccentric traditions surrounding wedding confections was hard to leave behind, but because I was working to authenticate an existing scene, the narrative had only so much give.) The story must be the boss of the research, not the other way around.
I like doing my research live, using people as sources whenever I can. And sometimes those people find me. Years ago, while struggling to craft a character living with the after-effects of head trauma, after reading medical journals had left me more confused than informed, I was called for jury duty — where I happened to meet a stranger who In every story, I challenge myself to create characters outside my know-it-all zone, but never arbitrarily. had gone through an experience parallel to that of my character. I conducted some enormously fruitful “research” over lunch breaks from the courthouse.
Inevitably, you miss things. If you’re lucky, people who read your work early on catch those gaffes before it’s too late: the clam sauce with onions, the cello seated behind the flute; an idiom or a gadget or a popular song deployed before its time. Sometimes, however, alternative facts wind up in print. In Three Junes, I began by using memory and guesswork to describe the surroundings of a Scottish country home, an essential setting, knowing I’d fine-tune the details later. Several drafts later, I consulted a guide to British birding, overwriting my placeholder blue jays, robins, and cardinals with yellowhammers, chiffchaffs, and collared doves. Botanically, however, it turns out I wasn’t so thorough.
There I was, out on tour, closing my book after reading to a small audience, when a hand shot up, emphatically. “Excuse me,” said my questioner, “but please see page 117. It isn’t possible, you realize, for the women’s final at Wimbledon to fall within the month of June. And, on page 47, can you tell me what a dogwood tree is doing in Scotland? Dogwoods grow only in North America.” He was holding a copy of my book sprouting a thicket of Post-Its. He was my first of a certain kind of reader. I want to hug and slug these people at the very same time. They are, after all, devoted to the truth.
Okay, so he had me on Wimbledon — a necessary torquing of reality that I had hoped no one would notice. “But as for the dogwood,” I said, keeping my cool, “there were these American houseguests who, wanting to make a memorable impression on their Scottish hosts, and knowing how much they cherished their garden, smuggled a dogwood sapling in their luggage as a house present. The climate proved perfectly hospitable. The guests were invited back. Next time, they brought a pair of blue jays.”
History that downplays individual experience — that focuses exclusively on movements, economic forces, social developments, and the like — can be worthwhile and enlightening, but it’s never going to make very compelling reading for non-specialists. People are interested in people, so they like to see how the larger forces of history shape — and are shaped by — recognizable, specific persons with stories all their own. As a narrative historian, I therefore face a lot of the same challenges that a novelist does. I’ve got to find characters whose life histories will allow me to express what needs expressing, and who are in and of themselves fascinating to read about.
As a former fiction writer (or, as Walter Isaacson teasingly called me in the New York Times a few years ago, a “lapsed novelist”), I’ve seen the task from both perspectives, and I can tell you that the narrative historian has, in some ways, the harder job. Yes, we don’t face the yawning terror of the totally blank page every morning (that daily existential crisis), but we also don’t have the luxury of creating elements from whole cloth to add dimension to a dullish character or enliven a lagging plot. We can only draw on the raw material offered up by the historical record. Of course, many popular historians of the past had no qualms about inventing freely — details, dialogue, scenes — whenever the historical record was lacking, but the new school of narrative history insists on higher standards of scholarship. In other words, we can’t just make it up.
So when deciding on what characters to focus on in my books, I look for people who (A), were at the center of the important issues of the day, (B), were complex and interesting in their own right, and (C), were also well documented in the historical record. That last criterion is important. Memoirs, letters, newspaper interviews, diaries — any kind of account in which a participant in the drama tells what happened in human, on-the-ground terms — are critical for me, since they give me the concrete details I need to bring people and events to life. (Incidentally, since a lot of my main characters are colorful types who frequently wound up in court, transcripts of trial testimony have been particularly useful.)
Naturally, all of these documents can be as unreliable as any other sources in the record. Accounts are only as trustworthy as the people who give them, after all, so I find myself constantly having to judge how much to believe in any given source. Often I’ll talk about this decision-making process in the end-notes to my books, which I see as a kind of running commentary on how I used the historical record to create the book, for those who are interested in seeing how the sausage is made.
The three criteria I mentioned were important considerations when I chose the main characters around whom to base The Mirage Factory. William Mulholland, D.W. Griffith, and Aimee Semple McPherson were all central to the story I wanted to tell, representing the three forces — which you might shorthand as Water, Celluloid, and Spirituality — that allowed Los Angeles to grow up in a place where no big city has any right to be. They’re also intriguing, multidimensional people with character flaws as big as their talents. And they were all extremely well documented in the historical record. All three wrote autobiographies of a sort (although Mulholland’s was very short). Each left behind a fairly comprehensive archive. And as highly visible public figures, they were covered extensively (in McPherson’s case, one might say “obsessively”) by the local press in their lifetimes.
So narrative historians have definite limits on what they can do, particularly when telling stories that involve people for whom the historical record is skimpy or incomplete. That’s why I sometimes have to take a pass on a book idea that might seem irresistible at first glance. If the material isn’t there to give the characters and events the kind of texture and dimension required, the idea won’t work, no matter how interesting the story may be in outline. Fortunately, though — thanks to the hard work of archivists who keep developing more sophisticated ways of cataloguing and searching their collections — the amount of raw material available just keeps growing. It’s up to the narrative historian to choose wisely.
I love it when readers say to me, “After I finished your novel, I went straight to Google to figure out what was true and what was made up!” That’s exactly why historical fiction is my favorite genre: In a good story, I become immersed in a different time period with people I’d never meet otherwise, who are living through situations that are unimaginable today. After I’ve turned the last page, I’m eager to discover the nuggets of truth buried within the work of fiction.
My fictional characters are built around the framework of historical fact. Once I have an idea for a setting for my book — The Doll- house is set in the Barbizon Hotel for Women and The Address takes place in the Dakota apartment house — I do a deep dive into the research of the time period (1950s for The Dollhouse and 1880s for The Address, although they both feature contemporary plotlines as well). I read everything I can from that era, including newspapers, magazines, fiction, and nonfiction. I also interview experts, like architectural historians who specialize in the Gilded Age, or women who lived in the Barbizon Hotel for Women in the ’50s and ’60s.
That’s when the ideas start to pop. While researching The Dollhouse, I learned that when the Barbizon Hotel for Women was turned into luxury condos, a dozen or so long- time residents were moved into rent-controlled apartments on the same floor. Great set-up for a book, I thought.
I read a harrowing newspaper article from the 1950s about the rising heroin epidemic, which was often blamed on bebop jazz musicians. What a great contrast to the rarified world of the hotel, with its guests in pearls and white gloves, right? So in my plot, I sent one of my characters downtown, where she got mixed up with some seedy characters.
I used the same approach while working on The Address. I discovered that in the 1930s, a “lady managerette” ran the Dakota. That gave me the idea for one of my characters: a housekeeper named Sara Smythe who gets an unexpected promotion early in the novel.
In general, the characters in my stories are all fictional. That gives me room to play around with them, get them into and out of trouble, and not feel constrained by a true historical figure. Exceptions do occur, though. Nelly Bly, a fabulous reporter from the 1880s, makes a quick appearance in The Address. As a former journalist, I couldn’t resist. And both buildings were touched by famous, tragic figures. Sylvia Plath stayed at the Barbizon Hotel in 1953 and wrote about it in The Bell Jar, and John Lennon was murdered outside the Dakota in 1980.
In both those cases, I felt it was important to mention the association, but not linger there. For example, I set the modern-day timeline of The Address in 1985, when Strawberry Fields first opened, as a way to respectfully touch upon the tragedy without making it a major part of the story.
A couple of times I’ve had to slightly fudge dates of real events in order to make the story work. When that happens, I mention it in the author’s note at the end, where I also list many of the resources I relied upon. My hope is that readers will continue on in their journey to learn more about the past, and enjoy it as much as I did.
We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing!
Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking?
In the early morning, I consume coffee, turn on my computer, plant my butt in my desk chair in my home office, and let my cats get settled into their usual spots. I quickly check email and look at the headlines on a news site to see if the world has blown up outside my bubble. If I don’t need to duck for cover, I start working. I stay off social media until noon (that’s my plan, anyway). Each of my books has its own digital journal: it’s for stream of consciousness stuff, whatever’s on my mind. I open the journal for my current book and type like mad for a few minutes. It helps me discharge anything that’s weighing on me so I can move on. Then I open my manuscript and revise the last few pages I wrote the prior day, which leads into the new day’s work. For those days when the work just isn’t happening, I make deals with myself. Write for 45 minutes and get up and do something else for 15. Write until lunchtime and then do something else. Oddly, times of personal crisis are excellent writing periods for me because what better escape is there than to immerse yourself in a good book?
How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters?
I start by naming them. By going through that process, I think through their history, circumstances, and personalities. When was she born? What’s her ethnicity? What’s her birth order in the family? Was she raised in a traditional two-parent family or something else? Would her parents have selected a popular name of the era or something unique? Does she come from a modest background or is she well heeled? Does she later change her name or go by a nickname? Is her name evocative of who she is? The protagonist of my current series of suspense novels is Nan Vining. She’s rooted in tradition and family, so I named after her grandmother, Nanette. But she’s tough, so her nickname, “Nan,” is clipped and direct. I liked the surname Vining because it’s uncommon and has a lot of consonants, which for me makes a tougher sounding name than one with many vowels. Also, it evokes a vine, which is appropriate for Nan who’s tenacious and steady. Her name is a great fit for her, but I’ve changed names when a character has evolved and the name no longer works. Thank goodness for “Find and Replace.”
Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author?
I fell in love with writing and reading before I really learned how to do either one. When I was about four years old, I could write my name, with the Ns backward, and three words: yes, no, zoo. My mom was a reader and I was fascinated with her books. I’d look through the pages and pick out the few words I could read. When I got to the white area after a chapter break, I thought that space was there for me to finish the story. I’d take a crayon and have at it, writing, “yes, no, zoo,” and signing my name with backward Ns. It didn’t make my mom too happy to find me scribbling in her books. After I truly learned how to read and write, I wrote compulsively—letters, diaries, stories—but didn’t attempt to publish anything. I didn’t feel I was good enough. Many years later, I took a creative writing class at UCLA, where I started my first novel. After three years, while working fulltime at a day job, I finished that book and got it published. I’ve been writing and publishing fiction ever since.
What’s the best piece of advice you have received?
Finish that first draft, even if it’s a big, flawed mess. And then the next best piece of advice I’ve received comes into play: Writing is about rewriting.
What are the perks and challenges of writing a come-back character?
Five years passed between my last Detective Nan Vining thriller and my latest one, Killing Secrets.
During that time, I wrote a standalone, The Night Visitor,
and several short stories. The challenge in returning to the Nan Vining series came from reconnecting with the four earlier books and wondering whether I could still channel the writer who had created that vibrant world. I was afraid I’d somehow lost my feel for Nan, her daughter Emily, her work partner and lover Jim Kissick, and the other characters as well as the dark thread that runs through the series. My doubts disappeared when I started Killing Secrets
and it felt entirely natural, as if I’d come home. It felt great to return to this familiar tableau, but also to break new ground. I’ve just signed a contract with Alibi to write the sixth and seventh in the Nan Vining series and I’m excited to see where the journey takes the characters and me.
Read More about Killing Secrets here