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By H. P. Oliver
Fellow writer and Twitter friend E. M. Wynter is participating in a writer's blog hop, and she has tapped me on the shoulder. "Tag, you're it," says she, thus challenging me to answer four questions about what and how I write. Being one who seldom keeps my opinions to myself, even when I would be well-advised to do so, I have responded to Ms. Wynter's challenge below.
Question #1: What are you writing?
This question comes at a particularly opportune time because my current project is one I've been thinking about for quite a while--one of those stories that simmers on the back burner until you just gotta write it. Well, the pot finally reached the boiling point and it was time to put pen to paper, or in these enlightened days, pixels to monitor.
The story is a silent film era mystery set against the making of the motion picture Wings. I felt such a tale has a lot going for it because Wings is one of the better known silent films staring one of the best known and most colorful silent film stars, Clara Bow. Moreover, Paramount (Famous-Lasky) Studios made Wings such an epic film that it won the very first Academy Award for best picture. Plus, it was the first major film directed by a man who was destined to become one of Hollywood's best, William Wellman.
With a glittering historical setting like that, a well-spun yarn with some devious plot twists can't help but thrill readers. That is, he said with a grin, assuming the writer is up to the task.
Question #2: How does your current project differ from your last?
On the surface, my new Wings story may not seem much different from my last project. After all, I write historical fiction of the sort I call "mysteries in history," and so all of my stories have that genre' in common. My last story, for example, was Revolver, the second novel in a series featuring a Hollywood detective who goes by the moniker of Johnny Spicer.
The Spicer series is set during a period starting in the late-1930s and extending on into World War II. Being a Hollywood detective, Spicer's cases, particularly the one he takes on in Revolver, involve the motion picture industry. Despite these similarities, however, there are many subtle but very significant differences between my current project and Revolver.
For one, the stories' protagonists are quite different in background and personality, and because I write in a first-person narrative style, those differences must be clearly reflected in their manners of speaking, as well as in they way they deal with the world around them. Where Johnny Spicer's wisecracking, streetwise narratives are informal and full of popular slang, the principal character in my current story is a writer who tells his story in the more formal fashion of a well-educated man living in the 1920s.
Another big difference has to do with the technologies of the eras in which the stories are set. In the 1920s many of the conveniences taken for granted a decade later were still new and in their earliest evolutionary stages. Advancements such as telephones, automobiles, commercial travel, and broadcast radio were far less sophisticated in the '20s than they would become by the late-1930s, and that lack of sophistication must be made apparent to modern readers for them to have a clear picture of the era.
The same applies to the physical settings of the times. The styles of architecture, for example, were quite different-deco had become extreme streamline moderne by the late-'30s. Then, too, societal moralities changed significantly between the 1920s and 1930s. My favorite example of how this element can mess a writer up if he/she isn't paying attention occurred during the writing of an earlier silent film era story Silents. In that story I had a couple of folks casually strolling into a bar for cocktails. Two chapters later it finally dawned on me that those people could not have walked into a bar for drinks during the 1920s because prohibition was the law of the land. Wake up, H. P.!
These differences in characters, technologies, and settings are especially important to my style of writing because I immerse readers in the color of the periods in which my stories are set. I want you, as a reader, to actually feel yourself moving backward in time to a different era. That won't happen if I don't get the details right.
Question #3: Why do you write?
First, I have learned during thirty-plus years of earning my daily bread as a wordsmith that writing is what I do best. Like the man said, "Don't mess with success."
Beyond that, writing also adds variety to my life, and I thrive on variety. By variety, I mean I typically spend several months in a particular era, industry, and/or locale, and then it's on to something entirely different. It's darn difficult to get bored when your job constantly offers new worlds to explore.
Along the same lines, I love history, particularly the period between world wars. To me, having a job that involves researching the past is like being a kid with a pocketful of nickels in a candy store.
Lastly, I write because I get a tremendous sense of accomplishment out of telling a good story. That's what we do, you know. Fiction writers are storytellers, plain and simple. Add to this the terrific reward we receive every time a reader says something like, "I loved your last book! I couldn't put it down!" You just can't beat a payoff like that.
Question #4: What is your writing process?
Give me a nickel for every time a new writer has asked me some variation of that question and I could retire to Tahiti. The thing is, writing techniques are as personal as your choice of underwear. Put another way, what works for me would probably leave another writer scratching his/her head and wondering how I ever get a word on paper.
Also a writer's writing "process" evolves with experience. I can still recall the frustration of trying to write the way my college professors told me I should write. It wasn't until I took the immortal words of George Bernard Shaw ("Those who can, do; those who can't, teach.") to heart that I found my way and the frustrations ended.
So, having said all that, I now offer you a list of writing points that somewhat define my writing process. Make of them what you will.
> Fiction writing is storytelling. The telling of the story supersedes all else.
> The story is in my head. If I pay attention, it will eagerly tell itself.
> Outlines are distractions that ruin good tales by becoming more important than the story they are supposed to help tell.
> Draft number one gets the basic story down on paper. Draft two is where "style" begins to show itself.
> Unless you're being paid by the word, be succinct.
> Write sentences that flow smoothly from one word to the next. Test this by reading aloud. If you stumble, rewrite.
> Connotations are the subtle shades of your palate. Choosing the best word to convey the image in your head is the greatest art of the writer.
> There is no such thing as "writer's block." If the words don't come, you're trying too hard.
> I spend a lot of time getting to know the people in my stories. If I don't love or hate them, readers won't either.
> Use a proofreader? Absolutely! Use an editor? Absolutely NOT! What the hell does an editor know about writing or the story I'm telling? In most cases, damned little.
Now, if you're a new writer trying to learn the craft, forget all of the above and figure it out for yourself.