Sunday, August 1, 2010

It's a Hard Knock Life For Us*

What’s it like to be a writer? Have you ever thought about becoming an author? Many people see it as a glamorous life and, of course, there are some best-selling and very famous authors who seem to have “it all.” But for most authors, that’s not reality. Writing is hard work, and the realities of writing, getting published, and promoting are not nearly as exotic and thrilling as they may seem. Trust me. But don’t take my word for what to keep in mind if you want to write. Crime fiction has lots of lessons to teach writers and aspiring writers.

It's Important to Do Your Research...

That’s one lesson we learn from Agatha Christie’s fictional author Ariadne Oliver. In Cards on the Table, she and three other sleuths (including Hercule Poirot) are invited to a strange dinner by a very eccentric host, Mr. Shaitana. Also invited are four other very interesting guests; they are all people whom Mr. Shaitana claims have gotten away with committing a murder. After dinner, while everyone is playing bridge, someone stabs Mr. Shaitana. The only possible suspects are those four successful murderers, so Oliver, Poirot, Colonel Race and Superintendent Battle work together to find out who committed the crime. At one point in the novel, Oliver gets a visit from Rhoda Dawes, the roommate of one of the suspects. Rhoda’s a fan of Mrs. Oliver’s and is excited to meet her idol, but when she arrives, Mrs. Oliver is in a state of some consternation. The reason, as Mrs. Oliver points out, is that:

“…that dreadful Finn of mine has got himself terribly tangled up. He did some awfully clever deduction with a dish of French beans and now he’s just detected deadly poison in the sage-and-onion stuffing of the Michaelmas goose, and I’ve just remembered that French beans are over by Michaelmas.

Now, Oliver has to try to revise her work so that it’s accurate, as well as help solve the mystery of Mr. Shaitana’s death. In the end, she provides some valuable assistance as Poirot finds out which of the suspects committed the murder.

…But be careful when you’re doing that research.

Harriet Vane finds that out in Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison. She’s a detective novelist who’s doing research on poisons including arsenic. So she’s gotten hold of some arsenic so she’ll be better-prepared to be accurate. That poison is part of what gets her in serious trouble when her former lover, Philip Boyes, dies of arsenic poisoning. Harriet’s the prime suspect and, in fact, she’s arrested and tried for the crime. The arsenic she’s been using for her research is part of the evidence against her and her prospects for an acquittal don’t look good. But Amanda Climpson, who’s on the jury, doesn’t believe that Harriet is guilty. Her reservations result in Harriet getting a new trial. That gives Miss Climpson’s friend Lord Peter Wimsey the time he needs to investigate the case and clear Harriet’s name.

In Joseph R.G. DeMarco’s Murder on Camac, that lesson comes too late for Helmut Brandt, an author who’s been doing research on the death of Pope John Paul I. He’s uncovered evidence that’s upset some very influential people within the Catholic Church. In fact, Brandt is aware of this threat, and calls private investigator Marco Fontana to ask Fontana to find out who’s trying to kill him. Before they can meet, though, Brandt is shot in what seems to be a mugging gone wrong. But Brandt’s partner Timothy Hollister thinks that Brandt was murdered, and asks Fontana to investigate. So Fontana sifts through the work that Brandt was doing to find out which of the enemies he was making killed him.

About those writing critique groups…

Critique groups and other writers’ support groups can be very helpful. Other writers can commiserate and can offer valuable input, support and ideas. But it’s a good idea to be very careful about the people in one’s group. For example, in Caroline Graham’s Written in Blood, we meet the members of the Midsomer Worthy Writers’ Circle. As the novel opens, this critique group is trying to decide whom to invite to address their group. It turns out that one of the members, Gerald Hadleigh, is acquainted with successful author Max Jannings. When the members of the Writers’ Circle find this out, they put pressure on Hadleigh to invite Jannings to speak. Hadleigh refuses at first, since he has good reason to hate Jannings, and doesn’t want the group to know about it. He finally agrees, all the while hoping that Jannings won’t accept the invitation. To Hadleigh’s dismay, though, Jannings agrees to speak to the group. On the night of his presentation, the group meets and holds a discussion about writing. Late that night, after the meeting is over and all of the group members have gone, Gerald Hadleigh is murdered. Now, Inspector Tom Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy have to unravel the complicated relationships among the members of the group to find out who killed Hadleigh and why.

Going to Writing Conferences…

One of the most important ways to promote oneself and to learn about writing is to attend writing conferences. Writers learn from each other, and it’s also very enjoyable to meet other authors, booklovers and of course, agents and publishers. But it’s also wise to be very careful at those conferences. For example, in Bill Crider’s A Romantic Way to Die, romance author Vernell Lindsey and cover model Terry Don Coslin arrange a romance writers’ conference in Clearview, Texas. When the large group of aspiring and published writers arrives, things get complicated for Sheriff Dan Rhodes. Then, Henrietta Bayam, one of the authors at the convention, is murdered. As Rhodes begins to investigate the murder, he finds out that Henrietta was writing a tell-all book about some of her fellow writers. So several of the other writers at the convention come under suspicion. Then, there’s another murder. Now, Rhodes has to uncover several of the attendees’ secrets to find out who committed the murders.

Getting Inspired…

Writers get their inspiration in lots of different ways, and those who aren’t writers can sometimes misunderstand that process. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air). In that novel, Madame Giselle, a well-known French moneylender, dies suddenly while she’s on a flight from Paris to London. At first, her death is put down to heart failure. Soon, though, it’s discovered that she was poisoned. Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same flight, works with Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp to find out which of Madame Giselle’s fellow passengers killed her. One of the passengers, Mr. Clancy, is a detective novelist who takes what Japp thinks is a suspicious interest in the investigation. It doesn’t help Mr. Clancy that during the flight, he had an easy opportunity to kill the victim and that he’s currently writing a novel that uses the same kind of murder weapon that the police think was used in this case. Mr. Clancy claims that he’s simply working on his novel, and is taking a professional, if you will, interest in the case, but Japp is still suspicious. Then, one evening, two of the other passengers on the ill-fated flight happen to notice Mr. Clancy at the same restaurant and decide to “play detective” and follow him to see if he might be the killer. They “tail” Mr. Clancy and see that he follows a very roundabout way home, all the while muttering to himself and otherwise behaving very oddly. They’re convinced he’s the killer until later, when he explains the truth about that late-night walk: he was hashing out the plot of his story. In the end, Poirot finds out who really killed Madame Giselle and is able to help Japp put Clancy’s behavior in perspective.

As you can see, the life of a writer isn’t always as glamorous – or as safe – as it seems. But I wouldn't have it any other way ; ). Have you read novels that share these kinds of details about the writing life? Which ones have you enjoyed? Still think the writing life might be a good one? ; )

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin's Hard Knock Life.


  1. Wow! You provide great tips and wonderful examples. I especially like the Writing Convention section.

    Great post!

  2. Love this post! Who knew how dangerous and exciting our life could be?!

  3. Chary - Thank you! Yes, those writers' conventions can certainly be eventful - and dangerous ; ).

    Elizabeth - Thanks! : ). Isn't it interesting that our lives can be just as exciting as anything that happens to our characters.. ; )

  4. All I can say is that I like your posts very much Margot. They are always very interesting.

  5. Jose Ignacio - Thank you! How very kind of you : ).

  6. Before I started blogging I never thought about all the hard work that goes into writing a book. Now I appreciate each book that much more because while there may be some glamor to being an author there is also a lot of hard work. Great post as always.

    Thoughts in Progress

  7. Mason - Thank you : ). Writing is a lot of work, but there is a lot of fulfillment in it, too. And terrific book bloggers like yourself make it that much more rewarding : ).

  8. Someone else said it, but it's worth repeating: you provide great examples and much food for thought.

  9. John - Thank you : ). That's awfully kind of you : ).

  10. I love the TV series "Castle" but at first it made me crazy.

    Castle is a rich, handsome, outgoing mystery novelist with tons of women after him... Please!

    They make it seem like the life of a mystery novelist is filled with adventure and non-stop parties and recognition.


    What amuses me is that the show has real writers as guest stars. Writers such as Stephen J. Cannell, James Patterson, and Michael Connelly. The sad thing is, even though I've heard of the men, I can't tell who's who. They obviously don't get the famed life that the show portrays.

    The life of a writer is more like hard work, more hard work, rejection and solitude.

    Interesting post as always.


  11. I have just finished my first novel, and am now embarking on the second. The second is going to be harder for me, (as if the first wasn't hard enough), because I am moving it to the US. I have to research an area I do not know at all. It should be fun. :)

  12. Please notice when there's a TV series with a male mystery writer solving real life crimes, he looks like Castle, is a charmer and all-round good guy. When it's a woman it's Jessica Fletcher. Nothing against Jessica, of course, but geez.

    I'm not sure the writing life is a good one, but I don't think I'm capable of doing anything else!

  13. oh man oh man - I wrote a nice juicy reply and my computer ate it or the internet did. The pixies must be about.
    I love being a writer - a starving unpublished one even. I chose this and I think it is so much less scary than being a kindergarden teacher or a flight engineer or even a security guard in a mall.
    I really liked that Wimsey when he first meets Harriet - so good - I must go back and read them all. And Martha Grimes has a funny woman writer that lives in the little village but I, alas alack, cannot remember her name. You probably can because YOU ARE A WONDER! You pack so much great stuff in every blog. I'm gobsmacked. Thank you! Jan Morrison

  14. Clarissa - It's funny; you're actually the second person who's asked me about Castle. I admit I haven't watched it, but yes, the premise is not something I think of as realistic. I don't know any writers - at all - who live that kind of life. Maybe I just don't get out enough ; ). And yes, hard work, hard work, hard work - that's writing.

    Glynis - I admire you! I haven't yet tried setting any of my novels anywhere but areas where I've been and have a sense of the place. I really think it's wonderful that you can do that. I look forward to reading what you write.

    Elspeth - Now that's profound! I hadn't thought of that gender difference in the portrayal of a writer. Hm..... I gotta agree with you about the connotations. And I don't know what other kind of life I'd want, either. Unless Billy Joel comes calling ; )

    Jan - Awwww....that's so kind of you : ). I know what you mean; I love being a writer, too, and there really are awfully scary jobs out there. I think about that a lot. Even my "day job" has its moments. And I agree - Dorothy Sayers was a truly gifted writer who really did an outstanding, outstanding job with Wimsey and Harriet. She really did show some of the things that Harriet went through as a writer.

    And I'm sorry the blog pixies got you. They do that to me, too..

    Patti - *blush* Thank you : )

  15. What a great example with the French beans!

    I thought my own work was near-perfect when I let my older daughter read it, but what did she find: a girl who rode on a man´s bike 100 years ago. Never encourage your children to think, they´ll just end up laughing at you ;D

  16. Dorte - Thank you : ). And I had to laugh out loud at what happened when your daughter read your work. How funny!!! Yes, the only trouble with teaching children to think for themselves is... they do!