Friday, January 27, 2012

Friday - How He Does It - Robert Hays

We all know there are six elements in writing fiction and often fact. Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. I believe the first five lead to the sixth which for me is the plot. What's your take on this?

I agree in general, but with a slight difference. In my years as a newspaper reporter and even more years teaching journalism, I’ve always emphasized the so-called “five Ws and an H.” When we report news—factual information—we often are describing events that already have happened. The city passed a stiff zoning ordinance. There was an accident and someone was hurt. These are the “who,” “what,” “when,” and “where.” The “why” and “how” may be unknown or they may be obvious. In either case, this leaves the emphasis on the first four elements. We strive to tell the reader these, clearly and concisely, right at the beginning. News reports often are one-time stories, so that we never come back to the “why” and “how.” We move on to new stories.

In writing fiction, on the other hand, we have ample time to develop characters and setting. These are the “who” (characters), the “when” and “where” (setting). The “what” could be part of either the setting or the plot, and the “why” and “how” are likely to be integral to the plot. The plot is how we get from the beginning to the end of our story, so that what happens to our characters and why, and how events affect their lives become the story.

1.How do you create your characters? Do you have a specific process?

This is an excellent question, and one I never really thought about before. I don’t have a specific process. I usually have the principal characters in mind when I start writing, then develop them as seems appropriate. I usually do not try to model a character on an actual person or persons, though they may be composites of more than one person I’ve known. The first real exception to this is a character in Blood on the Roses, FBI Agent Charlie Monroe. I wanted him to be a true Southern gentleman and I modeled him after my wife’s great uncle from Columbia, South Carolina. Everything Agent Wilson says or does, I hope, is reasonably close to the way Uncle Frank would have said it or done it and his physical description fits Uncle Frank (who passed away a good many years ago but is still remembered fondly).

2. Do your characters come before the plot? Do you sketch out your plot or do you let the characters develop the route to the end?

For me, characters and plot come hand-in-hand. That is, I know when I begin a story who the principal characters are and how the story is going to play out. Sometimes I find I need to add additional characters to help carry the story and flesh out the plot, but I normally expect these to be minor characters. I have been surprised, though, when a “minor” character I like becomes more significant than I had planned. For example, the character Mack Brown in Circles in the Water was added merely to facilitate the plot but became one of my favorite characters.

3. Do you know how the story will end before you begin? In a general way or a specific one?

I usually know precisely how the story will end. I write a beginning and an ending, then bring the two together. In my four novels, the only exception to this is The Baby River Angel. I knew in a general way how it would end, but I was well into the story before I decided to make Baby Angel a real angel. The alternative—because I wanted her to stay with her new family—would have required some sort of tragedy that separated her from her biological family and I wanted this to be a light-hearted story all the way.

4. Do you choose settings you know or do you have books of settings and plans of houses sitting around?

I’m more comfortable working in settings I know. But this often means researching a place that I haven’t visited for a long while to see how it’s changed. Or I may transport a detailed setting—a house or a room, for example—to a different location. I feel safe in generalizing settings like a cheap motel room or a school classroom, which I can assume will be pretty much the same wherever it is located. I want the reader to be able to “see” the setting very much as I see it. A friend who wrote in-depth personality profiles for the Washington Post carried a camera when he did his interviewing and snapped photos of the setting, then looked back at the pictures when he wrote to make sure he was describing the setting in accurate detail. My hope is to accomplish the same realism.

5. Where do you do your research? On line or from books?

Both. The Internet is a wonderful resource that allows us to visualize places virtually in a way that is almost as good as visiting them in person. I can get a street view of Paris or a bird’s-eye view of the Alps on my computer screen. However, when it comes to factual data, we have to be careful using Internet sources because we know they often are not reliable. Also, to get a true “feel,” I’m not comfortable until I read about a place or thing. This probably is essential if you are writing an historical novel, in which case I prefer contemporary sources as my reference. When I wanted authentic World War II combat detail for The Life and Death of Lizzie Morris, I turned to actual military battle reports from the U.S. Seventh Army invasion of Sicily and official U.S. Marine Corps histories of the war in Vietnam. As a former newspaper reporter, I enjoy getting into the newspaper library and studying contemporary accounts of events that may fit into my storylines.

Thanks very much for your great questions, and for giving me this opportunity.
Cheers, Robert


Charmaine Gordon said...

Thanks for your insight and sharing your experience, Robert. Janet does have a way with questions. Personally, I learned from today's blog but I'm the sponge ready and willing to soak up information.

Smoky said...

Great answers, Robert. I especially liked your answer to the first question. But you should have put a spoiler alert before your comment on The Baby River Angel--that part of the book took me by surprise, and it was delightful, being surprised!