Thursday, October 27, 2022

August was PI Immersion Month. What Did I Learn?

 I want to try something different with the Penns River series, which will require time to research if I am to do it justice. I also have a couple of stories I’ve been wanting to write about my Chicago-based professional investigator, Nick Forte. No thought needed, right? Write a PI novel.


Easier said than done. I had an outline I liked, fleshed it out, and got to work, but things weren’t jelling as they had been for the Penns River books. The writing didn’t flow and the voice wasn’t what I wanted.  I considered re-reading a couple of Forte novels until it occurred to me that I should read someone good instead.


I dedicated the month of August to reading nothing but PI novels. The list included Ace Atkins (writing a Spenser novel), James Lee Burke, Reed Farrel Coleman, Robert Crais, Dashiell Hammett, Declan Hughes, Dennis Lehane, John McFetridge, Bill Rapp, and Mickey Spillane. (I’d read James Crumley and Robert B. Parker only a few months ago; I did not read any Raymond Chandler for reasons I’ll go into later.)


Here are the primary takeaways:

·       I had forgotten how much I love PI stories. This exercise reminded me of that.

·       Elmore Leonard didn’t write PI fiction, but good PI fiction holds one of his rules in high regard. Very little of what I read sounded like writing. The best PI fiction is a conversation, albeit one-sided, between the narrator PI and the reader.

·       First person is the preferred point of view for a good reason. Not only does it work best as a conversation, it allows the narrator’s mind to wander without sounding too much like an authorial intrusion. After all, he is the author.

·       Along these lines, define the protagonist by what he notices and passes onto the reader. Or doesn’t.

·       Wise-ass comments and snark in narrative and description are not only allowable, they’re desirable, assuming the observations are in character for the detective. (They are in Forte’s case.)

·       A lot of things have to happen off-stage. One person can’t know as much as an entire police department, no matter how small the department.

·       Real-life detectives have no more privileges than you or I, but half the fun of writing PIs is letting him get away with things. Within reason.

·       Even though the reader lives in the narrator’s head, dialog still carries the story. I was bogged down writing a chapter in which Forte interacted with no one. The chapter dragged on to the point where I made a few notes and left it for the rewrite. A couple of weeks ago I figured a way to insert more dialog and rewrote it. The chapter still needs work, but it’s much better, and tighter.


I’m sure a couple of questions came to mind as you read the above:


1. Where are the woman writers?

With a couple of exceptions, I specifically picked authors whose voices, at least in their PI fiction, were similar to, or had affected, mine. Laura Lippmann, Sue Grafton, and Sara Paretzky are great writers, but not indicative of Forte’s voice. That’s no slight to the talent of those, and other, women. They just weren’t what I needed at the time.


2. Where’s Raymond Chandler? (I told you I’d get to him.)

Chandler is, as much as any single writer, the reason I wanted to write these kinds of stories. Over time my tastes have evolved toward the leaner writing of Hammett. I noticed this even as I was reading the impressive list of authors above. There were times when the back of my mind wished they would just get on with it.


So what’s the end result? Even if I had learned nothing, I had a ball during what was a difficult month for me. (Covid and post-infection fatigue kept me pretty much housebound for the month.) I will work more PI fiction into my reading regimen as time goes on. Most important, this exercise reminded me of why I love to read and write PI stories, much as a brief stint in a local concert band rekindled my love of playing the trumpet by reminding me why I wanted to be a musician in the first place.


It also put this book back on track. It will be different from the earlier Forte efforts in many ways, but that’s a good thing. A series either evolves or becomes stagnant. No one can say in advance how any evolution will work out, but at least I know now it won’t be stagnant.

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