Sunday, March 22, 2009

Too Close for Comfort?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne
http://www.clarelangleyhawthorne.com/


I was a little disconcerted when I read in my old local paper from Melbourne Australia, The Age, online about the weekend's shootings of four police officers in my current home town of Oakland, California. It wasn't the incident (tragic though it is) that was the cause of my disquiet- sadly Oakland is all too frequently associated with violence and crime these days - it was the fact that the news had travelled thousands of miles across the Pacific to become a headline there. No doubt we will have to fend off worried phone calls from family in Melbourne as they lament (as they always do) the current state of America...but it also reinforces the global reach of news these days and how fear, like tragedy, is imported day after day till it's firmly embedded in our psyche to the point that we become either overwhelmed or inured to it. This made me consider why I write what I write and what is for me 'too close for comfort'.

Why, for instance, do I write a historical series rather than a modern day crime series dealing with the very real fears we all face? On one level I like the sheer escapism of writing about another time and place and I love immersing myself in historical research but on another level I think perhaps I'm also avoiding writing about things that cut too close to the bone. Call it 'dread avoidance' - the art of skirting around the very essence of fear itself. Stephen King I believe once said that he wrote 'horror' because at some level writing it protected him and his family from it ever happening to them. I think for me the opposite is true - not writing about it a kind of protective measure (which seems a slightly pathetic admission doesn't it from a mystery writer?)


There is obviously plenty of room in the world of books for stories that both confront fear and those which provide a heady escape from those fears. For the development of my own craft, however, I know that one day I will have to set aside my inhibitions and face 'the darkest dread' in my stories. What I want to know is how you as a reader or a writer feel? Are there some things too close for comfort that you could neither read nor write about? How do you face the challenge of confronting these issues as well as these fears? If you write about them does it make it easier or harder to confront?

13 comments:

  1. I don't mind writing about the things that I'm most afraid of, but I don't like to write about anything related to putting children or animals in jeopardy. I even mute the television if bad stories come on the news about children or animals. By the same token, I never pick up a mystery that I know in advance puts a young child or animal in jeopardy. Needless to say, my writing isn't headed in that direction right now, either. I don't know whether it would be "good" for me as a writer to work through that. But frankly, I just don't like to read those stories, so I doubt I would ever want to write them, either. Phew.

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  2. "Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain," wrote Emerson. There's truth in that, and someone could probably "write the thing they fear" and come out the same way.

    One does not have to render it on the page, IMO, for the "fear factor" to deepen the writing. I've always wanted to know, before I write, my Lead's greatest fear, and let the tones of that play out, whether implicitly or explicitly.

    I agree somewhat with Kathryn. I don't like to see children or animals hurt. I do, though, think some jeopardy in the form of a child in danger can be a good suspense trope. One of the first thrillers I studied in depth was Koontz's Midnight, and his sub plot of the little girl on the run (bringing out her inherent spunkiness) was superb.

    So nice to meet you in person, Kathryn.

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  3. Hi Jim! It was great to meet you too! Turns out Jim and I are both in the SoCal MWA chapter. They had a special event honoring the 50th Anniversary of Raymond Chandler’s Death: What His Life and His Work
    Mean for Mystery Writers Today
    We heard a fabulous presentation yesterday by by Judith Freeman, author of The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved.

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  4. I sometimes write what I fear, but with limits. A detective of mine had a daughter based on my daughter. My real daughter thought it was cool to have this fictional alter ego, and we had some nice scenes to flesh out the softer side of my detective. There was never any chance anything bad would happen to his daughter. Not in a million years.

    I am updating his character to show a somewhat darker side, by creating an older brother for the daughter, but the boy was killed in an accident when she was too small to remember him. That's my way of facing my greatest fear without placing even a fictional daughter in jeopardy.

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  5. Nice post, Clare. I’ve found fear to be a great motivator. Whether it’s a mental fear of disappointing someone or a physical fear of a horrific death, it still something we all feel, so it works great at moving a character forward. It’s interesting that you bring up this topic. My co-writer and I both share a fear of the process of death, not death itself. To explore this fear, we are letting our main character in our new standalone, THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, face the same fear and the temptation of immortality.

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  6. Thanks everyone! I have a number of things that I don't like to read or write about - but fear is a great motivator and I think sometimes your best work is when you face those fears. Of course i face the fear of failure everytime I sit down to write - so at least I'm courageous about that!

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  7. I can't remember who first said it - somebody much brighter than I - but he said that we read (and maybe write?) thrillers/mysteries because we like the finality of the story. Four officers murdered today, a child found in the dumpster tomorrow - all the bad without the satisfaction of knowing the conclusion to the story - that the bad guy got his or her due. It's cathartic, these mystery books.

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  8. Off what Mark said: I heard Lee Child say this at last year's B'con, and found it compelling. He called us suspense writers the "real" storytellers, the original storytellers. Suspense was always THE way of telling stories, he said, because it was a way for people to confront the dark world, when your one goal was to wake up the next morning--survival was the only thing. The original stories were for collective "fear management" and the boosting of morale. The narrative arc from ordinary world, to threat or challenge, to overcoming.

    Makes a lot of sense. People haven't changed. Which is why there's nothing quite like a good thriller for the ultimate read.

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  9. That certainly does make sense James and Mark. At least in fiction justice is usually served -in real life that isn't often the case.

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  10. I can't write anything that involves harm to young children either- or watch it, I recently discovered. I don't know if it's good to be able to break through that or not, but I figure there's enough of that out there, it's not necessary to contribute to it if it makes me uncomfortable.

    What you said about fear crossing borders is really interesting, Clare. Amazing how much smaller the world has become, and yet that doesn't seem to have changed the way we view each other in some critical regards.

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  11. I just thought it amazing that Oakland was on the radar in Australia and that there is a very real sense of fear about America in many Australians' minds. I know many in Tim's family think we're crazy to live in such a 'dangerous' place. Sometimes I have to admit though, they may have a point...

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  12. In America, You have to pick your spots. I live in Los Angeles, but Los Angeles is one of those areas where the safe, "relatively safe," and unsafe coexist. Many years ago, I lived in a suburb that was considered relatively safe, but then the edges started to fray. After the father moved out of the house next door to us, some gangy-looking kids started hanging out in the front yard to work on cars. This drew the attention of a REAL gang, who one night shot through the next-door neighbor's front door with a shotgun. After that came the LA riots, and the rioters cleaned out several of the local stores in the nearby commercial district. After that I moved to what is considered to be a "safe" enclave. That definition keeps changing, though.

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  13. Yes, I think the concept of safe is becoming an increasingly fragile one...

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