Thursday, May 18, 2006
Chris Well Interview--Part 1
We interrupt our discussion on creating character empathy for the Chris Well interview that I promised you last week. Y'all posed the questions . . . today and tomorrow, you hear the answers. And now, heeeeeeere's Chris!
1) How do you plot a novel? Do you do it in layers? Do you lay it all out or fly by the seat of your pants?
The short answer: I write up a synopsis, then create a “skeleton” of numbered chapters to get a sense of how to space out all the big moments. As I am actually writing the novel—some characters work better, some get pulled out, some stories work one way, others are twisted in new directions—I find that the story drifts into new places.
For the “Kansas City Blues” novels, I take an ensemble approach (not unlike Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series). As such, I come up with the central plot, then build up little stories around it.
I went with this format for the series because Harvest House first signed me for two books—and wanted the second to be a follow-up to Forgiving Solomon Long. But FSL was a standalone novel.
My solution was an sort of “anthology” approach: Each book revolves around a brand-new situation and brand-new characters; secondary characters and subplots develop continuity from one novel to the next.
In fact, that is the only reason KCPD detectives Tom Griggs and Charlie Pasch even exist.
2) From what recess of your mind do you pull such unique plotlines?
Playing “what if” with stories in the news. Snippets of conversations and incidents taken from my life and the lives of people around me.
There is also the interesting chemistry that happens once you drop a character into a scene—it ricochets in directions you did not plan. And every time I write a plot twist I catch myself thinking, “Wait—if I can think of this, the reader can think of this, too.” So I keep changing things up to stay ahead of the reader.
I also draw inspiration from crime writers, pop culture, a wide variety of reading, and the pastors at my church in Nashville, Bethel World Outreach Center. Pastor Ray McCollum (now a pastor in Texas), Pastor Rice Broocks and Pastor Tim Johnson are all three in there—they have inspired everything from bits of dialogue to entire characters. (I just hope they don’t decide to sue for a share of my royalties!)
3) How do you find time to write with all of your other responsibilities?
It is tough, that is for sure. When I am at work, I write my current novel during my lunch hour. Sometimes evenings and weekends, too, although I tend to use that time for other projects (including publicity and promotions for the novels already in print).
4) How do you find the right balance in creating characters that are eccentric and
quirky without taking them over the line to unbelievable?
A lot of the quirks and dialogue in the novels are me just listening to the rhythm, like music. I don’t know the math of it, I just know what sounds right to me.
I have to credit Harvest House with nudging me in that direction. When I turned in some very early pages of Forgiving Solomon Long, the introduction of mob thugs Holland and Sallis was simply a couple of guys going to report to the boss. But my acquisitions editor encouraged me to avoid the mob clichés by making them my mobsters—and I rewrote the scene so they were on the way back from a mob killing, all the while discussing Broadway musicals.
(By the way, Tony Curtis really did come to Kansas City for a stage version of Some Like It Hot.)
5) What triggers a book for you? Do you see a character and go from there, or a
plot line or scene and build characters to fit?
There is a lot of looking at little components and combining them and recombining them into different configurations. The various pieces for Deliver Us From Evelyn included a lot of breaking stories about people in power abusing the media—from tyrannical magazine publishers to dishonest newspaper reporters to bloggers sharing company secrets online. All that plus the missing billionaire—the phrase WHERE IS BLAKE? was inspired by a random sign in an episode of the British spy series The Avengers.
Much of what happens after that is built up as I have to explain why things would happen: Why is it so important for the police to find this man? Why are the cops in the organized crime department involved? And how do you solve a crime when you don’t even know what crime has been committed?
As I got to know these characters and the story had time to develop, I ended up at a completely different place than I expected.
6) Do you worry about your cultural references making your books dated, and what do you do to combat that?
In most cases, you’ll see my characters talking about pop culture in the past tense. No matter how many years pass, the original Star Trek will always be a show from the 1960s. That will never change.
In Forgiving Solomon Long, I struck a remark about “when The Odd Couple comes out on DVD,” because eventually it probably will come to pass. Not to mention, DVD might be supplanted as a technology someday.
7) What kind of research do you put into your novels? What topics do you research?
I research all kinds of stuff, from the history of the mafia to why powdered non-dairy creamer may be flammable to classical opera. When Charlie goes off on one of his lectures—about science or about old television shows or whatever—I draw the loose outline from memory, but I generally have to look it up to make sure he gets the details right.
A few of tomorrow's questions: Chris's advice for writers, a "Sneak Pique" of his new book, and the Most Important Question of All--Does he put Fruit Loops in his coffee?