Ask Me Anything 2017: Researching locations

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stevenangie05 asks:

How do you pick a location for your books and how much historical research do you do for that location?

I write about places I love, and places that lend themselves to intrigue.

I grew up thinking that Southern California was an ordinary place to live. But when I moved from Santa Barbara to England, I discovered that my British friends considered California to be as exotic as Jupiter. I was only too happy to write about a place I adored — and knew well — which also fascinated people.

Later, I wrote about London as the great teeming world city that had become a second home to me. In my novel Kill Chain, I portrayed London through Evan Delaney’s eyes, as she raced through the capital on a mission. She saw the city as a shell-shocked American tourist (and as I, a shell-shocked American tourist overwhelmed by the place, had first seen it). In my recent short story “Irregular,” I showed it through the eyes of a teenage Londoner, Shaz. Her city is hyper-modern yet ripe with old world etiquette; throbbing with international money yet home to hard working class neighborhoods and caravan parks where families live in trailers beneath motorway overpasses.

All my novels are contemporary, so I don’t delve too deeply into historical research to write about the places where they’re set, unless history influences the plot.

If I can get to a location where I’m setting a book, I go. There’s nothing like feeling the air, smelling the aromas that waft from food carts and dank alleys, and watching how people interact in market stalls or on the Metro. I never would have been able to write about a chase scene through Bangkok if I hadn’t ridden a long tail boat down the Chao Praya River, with waves whipping around me and a Chevy 350 hemi engine pouring exhaust at the back of the boat.

But if I can’t get to a location, I rely on books — with lots of excellent photographs and maps — plus Google Street View. And I always try to talk to someone who lives there or who has visited the place. That’s what can provide the telling detail that brings a place to life. For instance, I’ve never been to Amman, Jordan. But my uncle told me that the patio at the Intercontinental Hotel serves fabulous coffee, from a silver service that shines brightly in the desert sunshine. So, in The Memory Collector, that’s how Ian Kanan spends a warm afternoon before flying home to San Francisco and unleashing havoc.

None of this stopped me from getting San Francisco directions wrong in The Dirty Secrets Club. It took a helpful reader to point this out, and for me to realize that when I head down Bush Street, I get turned around, and have since I was eight years old.

Photo: Oxford Circus, London, December 2016.

Ask Me Anything 2017: What about politics? Do I know the endings of stories when I start? London v. Austin?

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Kris Calvin asks:

How is the current “noisy” political environment affecting your writing (ability to write and/or content), if at all?

The current political environment is — let’s call it intrusive. It’s omnipresent. Pervasive. And thanks to 24-hour news channels, the net, and social media, it’s ridiculously easy for someone who works at a computer to be distracted every ten seconds by the latest eruption from Washington.

That’s unhealthy for both my equilibrium and my ability to concentrate on my work. The solution, as far as getting writing done, is to shut down the television, turn off social media, and only check the news a couple of times a day. Because writing — like painting, composing, or writing code — requires uninterrupted concentration.

What I’m writing will probably be affected as well, because I write about America, and ignoring the political climate would lead to unrealistic fiction. We all write about our times. Our work should reflect and explore that — not in any didactic or propagandistic way, but to shine a light on the world we live in.

As for politics itself: I urge everybody to educate themselves, get active, vote, or run for office.

Doug Moring asks:

S. King says when he starts a book, he has no idea how it will end. John Irving says he knows how the last page will read when he starts writing. I was wondering which of these groups you are in. And also which is your favorite, London or Austin?

I have to know how a story ends before I write the first word.

A novel, any story, is all of a piece. The seeds of the ending are planted on the first page.

And I know from rotten experience that if I don’t wrestle out the entire story — beginning, some turning points in the middle, and the climax — I end up with a soupy mess of a story that goes nowhere. Except into a folder in the bottom of my filing cabinet, marked, Do Not Open Under Pain of Excruciating Embarrassment.

I think Stephen King has such a strong, deep understanding of story structure that when he starts a book, it’s going to go someplace rewarding, someplace right.

London or Austin? London for theater, pub food, and long, lingering summer evenings; Austin for Texas swing, tacos, and football.

Artwork by Ami Plasse (Instagram: @amirocks73), illustrating my talk to CreativeMornings/Austin.

Ask Me Anything 2017: What’s the best writing advice I’ve gotten from a fellow author?

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LaEmgee asks:

Will you please come see us in Chicago? On book tour or otherwise?

Dan nudges:

I second that emotion.

I love Chicago. I was reminded exactly how much I love it this past autumn. While preparing to interview Sara Paretsky, I looked up V.I. Warshawski’s northside neighborhood — and realized that I’d lived in it the summer I worked in Chicago during law school. When I checked Google Street View, I saw that the neighborhood is all spiffed up, leafy green, full of bistros and coffee bars; a far cry from the creaking row of apartment buildings where my roommate and I spent sweltering evenings outside on the stoop because we had no air conditioning.

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Have I distracted you enough?

Real answer: I hope to come to Chicago on book tour or for a conference. I don’t know my schedule this summer yet, but if I can make it to the Windy City you’ll be the first to know.

Dan also asks:

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten from a fellow author?

Here are two pieces of advice that have stuck with me.

From mystery author Leonard Tourney: Create sympathetic characters and put them in jeopardy.

That about sums up what you need to know about kicking off a novel.

From Stephen King — of course — in On Writing:

There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think it’s fair? I think it’s fair.

If you want to write the stuff that matters, that excites and thrills, that resonates, that chills and grabs you by the heart and throat: Go down to the basement. Dig. Bring it all up. That’s the only way your work will be fully creative and emotionally honest.

Photo: Julia Robson

Ask Me Anything 2017: Is writing work?

Rob Akers asks:

Two questions.

Does it feel like work yet and do you still get emotional when you hold the newest book?

Yes.

Writing a novel certainly is work. I brainstorm, research, outline, write a rough draft exceeding 100,000 words, rassle with my editor’s notes, rewrite, edit, go through copyedits, proofread the typeset manuscript, and contribute to marketing and publicity for the novel.

But it’s great work. Even on days when I’m moaning and griping about having to type one more word, I know I’m privileged. I could be digging ditches for a living, or cleaning gas station toilets. Instead, I’m pulling worlds out of my imagination. When I research, I get to talk to physicists and psychiatrists and pararescuemen. I get to study plot and character and the great human drama that’s embedded in storytelling. I get to turn up the music (Foo Fighters or Muse or the Gladiator soundtrack) and create heroes and heroines and villains and crises and quests out of my imagination.

And when I get a copy of a new novel, I smile and pet it and tell the book it’s a pretty book, a good book. Then I obsessively read it again, hoping I won’t discover typos I missed.

Question Time 2017: Ask Me Anything

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It’s that time of year again: I’m deep into working on a new novel, and I’m opening up my blog for your questions. What do you want to know? About writing, research, thrillers, story, the insidious plans of the squirrels to seize power?

The photo above is from my talk to CreativeMornings/Austin on the topic of Mystery. If you have questions on that subject or any other, post them here over the next week, and I’ll reply.

Photo: Julia Robson.

CreativeMornings/Austin: Mystery & Storytelling

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Yesterday I had an excellent time speaking at CreativeMornings/Austin. I talked to a couple of hundred creative folks about Mystery and Storytelling. There was a lot of energy and I got a real kick out of the morning.

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Afterward, I was surprised and delighted when a couple of people posted artwork that illustrated my talk. Ami Plasse drew the picture at the top. Check out his other work on Tumblr (amirocks.tumblr.com) and Instagram (@amirocks73). Alan Buller drew the “doodle/muddle” immediately above. His website is AlanBuller.com.

I love both these drawings. They’re different, but each capture the essence of my talk. If you want a glimpse of what I said about Mystery & Storytelling, it’s in there.

UNSUB: Available for pre-order

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My new novel, UNSUB, will be published at the end of June. But you can pre-order it now from these booksellers:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Indiebound

And from these wonderful independent bookstores:

Book People — my wonderful local Austin bookstore

Murder by the Book — Houston’s amazing mystery bookstore

Come on. Pay attention to Don Winslow and Stephen King. You know you should.

And yes, I’ve been whooping and hollering ever since I saw this on Twitter.