Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Story's "Alter-world" ... by Rex Burns

The first and most fundamental question for me in starting a book is "What the heck do I write about now?" A glance down the "books published" column in the Mystery Writers of America newsletter hints at the challenge posed: it's almost impossible to find a topic that someone hasn't already written about. OK, refine the question: What am I interested in learning more about?

A good part of responding to that question is, of course, the idea of "setting"—the physical stage on which a scene of the story takes place: a town or city, a house, a prison, a room, etc. But for me, and, I would guess, for most writers, the concept of setting also includes more than a stage for the action of a single scene. In the broadest sense, it's the world that the novel creates. This "world" not only encompasses the physical (and fragmented) individual settings that form each scene, but also those story elements that span the entire novel—the characters, customs, costumes, and more that appear in many or all of the individual scenes.

In the mystery story, the novel's general setting underlies the criminal act of the plot. It contributes in various ways to the type or types of personalities who populate the story, it defines the type of crime that brings disruption into that world. It usually provides the motive or motives behind that crime, and it even dictates the language and thought patterns that define the story's characters. It is, in short, the fictional alter-world.

This last year, I was lucky enough to find two topics that piqued my interest with the promise of providing interesting and entertaining alter-worlds: professional wrestling and sea transport of oil. Neither topic is, by itself, a crime. And both subjects were set in locations that were somewhat exotic. But those alter-worlds also dictated the characters who could be invented to populate each of those locations and even to act in certain ways. Most important, by setting the stories in the realms of professional wrestling (Body Slam) and super-tankers (Crude Carrier) presented the opportunity to develop alter-worlds that I knew little of and was curious to know more about. This last point is labeled "most important" because I've found that if the alter-world of a story is interesting enough to carry me through the effort of writing, then there's a probability that I can generate in readers that same curiosity—and that I can develop their curiosity about the story's alter-world without boring the readers with turgid and intrusive exposition.

And that's the challenge and opportunity for writers: to inform the readers about an environment while entertaining them with the characters and conflicts that are native to that alter-world.


Rex, thank you so much for being my guest today and introducing my readers and me to your exciting thriller series. I've put both Body Slam and Crude Carrier on my Goodreads "Want to Read" list.

Rex Burns, author of numerous books, articles, reviews, and stories, won an Edgar for The Alvarez Journal. Another novel, The Avenging Angel became a Charles Bronson film. His "Constable Leonard Smith" stories appear in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. His novels, including the latest, Body Slam and Crude Carrier, are available in print, audio, and e-format from Mysterious Press/Open Road Media.

You can learn more about Rex and his novels at his website. He can also be found on Facebook and Goodreads.

Rex will be giving away one signed print copy of Crude Carrier to a U.S. or Canada reader who leaves a comment on this post by midnight Mountain Time Friday, January 30th. The winner's name will be posted here on Saturday.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Rex, that does about sum it up. Great settings for your books. What's next?

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

It must have been fun learning about something like the world of professional wrestling. Must be some real interesting characters involved in that 'sport.'

Patricia Stoltey said...

Rex, your post makes me want to choose an unlikely subject for my next novel, just so I can go out and learn a bunch of new stuff. It's all that learning that helps keep us sharp...and young.

Mark Stevens said...

I am half way through "Crude Carrier," Rex. GREAT story. I can't believe how quickly you get it up and running. But man oh man -- the research !! Do tell. It reads like you went around the world on an oil tanker, taking notes. How did you do that?

J. L. Abramo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J. L. Abramo said...

You are right on, Mr. Burns...learning something previously unknown when writing a book is as important and exciting as learning something new when reading a book.

Rex Burns said...

Hi, Alex, Susan, Pat, Mark, and J.L.--

Many thanks for your comments--the next immediate yarn stays close to home: the ski industry and some of its less well-known issues.

As for researching Body Slam, I did wrestle (Greco-Roman) in college but the most fun was talking to retired professionals. The research for Crude Carrier was facilitated by Google and by having traveled aboard several different ships over the years. Time helped there: the images that stay over time are the most effective. And, as you point out J.L., research is basically fun!


Donnell Ann Bell said...

Rex, I was captivated by Body Slam and I know I will be also by Crude Carrier. I'm curious if you make a conscious effort to determine the tone of your books. Is one lighter/darker than the other or would you say they're about the same because it's part of your voice?

Rex Burns said...

Hi, Donnell-

Good to hear from you, and thanks for the good question.

Usually, the subject of a book dictates it's place on the spectrum of "tone." With murder and mayhem, the tone is generally somber, of course (though not always--vide: comic mysteries that play on conventions). The subject of "Body Slam," featuring outlandish characters, has room for comedy. "Crude Carrier" is more somber, although I try for comedy with minor characters and in scenes used to contrast with the scenes of danger and death. Detective tales, "Gabe Wager" e.g., have room for the human comedy of street characters and the sarcastic or ironic verbal wit of world-wise cops.
As for the comedy being part of my voice- yes, but I also hear the voice of the speaker and try to make that voice reveal character.

Sara Hoklotubbe said...

You make such an excellent point, Rex. The setting provides the all important foundation for the story, the plot, and the conclusion. I look forward to reading your latest.

Rex Burns said...

Thank you, Sara!

Shannon Baker said...

I just picked up Crude Carrier today and as soon as I finish this post, I'm back to it! Great start.

Rex Burns said...

Rhank you, Shannon, and I hope you find the rest of the yarn as entertaining!