I was very pleased when historical thriller author, Elliott Mackle, agreed to do because a] I knew his process would be interesting and b] he has written some of my favourite historical novels. Unfortunately he’s not in a position to be able to post his piece to his own blog so has asked me to post it to mine.
Take it away Elliott!
What am I working on?
Right now I’m collating suggested edits of a new mystery novel by my four beta readers: a college professor, a one-time academic turned newspaper editor, another novelist and a specialist in the book’s backstory, the Holocaust. The novel, working title “Sunset Island,” was tricky to plot because, in narrative terms, the action happens between the events in the first novel in the series, “It Takes Two,” and the second published, “Only Make Believe.” For instance, I had to be dead sure that characters who are murdered in “Sunset Island” do not turn up in “Only Make Believe.” All three novels have large casts so keeping the characters distinct as well as active and believable took a lot of thought and fact-checking.
Because small presses provide minimal copy editing, my beta readers are essential. For instance, my Holocaust expert pointed out that a particular incident during World War Two could not have happened when and where I placed it, but might have happened a few months earlier. Great catch, one that I would not have made. The college professor is helpful in curbing my tendencies to step outside the narrative frame and to needlessly foreshadow events.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
The novels just mentioned, set in and around Fort Myers, Florida, in 1949-51, are historical mysteries that turn on the partnership of two veterans of World War II. The men are as different from each other as I can make them. One is a county detective and former Marine grunt. The other, a former Navy Lieutenant, manages a hotel where everything is available for a price. Despite the fact that both act as sleuths, there’s a good bit of sexual and moral tension between the pair of lovers. The other series, set during the Vietnam era on first one air base and then another, is also historical but with much more romance, casual sex and on-page violence. Each of these, for instance, features one or two plane crashes, an out-of-control commander or CIA operative and the gay narrator’s narrow escapes from the risks he takes in fulfilling his sexual and career objectives.
In both series, I go out of my way to create convincing male and female heterosexual characters, some sympathetic, others not. That, after all, is how the world works and my aim is to create realistic, modestly literary fiction.
That said, I tend to play down the specifics of lovemaking, with exceptions. For instance, one character in the Fort Myers novels, a stud-horse waiter, is described as a tripod, and proud of it. His oversize penis is essential to the plot of the novel now in play. My pair of lover-sleuths in the same series, created, as I said, as polar opposites, also get a bit of genital description. The country boy from a poor family is uncut; the city-bred, college boy is cut. Beyond that kind of detail, I believe the reader can supply his or her own knowledge of human anatomy to imagine size, shape and hang.
Why do I write what I do?
I write the sort of novels I want to read. As a kid, once I graduated from A. A. Milne, the Oz books, Dr. Doolittle and Walter Farley‘s horseracing novels, I took on a series of sweeping historicals: “The Egyptian,” “Désirée” and “Gone with the Wind,” to name only three. A road-show performance of the musical “South Pacific” when I was nine or ten must have suggested that the central drama of my childhood, World War II, could be turned into art. Finally, the discovery of “Moby-Dick” in high school, and the experience of living in claustrophobic, all-male quarters in dormitories, a fraternity house and Air Force bachelor officers’ billets, gave me the frame for most of my novels. Throw a bunch of men, gay and straight, together, add a murder, a suicide or a lot of alcohol and, bingo, conflict begets narrative begets a story that’s asking to be told.
How does my writing process work?
John D. MacDonald, celebrated author of the Travis McGee mystery series, told me that the single most important step in creating a novel is discovering where the action begins–not backstory, not total narrative, not the characters’ life histories or deep emotions. It’s the instant, rather, the moment or image that grabs and holds the reader’s attention and keeps him or her going all the way to the end. (“Call me Ishmael.” “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but … “)
With the general idea of the plot and characters in my head, I look for that moment and draft the first and last paragraphs of the book. Then I do a spread sheet–with months across the top and characters down the left gutter. This allows me to chart who does what to who, when and where. I follow with a 50-80 page outline, talk it through with one of my betas, revise as necessary, and draft the book, start to finish.
Then it goes to the betas and soon the real work begins, rewrites. As a former journalist on a big-city daily, I know that rewrites are an essential part of the job.
So, now, let me return to my edits. Thanks for your attention.