Monday, September 28, 2009

A day at McJob: There’s more to living than the life of a secret, undercover agent

Picture yourself here: You’re in a bookshop, you see a new urban fantasy or paranormal mystery on the shelf and you pick it up to read the blurb. Your intrepid protagonist is, surprise, surprise… An FBI agent, a private investigator, an investigative journalist, a police detective… Need I go on? Part of my work as a fiction editor involves reading submissions, many of them falling within the paranormal and fantasy genres. Many of the authors’ protagonists are, surprise, surprise, FBI agents, private investigators… Get my point? We have a theme going here, no doubt popularised on telly with programmes such as Dexter, Blood Ties and more, where the popular avenger-of-dastardly deeds gets some sort of twisted, dark or supernatural spin. Often the writer offers his or her audience an endemic lack of understanding of how their country’s legal system works.

Don’t get me wrong, if I’m in the mood to just relax, I’ll watch or read something with a cop or PI as a lead, and I’ll suspend disbelief when I notice plot holes large enough to drive a London bus through. Hell, even lawyers can sometimes do some good and provide an interesting perspective. But really, it’s so done. To death. Why can’t a school teacher or a graphic designer also solve a mystery or become a hero? Surely their unique perspective will lend a different angle than the oft-seen, hard-bitten cop. I’ve lost track of how many crime-busting vampires, werewolves or (insert supernatural creatures of your choice here) I’ve encountered in my quest to escape from reality.

What I’m saying, as authors, is we need to break away and find something a little different. Write what you know. I’ll happily write about artists, musicians, witches, journalists, riding school instructors, veterinarians, tattoo artists, graphic designers, magazine editors, body piercers, bookshop owners or professional gardeners… These are folk I know. These are folk I regularly interact with and have a basic understanding of what they do in order to make ends meet. Because I know their world, I can breathe life into characters who follow these professions, convincingly.

I prefer reading and writing about characters who have real-life worries about not meeting rent or deadlines, and who also have larger problems to overcome, which threaten not only their livelihood, but their lives. How many times have you read a novel where characters dash about with seemingly endless quantities of cash and property? This is not Anne Rice’s Mayfair witches, dah-ling. This is the real world.

Having financial woes or some sort of trouble at work just adds to the building up of tension, making your character more believable. How does Joe Soap the plumber unblock drains, keep his wife in lacy underwear and save the world from the Lovecraftian horror lurking in the city’s sewers? Sometimes an unusual profession will place your character in a unique position to identify a potential threat no one else would notice. Be creative. Have fun, and keep it real, and turn the existing tropes on their heads.

As an afterthought, if you’re still possessed by a yen to write about a police officer, conduct a lot more research than watching a few episodes of the latest flavour of cop show. How about dropping by your local police station and chatting to some of the officers in charge? You’d be surprised how friendly (not to mention helpful) a police officer having a quiet day can be if approached with sincerity. If you can, ask to be given a tour of the station. Find out how police procedure in your area is executed. If your setting is not local, see how much information you can dredge up about where you intend to set your story. Then, dig deep within yourself to find ways to make this tale stand head and shoulders above the rest. Better yet, find out if a real private investigator will allow you to shadow them for a week or so. There’s nothing like a bit of experience to add that touchstone of reality to your story.


metoikos said...

you realise that somebody (who knows nothing about plumbing) is going to submit a story to you about how Joe beat the Beastie, armed only with a monkey-wrench, a tube of silicone and a u-bend down in the cavernous sewers of New York (which the prospective author will never have visited)?

Nichole R. Bennett said...

Have you read Karen Olson's "The Missing Ink"? It's a tattoo shop mystery. Not paranormal, but I loved it anyway!

Cindy Jacks said...

Hear, hear, Nerine! I think it's important for writers to put their own spin on any genre they take on. Great food for thought.

But just to play devil's advocate, I have to say that sometimes putting a lay person in a position to solve crimes can come off just as ridiculous. Take Harlan Coban's character Myron Bolitar...the crime-solving sports agent. Um...sports agent? And since Myron is featured in a series of novels, it's like the Jane Marple/Jessica Fletcher effect. Where ever Myron goes, someone dies! Myron is a dangerous man to know, lol. Then again, my dad can't get enough of the books so who am I to judge?

Nerine Dorman said...

Metoikos, is that you threatening to write me a story about a plumber?

BTW... where is my vampire story?

**taps foot**

And while we're on the topic, where's that story about the intrepid photographer who got lost in the catacombs beneath Budapest?

metoikos said...

@ Nerine: i'm not playing with you anymore :P

@ Cindy: I think Nerine's point is that Joe the plumber isn't a crime fighter, hence he does not fight crime. He's a plumber and he is the hero because he saves the day with plumbing skills. Nerine is saying that crime-busting as a narrative/plot device (whether the protagonist is a bona fide crime-buster or an amateur) is a bit overdone in the contemporary popular 'fantasy' genre.