My day job for a couple of decades has been writing for a daily newspaper, which more or less amounts to meeting strangers for a living. For a novelist, this is fabulous research – sources, characters, scenes, details, dialogue – the whole shebang. Plus, you get paid, at least a little. It’s not a bad deal.
So, when I sat down to write “The Ways of the Dead,” a crime novel set in Washington, D.C., it turned out I already had the basis for the plot (a real-life series of killings in a rough neighborhood) and a working knowledge of how cops and courts and criminals work. I didn’t have to ask anybody anything.
I also had years of practice at the technical skills needed for writing crime fiction – a certain sense of style, a narrative pace, writing fast, the ability to describe things I had seen, killing my darlings during editing. It didn’t make it easy. It just made it all feel familiar.
People tend to gloss over the professional, craftsmanship approach to any creative endeavor, particularly when it comes to fiction, although I’m not sure why. Writers as wildly diverse as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nora Ephron and John Banville all cut their teeth writing for newspapers, which has to make it at least a valid training ground as MFA programs at elite universities.
In crime fiction, Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman, John Sandford, Thomas Harris and Carl Hiaasen – I’m just picking a few contemporary names here — all were journalists first. The television sensation “The Wire”? Developed by David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who obtained fame by spending a year with Metro homicide cops in the 1990s.
This grounded-in-reality approach isn’t new. In the 1930s, another Baltimore newsman named James M. Cain reported on the trial of an adulterous woman and her lover who kill off the husband. He turned it into “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” You may have heard of it.
Ernest Hemingway famously once wrote about an old man adrift in the Gulf Stream, battling sharks over the great marlin he’d hooked. You may have heard of that one, too. “The Old Man and the Sea” was published in 1952. But, actually, what I just described is an anecdote he set down in a 1936 non-fiction dispatch for Esquire Magazine. (You can find it in “Byline: Hemingway.”) It just took a decade or so before he shook it out of the notebooks.
And a good decade before Papa was in Havana, his legendary editor Maxwell Perkins wrote to an aspiring young novelist: “I would say that a couple of years in the newspaper business was much better for one who wanted to be a writer than a couple of years in college.”
Debatable, nearly a century later, but it’s not the worst advice you could get.
So, look, I’m not saying that newspaper writing solves your technical fiction-writing issues. It doesn’t. But if you appreciate that you need years and years of practice to (a) learn your craft and (b) learn about the varied world around you, there’s little better than having a license to call up strangers. As Hemingway found out, even drunk fishermen have some pretty good stories about the big one that got away.
The Ways of the Dead is published by Cornerstone