Friday, March 12, 2010

The Third Horseman of a Novel

© John F. Dobbyn 2010 all rights reserved

Any junior high student at a decent school can list the three elements of fiction – character, plot, and setting. Of the three, the one that frequently gets the shortest shrift is setting. And that’s unfortunate. Some mystery novels are like one-horse shays. They are powered almost exclusively by plot, and unless the twists and surprise ending are as monumentally startling as the end of “THE USUAL SUSPECTS”, they generally die of anemia. Novels driven exclusively by fascinating characters can possibly survive in the genres of romance or biography, but are unlikely to survive as mysteries or thrillers. Novels in those latter two genres need to be pulled by at least the two-horse team of plot and character.

That said, I would opt every time for the writing style that resembles a Russian troika – all three horses, setting included, pulling their own weight to transport the reader beyond the pages of the book.

How does an author hitch that third horse to the sled? First, the author deliberately chooses a setting that is bizarre, unique, feared, loved, or all of the above, and at the same time, one that is unlikely to be well known to the reader. That selection, however, cannot be made solely for shock or interest value. The setting chosen should be so integral to the subject matter of the novel that neither the characters nor the plot could exist convincingly in any other setting.

Case in point. In my novel, NEON DRAGON, Michael Knight, twenty-seven year old trial attorney who narrates in the first person, and Lex Devlin, war-weary lion of the Boston criminal defense bar, are drafted as a team to defend the son of an African-American judge. The son is charged with shooting an elderly man to death. Could happen anywhere, right? Not exciting. But if the elderly man is the beloved Chinese grandfather figure to every child in Boston’s Chinatown, and if the murder occurs in the heart of Chinatown at the height of the tumult of a Chinese New Year’s parade, it begins to take on interest. Almost without effort, I can immerse the reader in the mysterious and enticing, sometimes frightening world of gambling dens, shops of centuries old herbal medicine, unique houses of prostitution, and a culture that just beneath its serene surface, submits to the strangling, violent grip of the modern Chinese tong. The setting is not only essential to the plot and characters, it pulls its weight in giving an exotic depth to the novel. Any readers who find themselves caught up in the world of NEON DRAGON will know instantly and to a certainty that they are not in Jackson Square, New Orleans or Palm Beach, Florida or even Beacon Hill, Boston.

The Chinatown setting in NEON DRAGON serves a second purpose that is a critical element of my novels. It teaches the reader something he/she would not be likely to know otherwise, and lets the reader take away something more permanent than a number of hours of entertainment. The real world of Chinatown, beneath its neon touristy surface, is completely unknown to most readers. It is a world to which non-Chinese readers would not be admitted even if they ate dinner there five nights a week. My key to entry into the inner sanctum was a close friendship with a high school and college classmate who emigrated to Boston from China at the age of eight. His guidance through many visits to Chinatown peeled away the serene, peaceful surface visible to Caucasian tourists. It opened my eyes to subtle tip-offs to the existence of features like the “large stakes gambling den” and the watchful presence of the youth gang that is the inevitable second cell of the tong. Without interrupting the flow of the action, I wanted to pass that knowledge on to the reader, and the vehicle for teaching was the setting.

In FRAME UP, published by Oceanview Publications in March, 2010, the criminal defense attorneys are the same, but this time the plot involves the intriguing world of art theft and art forgery. I found that if you are looking for world class financiers who will make loans in the high millions to criminal organizations of a variety of ethnicities on the security of a stolen classical work of art, so notoriously recognizable that it cannot be traded openly, your best bet is to go to Amsterdam. So I went to Amsterdam. Again, the special flavor of that city of canals, high finance, open and legal trade in marijuana as a staple at local coffee shops, and classic art that has permeated the culture since the Golden era of Vermeer and Rembrandt, heightens the intrigue; and without being openly didactic, it teaches readers something about a world they are unlikely to experience personally.

So what does an author do if he/she has not personally experienced some fascinating part of the world that is likely to be unknown to most readers? One solution is simply to pass on a dimension to their novel that serious attention to setting could add. Not acceptable. Since I began writing some twenty years ago, I have seldom attended a writers’ conference at which a fundamental slogan has not been re-played as basic wisdom – “Write what you know.” Bunk. I can think of no more effective way to shackle and hamstring writers, especially beginning writers. On the other hand, I would back to the hilt a reversal of that slogan – “Know what you write.” That is liberating. With enough digging through libraries or the internet, perhaps with personal travel to various parts of the world, there is almost no element of culture or geography that cannot be “known”. My wife and partner in research and I went back over all of the streets and alleys of Boston’s Chinatown, in addition to reading current papers on the inner workings of the tong, before writing NEON DRAGON. We explored personally every canal, financial district, hotel, and weed-serving coffee shop that plays a role in FRAME UP before I typed “Chapter One”. Before beginning a third novel, BLACK DIAMOND, I spent many dawn hours on the backstretch of such horse tracks as Saratoga Springs and Suffolk Downs, hanging out with – and quizzing – jockeys, trainers, and hot-walkers. It is like mining gold in the form of trade secrets that can be salted into the telling of a legal thriller involving horse racing.

And, truth be told, every bit of the research is a joy and an education for the author.

About the Author:

A native of Boston, John F. Dobbyn is a graduate of the Boston Latin School. Dobbyn received his B. A. degree in Classics and Linguistics from Harvard College.

After graduating from Harvard, Dobbyn served in the United States Air Force as a radar and radio director of fighter aircraft in the Air Defense Command for three years, and later attended Boston College Law School. After practicing law for three years, during which time he clerked for a federal judge and practiced as an associate with a Boston trial firm, Dobbyn returned to Harvard for a Masters of Laws degree.

In 1969, Dobbyn accepted a position as professor of law at Villanova Law School, where he currently teaches. Dobbyn and his wife Lois live in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. They have one son, John, who is a writer for an advertising agency. John Dobbyn is also the author of Neon Dragon. Frame Up is his latest novel.


Anonymous said...

What a fascinating post!
You really make a great point re: "write what you know" v. "know what you write." Great contribution, and good luck with your books!

s.w. vaughn said...

You had me at The Usual Suspects. Well, actually you had me at the photo with the collies - those are a couple of gorgeous dogs you have there! :-)

Thank you, thank you for saying "write what you know" is ridiculous. It makes me so happy to see people debunking that stupid axiom. And how wonderful that you were able to see the Chinatown beneath Chinatown - that sort of thing is endlessly fascinating to me.

Now - does this mean if I've decided to set my next novel on Ambergris Caye in Belize, that I have to go there? Because truly, I would not mind a tropical island vacation... do you think I could get my publisher to send me there if I call it a work-related expense? *G*

John Dobbyn said...

Dear Anonymous: Thank you so much. You are the first comment of the day, and I really welcomed it. I wish you the very best too. Have a super day

John Dobbyn said...

Dear S.W.Vaughn: My first thanks have to be for your wonderful comment about our Shelties - Kelty (11 years) and Piper (1 year).I passed yur comment on to them.
I certainly appreciate your other comments and thank you for them. Be sure to pack two bathing suits for Belize,and remember that it's tax deductable as research. Incidentally, I really do recommend that you go there. Every exotic, or even semi-exotic place(like my home town of Boston), has a spirit, a feeling that lets you know you are there an no place else. That's the feeling you want to capture and infuse into the characters and their reaction to what's happening in the plot. If it's authentic, it adds volumes to the depth of what you're writing.
I.e., thake three bathing suits.
Very best wishes. Thank you so much.

Marta Stephens said...

Hi Jack, I very much enjoyed reading your article and also had to smile at the "...know what you write."

Ironically, my Harper series takes place in the fictitious city of Chandler, Massachusetts. As I was developing the scenes, however, I was thinking Boston. I’ve never been to Massachusetts, but I know I’d love that area so I did as you suggest in your post. I researched everything including the weather pattern. ;)

Your descriptions here alone make me want to read your books. Hmm, think I will!

Many thanks for sharing with us today!

John Dobbyn said...

Thank you, Marta!!Let us know when you're going to Boston and we'll share some hidden gems of restaurants with you.

Marta Stephens said...

You're on! ;)

Cheryl said...

Fabulous post! One of my former book tour clients used the I-House and the University of Chicago, Illinois campus as a setting for her cozy mystery.


John Dobbyn said...

Great setting, Cheryl. I love college campus mysteries. My first short story - in a magazine that is many years gone, Mike Shayne's Mystery magazine - involved a blind college professor of criminology who found the murderer - the dean.
Many thanks for your kind comment.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

John, your piece was a delight! Thanks so much for being here today. I was born in Boston, went to NU for eight years, and lived south of the city until the age of 28. Still love ole' beantown, and especially loved being a teen in the sixties there, when the Psychedelic Supermarket and Boston Tea Party hosted some of the greatest English bands of all time. ;o)

Your books sound wonderful - I must check them out!

And your Shelties are adorable! My mother used to raise collies - we always had a house full of dogs and cats, and lots of puppies! LOL.

John Dobbyn said...

Dear AAron:
Thank you so much for your delightful comments. Great to meet another Bostonian - by heart as well as by former location. Our Shelties appreciated your comment when I read it to them. They and I thank you so much.
Great to meet you here, Aaron. Very best wishes,