Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 07/14/2022

Episode 21: Quiet, Murder at Work!

By C. William Harrison

Originally Published in the July, 1944 issue of Writer's Digest, now in the public domain.

Joe is a guy with “the Urge.” He is a guy with “the Talent” or the “Inspiration.” And he knows it. According to his making, he is either long-haired and arty, or he is a hard-boiled cynic with a leaning toward dangling cigarettes and bored dissipation. Whatever his type, Joe is a writer. He wants other people to know it. He periodically reads, and has others read, the gems he wrote five years ago. “Editors don't know good stories when they see them. Neither do most agents. But notice how highly this agent commented on my story; he knows his stuff. But this complimentary agent didn’t sell Joe’s story. Neither has Joe sold his story.

Across the street from Joe, lives Jim. Jim is a writer too, but more than that he is an author. News of this has filtered out to Jim’s neighbors, and to them Jim is all right, but he doesn’t talk much; he spends more time listening. He isn’t what is generally known as a good mixer.

The reason for this is that Jim is a working writer. He no longer has “the Urge.” He is a guy with “the Necessity,” if you can call it that. He has monthly bills to meet, just as has the insurance man next door. He has to write new stories in order to pay those bills.

Because most of us want to be authors, and not unpublished writers, let’s spend a few minutes looking inside the brain of Jim, the author.

He has a blank sheet of paper in his typewriter, but this is the beginning of a new day and a new story. He is tempted, being human, to just stare at that sheet of paper, to make excuses for avoiding the work at hand. But excuses never wrote stories, and he learned that long ago. So Jim gets tough with himself, forgets the hobby he could be playing with, and keeps the seat of his pants firmly on the seat of his chair.

Jim starts thinking. He has the paper and typewriter, but he needs an idea, a plot embryo to feed. He begins looking for one, raking his memory for facts and impressions that might give him a springboard to an idea. But an idea doesn't come easily this day. He starts reading, not for entertainment but for an idea, newspapers, magazines, even the dictionary.

Jim’s office has a reason for being known as the largest ash tray in Indianapolis. It is littered with pipes and their accessories, there are shelves of books, and stacks of magazines dating far back, even before Roosevelt. He runs across something in an old copy of Reader’s Digest, a small filler concerning a man who had inserted an ad in his newspaper requesting the gift of $10,000.

Jim starts kicking the thing around in his mind. Unusual happenings like this make for unusual detective story situations. This thing is catchy, bait to be thrown out to entice some jaded reader.

But is this thing a story, Jim wants to know? He starts asking himself questions, because he learned long ago that writing for money is a question and answer game. Logical questions with logical answers.

By now Jim has made up his mind to use this screwball newspaper ad. But it can’t be screwball in fiction and sell; it has to have something solid under it. But could any man expect to receive the outright gift of such a sum of money? It doesn’t seem plausible to Jim, who is always striving for the plausible. Jim asks himself more questions. If this newspaper advertiser didn’t actually expect to receive the money, then why did he spend the price of the ad? Publicity! There is the answer! It is the answer to more than one question that has been nagging Jim’s mind. He has been hunting an unusual character, and any man who could conceive such an unusual publicity stunt would have to be an out-of-ordinary personality.

Jim has an ancient but never bettered motto tacked up in front of his desk: Keep the reader guessing! A detective story of the deductive type is no more than a game, in which the author matches his wits against the reader. Even in the human interest detective story wherein the hero is threatened by the reckoning of some crime which has been committed or is about to be committed, there is an element of mystery the revealing of which should come as a surprise to the reader.

An author, working at his job, is just as strict in his methods as a man building a house. The author searches first for an idea on which to build his story. Roughly, he knows his detective story is to concern murder, because murder is the most salable crime in modern mystery fiction.

Knowing murder is to be his story’s main crime, the author looks for a “catchy” opening. The unusual intrigues the jaded author as much as it intrigues a jaded reader. But whatever unusual situation is used in a story, it must be made plausible. Every question which could come into author, editor, or reader’s mind must be given a logical answer.

To go back to author Jim, he constructs his story with some definite magazine or type of magazines in mind. If he is to do a yarn for Detective Tales, he doesn’t write it according to the Black Mask style. Magazines are as individual as readers, with their own distinct likes and dislikes. And the only way a beginning writer can learn the characteristics of magazines is to study them, tear their plots apart, examine characterization, pace of the story, the stress on human interest as compared with deductions and mechanics of the crime. Some writers type the stories they are studying and then rewrite parts of them to get the feel of the Editor’s style.

Jim is an author who admires the mental processes of such deductive writers as Fleming-Roberts and Merle Constiner, but Jim know his limits. In his mind he is stronger on human interest in characters than on the deduction of a crime’s problem. So Jim consciously slants his story toward his own type of magazines, throwing in enough crime mystery and solution to flavor the yarn.

Most selling authors work out their plot, the mechanical framework of their story, before ever putting a finger on the typewriter. But there are just as many plotting methods as there are writers. One man plots from the opening situation; another finds a crime and motive and builds around them; a third writer may first decide on his climax and plot backwards. Some tangle a character in a seemingly hopeless situation, and then let the character work his way out on paper.

Once a writer puts a character into his story, the writer becomes that character. This is the sole secret of putting life and blood into a character. This does not mean the writer consciously transfuses himself into his story’s main character. It is that the writer, putting himself inside his fiction character, thinks like his character and has that man’s individual emotions of love and fear and hatred. In this way a story’s hero becomes more than a name on paper—he is someone who lives and breathes and reacts to a situation according to his own humor.

Character is your story. Character is the man down the street who feels guilty because he is not in uniform, he is the man whose hatred is real enough to lead to murder; he is any living, breathing person who knows fear and ambition, love and hatred, boredom or desire.

There are various methods of putting meat on a fiction hero. The easiest way is the "barn brush" method.

"Mike Hanna was tall and heavy, with arms that swung like pendulums from his wide shoulders. He had a blunt jaw and eyes that were blue and wide-spaced beneath his iron gray mane of hair. He wore a dark tweed suit. . .

And so on—the big brush method. Slap the paint on so there can be no doubt what your guy looks like. To hell with the reader's intelligence and imagination—you’re the author, ain’t you?

But the writer who is continually working to raise the plane of his craftsmanship uses a different approach. He knows that by using less paint and more skill with a finer brush, he can give his characters a roundness and color that an adult audience appreciates.

Mike Hanna eased his bulk into the chair.

“You say Bill is dead?” he asked. His voice was surprisingly soft for a man of his size. He rubbed one big hand along the shelf of his jaw and across his eyes. It was the gesture of a man who had heard but couldn’t believe. “You say Bill’s dead?”

It was because this big tweedy man took it so quietly that you sensed his hurt and the leashed wrath building up in him.

You could get away with the first example of barn brush characterization six or eight years ago. Modern editors are tougher to please. Slick or pulp, they want good writing for their money.

Therein lies a serious problem for beginning writers to answer. Because the war has taken so many authors out of business, present-day publishers are cramped for material for their books. Editors frequently have to buy stories that they would have tossed on the reject pile a year ago. A beginning writer can go into the business with the idea of jamming his stuff out, and know some editor may be forced to ignore the odor and buy the story simply because he cannot find better in time to meet his deadline.

Or the writer can work harder and try to make each story his best job to date. Doing this he will be building a firm foundation for the future of his business. He will be giving an editor the better than average stories he wants, and the editor will show his appreciation with higher word rates paid much more cheerfully. More valuable than this, the author will be building himself a reputation as an honest, hard-working craftsman. Those big-name writers now in uniform will be coming back some day, beginner, and don't forget that. Certainly the editor is not forgetting.

Fiction writing is strictly an individual proposition, but there are a few tricks of the trade a beginner can learn by studying the best text books of all—the magazines for which he wants to write.

They are:

  1. The pace or tone of stories as required by different editors, the accent on action or characterization or deduction which may define one magazine from another.
  2. The rough formula or framework of salable fiction, which must include:

a. an interesting opening, whether it is built around character or a situation. b. background of characters and their problems; methods of character development. c. the crime and its motive. d. the planting of clues and false suspects. e. solution of crime or the hero’s problem.

All these can be learned by anyone willing to study. He can learn to construct the plot or skeleton of the story, lay out the sequence of situations that lead up to the climax. But flesh must be on that skeleton to shape it into a readable, and salable story. To make the story alive and human, to make the characters real beings—therein lies the meat of this job, and the only ration ticket required for that is work.

Can an agent help? Not if you are like Joe, the talking writer, who expects only flowers and backslaps from a critic.

An agent’s boot applied forcefully against the seat of Jim’s pants has more than once kicked him back into the receiving end of editorial checks. Jim knows it is up to the free lance alone to work and write, but that a good agent who is not only a salesman but an out-spoken critic, can bring in more checks and larger checks.

Tonight Joe, the talking writer, is going to his local story club to discuss the yarn he wrote five years ago.

Tonight, Jim author is going to work, as usual.

How about you, brother?