Friday, January 23, 2009

On being a storyteller

A message writer I’m not. Some mystery novelists prefer to call attention to social problems by highlighting them in their books. That’s fine if it isn’t done in a preachy way. As for me, I’m quite content if I can tell a good story that will entertain my readers.

However, I have found that some readers will read things into your books that you never intended. When I met with a book club that had read The Marathon Murders, one woman was certain I had mentioned a lot of different cars because the plot revolved around the old Marathon Motor Works in Nashville. That was the farthest thing from my mind. I did it so my editor wouldn’t chastise me for having too many Fords or too many Chevrolets.

My new book due out in April, The Surest Poison, deals with a chemical dump that plays havoc with the health of people in a small rural community west of Nashville. I’m sure a lot of readers will presume that I wrote it to highlight the problem of water pollution from toxic waste.

If the book makes people more aware of the dangers that result from the careless handling of industrial chemicals, that’s fine. But unless they’ve been living under a rock for the past twenty or thirty years, I can’t imagine that any modestly knowledgeable adult would be unaware of the problem.

I chose the subject because it provided an opening for the creation of layers of tension that could be developed into an exciting story. And that’s what I do, tell stories.

This one came about when I was talking to a PI friend who has made quite a name for herself in the area of locating missing persons. She told me about a case she had worked a few years ago down around Jackson, Tennessee. It involved a company that faced disaster from trichloroethyelene dumped on its property by a previous owner that had gone out of business. She was hired to find the people responsible.

I took her case and moved it closer to home, adding a bunch of bad guys who had a history with my protagonist, new Nashville PI Sidney Lanier Chance. The idea struck a nerve because the first review I received, from author Tim Hallinan of the Poke Rafferty Bangkok mysteries, started out:

The Surest Poison is a terrifically timely mystery about one of the most pressing problems of our era.”

Maybe it’s the old law of unintended consequences. If it’s considered a good environmental mystery, I’ll take credit for being socially concerned. But, really, all I wanted to do was be a good storyteller.


Hagelrat said...

If it's any help I read for enjoyment and tend to be oblivious for deep social meaning. I expect they shall find me very irritating at book club. :)

Chester Campbell said...

Hi, Hagelrat. I'm with you. The story's the thing.

F. M. Meredith, author said...

I agree it's the story that should be the most important. Sometimes it is very off putting when the author is trying to be too politically correct.


Morgan Mandel said...

I look for a good story also, whether or not there's a message attached. I read fiction for escape, not to be taught something. I read non-fiction to learn.

Morgan Mandel

Mark Troy said...

The thing about mysteries is that they are the most contemporary of fiction. They deal with contemporary people experiencing contemporary problems. If you focus on the story, you'll almost always touch on some social issues. We can't escape them. Why should our characters?

Heath said...

For sure story is more important than anything else. But a solid novel can't help but have some social value, even if it's just in the subtext. Of course, if the authors priority is "sending a message", well, then it just becomes annoying. Story and character first, keep it moving, and any relevance should be able to reveal itself without having to hit anyone over the head.

Chester Campbell said...

Good comments folks. Like Mark said, if our character are going to act like real people, they'll get involved in real issues.