Monday, December 15, 2014

Five Things I Learned from Patricia Highsmith

by Bobbi A. Chukran

Last week, while re-arranging my book hoard, I came across Patricia Highsmith's book, PLOTTING AND WRITING SUSPENSE FICTION. Then a member of my Sisters-in-Crime group mentioned it, so I decided to re-read it. 

Last time I read the book, it didn't "resonate" with me but I decided to give it another try. It's a short volume and easy to get through in a Sunday evening when there isn't much else on PBS besides the Boisterous Boy's Bell Choir from Belgravia or some such.

Patricia Highsmith was a suspense author from Ft. Worth, Texas (my birth town) who wrote THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, her debut novel that was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock into one of my favorite movies.

Ms. Highsmith admitted that the book is NOT a "how-to write" but a series of things she learned throughout her career. Throughout my re-reading of the book, I learned things about my own writing and had a few mini-epiphanies that will definitely change the way I think about my work.

1. I learned that "who-dunnits" might not be the best thing for me to write.

Ms. Highsmith admitted that she was "not an inventor of puzzles" and that the "mystery who-dunnit" story was "definitely not my forte." She goes on to say that her worst book (A GAME FOR THE LIVING) was of that type. 

This made me think about the types of stories I'm writing. I've been reading lots of cozies and traditional locked room (puzzle) mysteries, and increasingly I have to admit that they aren't my favorite, either. I've actually been trying to write some and have that unsettled "queasy" feeling that comes when I go off track.

Turns out, my favorite short stories I've written have not been the traditional "who-dunnits,"—they've been SUSPENSE. Even my literary short stories have an element of suspense in them (see "Sadie and the Museum Lady" -- free to read on The Dead Mule).  My first mystery novel, LONE STAR DEATH is a sort of hybrid of suspense and traditional who-dunnit. I'm not sure why I never noticed this before.
The stories I like to read the most aren't traditional "who-dunnits" or cozies. Or should I call them "dozies"? Just kidding, sort of.

The ones I like the most are the more suspenseful types with lots of action and  little twists at the end. Stories like you might have seen on the Alfred Hitchcock TV show, or The Twilight Zone. So if I don't like those other types, why write them? Good question!

 I think one of my best stories is "Dewey Laudermilk & the Peckerwood Tree." I consider it more of a suspense story than anything else. And the one that sells the most is my "Aunt Jewel and the Purloined Pork Loin" story. It's a comedy caper with suspense and not a who-dunnit at all.

2. I learned that it's OK not to like all of my characters.

I recently admitted to some writer friends that I don't like many of my characters, and I wondered why this was so. In her book, Highsmith also talked a lot about liking characters and the importance of the reader caring about them. Her amoral, warped characters are actually sympathetic. Highsmith invented characters like Tom Ripley, a con man who became a rich sociopath. Her admiration for the character came through as she talked about him. And, according to Highsmith, it's valid for the author to actually like characters like these—even the bad ones--but we don't have to in order to write a good story.

After reading that, I realized that I DO like some of mine, but I was thinking about my protagonist when I should have been looking in the other direction. I DO like my villains and those like the poor luckless slob in "Dead Dames Don't Wear Diamonds," published recently in THE ANTHOLOGY OF COZY-NOIR (Darkhouse Books).

Now, I need to figure what it is about the characters I DO like and about the ones I do NOT like. Maybe I can apply some of that knowledge to new characters to make them more sympathetic to my readers.

3.  I learned that my main recurring theme seems to be REVENGE and that's OK.

 Ms. Highsmith claims that every author has a "theme" that will eventually emerge and that they should pay attention to it. Her theme, she said, was the relationship between people (especially men) and those sometimes life-changing or threatening encounters. This is certainly illustrated in her first novel, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN.

Knowing a theme is useful for an author because it helps with plotting and coming up with ideas for new stories. Sure enough, when I flipped through my files, I found that six stories have "revenge" as the theme. Instead of cringing and feeling like I'm a bad person, I'm running with it.

4.  I learned where that "really sour feeling about the whole project" comes from.

I've been calling it that "queasy feeling" and am glad to know that it's not just me and it's not the stomach flu. The feeling that a story is "forced, self-conscious and utterly without life" comes about when an author doesn't identify with her character and isn't feeling the emotions of the character. Now that I know where it comes from, perhaps I can pay more attention to it and take steps to alleviate it. Without Pepto-Bismol.

5.   I learned that authors have always struggled with some of the same things.

Ms. Highsmith stated, "I have scarcely a morning that doesn't bring something in the post that could be called psychically disturbing" and brings about "anguish and muted screams." She mentioned taxes, not being able to go on four hours' sleep any more like we used to and the feeling that "the aim of society is to put us all out of business." She ends the book with this advice: "…remember that artists have existed and persisted, like the snail and the coelacanth and other unchanging forms of organic life, since long before governments were dreamed of."

Good to know. And to remember.

About the Author

Bobbi A. Chukran writes short tales of mystery & suspense from "Nameless, Texas" featuring mirth & murder, holidays & homicide.
A complete list of Bobbi's stories and books can be found here:


Lourdes Venard said...

I highly recommend the biography "The Talented Miss Highsmith." Interesting look at her life!

Bobbi A. Chukran, Author said...

Hi Lourdes, Thanks, I'll definitely take a look at it.

Jan Christensen said...

This was a great analysis about writing, especially crime writing. The more mysteries/crime stories you write, the more I think you'll find out what works best for you. But getting hints from other great writers like Ms. Highsmith is a good idea. Can save you some time.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I read her biography and it tells a fascinating story. She was a very strange character but it's interesting that she writes with such depth and perception about writing when her life suggests nothing of the sort. I especially like the way you identify that queasy feeling. We've all been through that.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I read her biography and it tells a fascinating story. She was a very strange character but it's interesting that she writes with such depth and perception about writing when her life suggests nothing of the sort. I especially like the way you identify that queasy feeling. We've all been through that.

Bobbi A. Chukran, Author said...

Thanks, Jan. Sometimes I spend too much time analyzing what I do, but these days I don't want to waste time by writing or publishing something that's going to just sit there. And if my heart isn't into it, then I won't be able to expand it into a series or whatever. I won't be changing the things I write so much as I'm looking at them in a whole different way.

Jenny Milchman said...

What a great analysis, Bobbi--of her work and yours!