Thursday, June 7, 2012

So Why Pulp? - Writing What You Don’t Know

I’ve been getting myself into a whole lot of brand new writing ventures lately. I’m sticking several toes into waters I’ve never tried before. I do a lot of research for my writing, and when you’re talking specific time periods and mechanical things, I start getting edgy. I’m great with plants and animals, mythology and medieval references. I know diddly-squat about gangsters and cowboys, atomic power and airplane repair. Which means I’m going to be spending a lot of time searching the internet for reference material and pictures.

The conventional wisdom says you should write what you know. That’s not a bad idea, if you don’t mind writing for a small audience. I can go on about gardening all day; it’s something I have almost 40 years of experience with, and I’ve read just about every book, magazine, and website you can imagine. I have a shelf full of gardening how-to stuff, and I’ve sat through TV programs and lectures. I even ran a forum set on gardening and landscaping for a major software company back when I was new to the internet, and I was approached to be a consultant on software. I know my horticultural stuff well, and I’ve used it from time to time in writing. But gardening is not all I want to write about!

I write a lot of Sword & Sorcery fantasy, it’s the genre I love the best. It’s what I most often choose to read and I’ve read plenty over the years. I’d be perfectly happy if that’s all I wrote for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, the fan base for traditional fantasy with a pulp twist seems to be fairly small. So while my work has been well received amongst fans of that sort of thing, it’s been mostly passed over by the pulp community at large. The action adventure hero/period piece pulps are pretty much the rage, and so I’m finding myself forced to branch out if I want to find more readers. Which I do of course, because someday I’d love to be able to support myself through my writing. So this past year marks my first foray into something other than wizards and warriors.

I took on a small challenge, writing a YA (young adult) superhero story for a charity book. It was interesting, as I haven’t read an American comic book since I was in my teens. I’ve seen and enjoyed a few superhero flicks, but I’m not a huge fan of the genre. Still, the writing is not that much different than what I normally do, because these are warriors and villains in ultra strength spandex rather than chain mail, and they carry sophisticated gadgets rather that swords and bows. The setting was modern but the problems faced just as much over the top as any fantasy tale you could imagine. It was a good test of stretching my wings, and it whetted my appetite for what was to come.

The Pulp Obscura books that Pro Se Press is doing in conjunction with Altus Press are something that I knew I should get involved with, even though the idea of writing in genres of fiction that I’ve never even read was rather daunting. Basically we are reviving lesser known pulp characters of yesteryear with new stories that complement the Altus release of their original tales. I perused the list of possibilities carefully and picked out several that caught my eye. Because they have not been announced yet, I can’t talk about them in less than very general terms, but they were definitely story categories I have little experience with, each set in a specific place and time period. Writing the two that I did so far required an awful lot of research just to get the facts and terminology right, as well as working hard to capture the flavor of the original piece. I was glad I did it once I was finished with each story, but had more than few hair-pulling moments along the way. It stretched my knowledge base and hopefully will open new markets for my work, as well as find me additional audiences.

Both of the examples above were pieces I did for specific reasons. But sometimes you need to just try something new and see how it goes. Otherwise your writing gets stale and the stories all start to sound the same. One thing I found from working outside my comfort zone is that when I do go back to fantasy, I am writing with fresh ideas and a clear head. Write the same type of thing over and over, and after a while you are working on autopilot. You tend to miss the fact that you’re telling the same kind of tired out story the same old way. And you are really missing a chance to make new fans.

Pulp covers an awful lot of the genre fiction out there. In fact, I think you could make a valid case for saying some if not all of genre fiction originated in the pulps, and only became mainstream after the large publishing houses found they had a market that could be tapped. Even the superhero comics, that most graphic presentation of a story on a printed page, owes its existence to the old pulps. If there’s one thing I’ve learned since becoming a New Pulp writer is that we have a very diverse audience with eclectic tastes. Getting the pacing and high action part down in my writing was the first lesson I learned. Writing outside my comfort zone has been the next.

Late last year, I got challenged to try my hand at a private eye story. Initially I said forget it, I don’t read this stuff, and I don’t think I’ll do it justice. Besides, I write fantasy, and that’s what I love most. But that little voice of anarchy inside me said, “Oh come on Nancy, how hard can this be?” So without saying too much more about it, I latched on to the idea like a baby with a binky, and cast about for a way to make it work for me.

Now the one thing that initially threw me was the setting. I’m a country and small town gal, and most—though not all—PI stories take place on some mean streets in a big metropolitan area. There are exceptions I know, but they have to be extremely well done and steeped in enough quirky characterization and local flavor to make an interesting tale out of some little town or far off tourist trap local where not too much happens on a daily basis. I figured I was far enough from shore with the fact that all my PI experience came from TV shows, I needn’t give myself too many obstacles to get around. I based the story in a setting I know well: New England. More specifically, my main character’s agency is in the mythical shoreline town of Rockport Connecticut. Because I know enough about my area of the country to write knowledgeably about what might have happened where and to whom, it made turning out a believable but still over-the-top pulp tale a lot easier.

So the lesson there was you can write outside the big box, and still incorporate things you know something about. While my main protagonist is female and the setting is definitely modern with all the lovely electronic devices and gizmos we cling to, plenty of old fashioned sleuthing goes on. I’ve also paid homage to the detective stories of the past, so you’ll find guns and fedoras alongside cell phones and digital cameras. Being in a less economically dynamic setting makes for some interesting cases because out here, the state and local police departments have to fight for budgets, and the feds don’t involved until something warrants their attention. We still have missing and exploited people, unsolved homicides, organized crime elements, gang wars, and illegal drug distribution. The cops can’t be everywhere, and the state forensics program is overwhelmed and at least a year behind. So yeah, I can see where a savvy PI could make a living…

The Keener Eye debuts sometime later this year in Pro Se Presents, and it will be an ongoing series, with two stories written and turned in and a third one in the planning stages. While it’s a total departure from me in writing, the same kind of writing formula applies. It’s pulp, so it needs to be fast paced, tense, and action packed. And since I want it interesting, my characters need to have some depth to them, and the setting has to have some appeal. I stirred in some traditional PI props, and it was a go.

I still write mostly fantasy. I just love it too much to abandon it altogether for another more lucrative genre. By branching out more, and writing something I know less about, I’ve learned to trust myself as a writer as well as a researcher. We live in a wonderful age where information is available at the click of a device. We also live in a less innocent age, where the vast world our readers know about is much less of a mystery now that we have all these lovely electronic devices, and the average education level of most average folks is higher than ever before. So it’s harder to ‘fake’ your way through a story. You can still write outside what you know, with even a modicum of research and a good imagination, and add just enough a layers of believability to pull off a rousing good tale. As someone very wise (that’s you Derrick) said the other day (and I’m paraphrasing this), should comments pick apart what you wrote, at least you know they actually read your story!

Now go ahead and get out of that rut and write something brand new. You’ll be glad you did.

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