How Are Stories Written

A question often comes up as to how I write stories. The answer is that everyone probably does it differently. If you decide to write, you’ll probably invent your own method, a method that suits you. My process proceeds in stages.


First I find the McGuffin. The McGuffin is the idea or device the story hangs on. In Wired, soon to be renamed Fedwire, a man embezzles ten billion dollars from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. Steeling is easy. Getting away with it is hard. The story isn’t really about the theft, it’s about getting away with it and living to enjoy the fruits of his crime. In The Newest Babylon, the story is about how Jack English starts out trying to get a widow some money for an accidental death and he gets sucked into a political mess which ends… nearly… with him hanging onto a scrap of wood in the middle of the Atlantic, covered in gasoline, while a mad man is trying to set him on fire. In Crime Watch, the McGuffin starts with President Roosevelt’s April 1933 order that all Americans turn in their gold to the Federal Reserve by May of that year. Of course, it would be naïve to think gangsters, and bootleggers, and rich industrialists did it. So, there is a real possibility some of that gold is still hidden somewhere waiting to be found.


Second, I try to round up a cast of interesting characters. Who is my hero or heroine? What are they like? Are they tall or short? Fat or lean? Do they have hobbies? What are their habits? In Crime Watch Wilson Kiley is an investigative radio reporter who loves old cars and lives on Camac Street in Philadelphia. His sidekick is Stephanie Turlow, an ex-Army sergeant, who knows her way around guns and is good with power tools. It’s not just the major characters that need development. Minor characters do to. In Crime Watch there is a seductive mystery woman who refuses to give her name. In Drugged, a novel I’m working on a novel now, one of the characters is Harcourt Fenton Mudd, a forger already mentioned in this blog. Characters have to be real with three dimensional lives, with hopes and dreams and fears of their own. So many novels default to characters who are divorced, who drink too much, and are mildly self-destructive. Boring.


Third, I try to start each story with a bang. At most, I have one page to interest a reader. Think that’s a short piece of string? People’s attention spans are so short, that for many people I may only have two paragraphs. If you want to write start the story with a bang. I recently read a book that was recommended to me and nothing happened in the first fifty pages. Few people are going to wade through fifty pages just to see what the story is about.


Fourth, I try to put in some shtick. Most mystery and science fiction writing is it is unrelentingly dark. It’s O.K. to have some dark elements in writing. The world is not fenced in candy canes. But, there needs to be some lightness too. For example, in Crash, one of the characters is Wilma Deering, the widow of a man killed in a plane crash. There is a running gag across several characters and situations about Wilma Deering being Buck Rogers girlfriend.


There is a lot to say about writing. The most important thing is to write. Write every day if you can. Write something even if it’s just a paragraph. My goal, when I am not teaching, is to write two thousand words a day. I don’t always make it, but if you want to write you have set goals for yourself.

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