The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across the keyboard.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

When Writing It Right Is Writing It Wrong: Info for Authors with Jamie Mason

Jamie is a spectacular writer, and I claim her as my very first writing mentor - she has been incredibly positive and enthusiastic, gently offering suggestions ever since I handed her my very first draft of my first novel and thought that I had created a masterpiece. 

Oh the shame! LOL.

Welcome. Jamie, and congratulations on your incredible success with Three Graves Full. Since I learned from you that you have to be careful about your details, I thought we could chat about writing it right and when that's just wrong. Do you have your coffee ready?

Jamie - 
I do!

Fiona - 
Are you happy and healthy?

Jamie - 
I have not killed anyone all day, so it's starting off great.
(And yes, for a straight answer.)

Fiona - 
Today, you were going to tell me a weird true-life story that ended up in your book...

Jamie - 
I am not known for my coordination.

I'm very careful or I'd be very clumsy. I can't dance. I can't skate. Playing the drums or piano or anything that would require my hands and feet to do very separate things is not recommended for people like me.

I'm a terrible shot with a pistol and in darts, I'm really only aiming for the board, nothing more specific than that.

Many years ago (like 17 years or so) I was home alone because my husband worked out of town during the week. We were only married on the weekends.

I was talking to him on the phone and also being menaced by a horsefly in my kitchen. The conversation was going nowhere, because most of my attention was tied up in flailing a dish towel at this horsefly.

But eventually, I'd had enough of that. These were the days of phones anchored to the wall, and I either had to abandon the phone call or do something about that fly. I suddenly became possessed by some action-hero demon and told my husband, "Hang on, honey. I'm going to knock this sucker's head off."

I struck a pose that really should have required stilettos and waited for the horsefly's next pass. It dove and my arm shot out with a wave of never-to-be-repeated aim, With a flick of the wrist, the the horsefly’s head, its little wand of a brain stem still attached, hit the floor to my left and the winged body, still twitching, ticked against the linoleum to my right, a full five feet away.

Yes. I decapitated a horsefly with a dishtowel four seconds after I called my shot like Babe Ruth.

It was the coolest thing I've ever done and nobody saw.

So I put it in a book. (Well, a version of it anyway.)

Fiona - 
There's a story that you and I share that went into this book as well, I think. Because it was such a weird thing to happen, I put it in one of my books as well. We were having coffee at a friends you care to tell the story in your words and how it worked into your plot?

Jamie - 
Oh yeah!

It was just a tiny little moment, but it's a turning point for the main character, Dee.

What happened in real life is that you were utterly exhausted - with good and serious reason. I mean, we all knew this was true and a fact of your life at the time, but one little thing just illustrated it.

You were fixing up your afternoon coffee with a packet of sugar, but in your distraction, you poured the sugar on the table and popped the paper packet in the coffee and stirred it with the spoon before you realized what you'd done.

It was such a profound, albeit tiny, demonstration of your mental fatigue that I used it to illustrate Dee's line of "enough".

Then she gets to solving her problem.

Fiona - 
In writing, borrowing from our memories of little scenes that stayed with us is such a useful tool. But I know that you are also a girl who likes her facts.

When I'm giving lectures, one of the stories I tell came from you

Jamie - 
That's fun!

Fiona - 
It's really pretty funny. The story is about the poor guy who you called to find out about digging.

Can you tell us the story in your words about calling the company and asking them about how long it would take to dig a hole and their reaction to your inquiry?

Jamie - 
Ha! Yes.

There's a lot that you'll know about a story that won't go into specific words on the page. Just details, really. And you never want your Google to show up in the writing.

When I was writing Three Graves Full, I knew that my main character had dug a competent grave.

This was no shallow, stupid job. In my mind (but not on the page) it was about a 7ft x 3ft x3ft.

I got into a wrangle with my critique partner, because he said Jason should do it in an hour, ninety minutes tops, but I had written that it took 3 hours.

We went round and round, so I finally called an septic and irrigation company and announced that I needed to speak to someone who knew a lot about digging holes.
The guys said, "I been diggin' holes for twenty years."

So I asked how long it would take to dig a 7 x3x3. 
He said, "'Bout an hour."

I don't know if I cussed out loud or only in my head. But I did say at least, "WHAT??!!??!"

He informed me that sure, most of that time would be spent getting the backhoe on and off the trailer.

I was greatly relieved. "Not with a backhoe. With a shovel. By hand."

He said that it would take him three hours in favorable conditions, but to triple the time for someone who didn't know what they were doing.

So, I left it at three hours, but what I have Jason doing is likely close to unbelievable, since he wasn't an expert.

Fiona - 
Can you imagine that poor man's reaction after he hung up?
Scratches head. "Why do you think that woman needed to know how long it took to dig a hole that's 7 feet deep and 3 foot square? With a shovel. Alone. At night...What she say her name was? Jamie? That sure sounds like a made-up name to me. Maybe I should *69 that call and let Sheriff Blankenship mull it over."

One of the things that I like about your writing, Jamie, is that I know it's correct, but it's not a tutorial. 

Since this is a site with the goal of helping authors to "write it right", can we talk about when writing it right is actually wrong? The "I did my research, and I want you to know it effect."

Jamie - 
Oh sure. Definitely. One of my favorite things about the writing process is the wide open access to expertise. Anyone will tell you anything if you say you're writing a book. And now, with so much wonderful information on the internet, it's even easier. But, like a slip under your sexy skirt, you never want your Google showing.

I try to be careful about that, but it's hard. You learn fascinating things and you want to put all of this information into the story, but you just can't, because when your hero takes a ruinous kick to the knee, he can't buckle to the ground thinking that his anterior intercondyloid fossa has just been disengaged from his meniscus.

Technical detail and jargon are, generally speaking, in blocking opposition to action, adrenaline, and emotion.

Fiona - 

One of the things that I like to ask people when they visit ThrillWriting is to share their favorite scar story - I think they are interesting things for writers to read - all the ways your heroine can get messed up. You have one about a doctor and a paper clip. Will you share it? I think it is novel worthy.

Jamie - 
Oh, cringe city.

When I was about 19 years old, I slammed the tip of my index finger in a lead file cabinet drawer.

Luckily, I didn't break the finger, but the impact had driven a lot of blood up under the fingernail and the pain was outstanding.

The throbbing just never stopped.

That evening, my boyfriend suggested I let him heat up a needle and work it into the flat of my fingernail to create a borehole to release the blood, therefore the pressure, therefore the pain.

I refrained from hitting him, but told him to stay away from my finger with his grand ideas.

By next day, I was ready to try anything.

I had an office job in the main compound of a huge national insurance company. This place was a city block in total and honestly had its own zip code - and a doctor on site.

She said she was a doctor anyway.

I went to her to see if there was anything she could do to make this finger stop throbbing. She suggested a borehole to release the blood, therefore the pressure, therefore the pain.

I said, "GREAT!"

But where my boyfriend had wanted to use a sterilized, sharp needle, Dr. Manic pulled a large-gauge paperclip out of her desk drawer and bent it straight-ish.

She had me flatten my hand on the table and pressed the blunt paperclip against my fingernail and all my memories after that are very slow and fuzzy. I do remember thinking, as I watched her arm shaking with exertion, that if she managed to get through the nail there was no way she'd pull back in time to keep from driving it all the way---

And that's when she put the paper clip all the way through my finger.

Blood splattered the wall and my knees started to buckle.

Fiona - 
Argh - oh my god my bones just turned to Jell-o

Jamie - 
Then, this crazy bitch grabbed up a bottle of rubbing alcohol and poured it into the hole. I nearly hit the ceiling.

I think I didn't stop shaking for two hours.

There isn't much of a scar on my finger, but on my psyche -- oh, you betcha.

Fiona - 
LOL now. I bet you were loving your boyfriend though for wanting to do it the right way - did he gloat "I told you!" 'You should have let me..."

Jamie - 
No kidding. I so wish I had done it his way.

Fiona - 
As we are discussing real life situations that inform our writing, research that influences but does not overwhelm our writing, I'd also touch on the concept of the plotting spark. The what if... or the how it would it play out...

For example, in my novella Mine,  my plotting spark was, "Hey, did you know they reformulated OxyCodone so it turns to goo if a junkie tries to get high on it?"

Your newest book, Monday's Lie, uses an plotting spark that is so amazingly cool that I cannot wait to get my hands on your book. (That's an appeal for an ARC - Monday's Lie is available Feb 3, 2015). 

Would you please tell us the basics of your idea spark?

Jamie - 
Here's a little of the inception story of Monday's Lie.

Back in 2009, I saw a FBI agent give a talk about, well, all kinds of things. He was working with the Fugitive Apprehension group and was explaining something about facial recognition technology.

He said that humans processed faces top down. That's how we load them into our memories.

And since hunting a fugitive can take a very long time, against an adversary who necessarily doesn't want to be recognized, they found a psychological trick to counter time and disguise attempts.

If you study someone's photo upside-down, you load their image into your brain differently than all the thousands of faces your incredible mind catalogs the regular way. You'll be able to recognize this person no matter if they change their hair, wear a hat, wear sunglasses, add or remove facial hair, and, of course as we all must, age.

I thought that was so cool, and it germinated into what became Monday's Lie.

So, to all those writer people, Fiona's blog and all the expertise detailed therein is invaluable. You never know what little gem will turn into a story that works.

Fiona -  

Jamie, thank you so much for sharing your stories and wisdom with us today.

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.


  1. What a great post! Thanks to both of you for the entertaining and informative tidbits. Awesome stuff. :-)

  2. I love this line:

    "Technical detail and jargon are, generally speaking, in blocking opposition to action, adrenaline, and emotion."

    I took the liberty of tweeting that and adding it to Facebook and attributing it to Jamie. Great stuff!

    1. Jamie is a necklace composed of pearls of wisdom. Listening to her is always illuminating. She's an amazing woman :)