Guest Post // The Best Lousy Choice by Jim Nesbitt
When writers talk or get asked about tradecraft, they tend to focus on the four big building blocks of a story — characters, dialogue, narrative, and plot.
Or they get into a debate over this old chestnut of a question, a favorite of blog and podcast interviewers — “are you a pantster or a plotter?”
That’s a shorthand way of asking whether you carefully outline your story and its major plot points, twists and turns and pen detailed character sketches before starting to write your novel. Or, whether you tend to fly by the seat of your pants, with a minimal outline and just a few notes, letting the characters, dialogue and action tell you where the story is going.
In truth, most writers I know do a bit of both, preparing to write with an outline and character notes — either minimalist or detailed — then stuff both in a drawer and start writing, careful not to let that prep work strangle the muse and kill the chance of the characters, dialogue, and action-taking the story in an unexpected and more interesting direction.
What I don’t hear a lot of writers talking or getting asked about is the importance of place, the setting of their stories, the landscape where the characters roam and talk and all that action happens. Or doesn’t. This tells me that setting is secondary for a lot of writers, a backdrop as interchangeable as flats on the backside of a theater stage.
By my lights, this is a grievous mistake and a missed opportunity to add depth, complexity, and texture to their stories and their characters. For me, creating a keen sense of place is just as essential as etching well-defined characters, spinning snappy dialogue and driving the narrative with relentless action.
I spent more than three decades in journalism, with most of those years spent as a roving national or regional correspondent. I roamed across the South, the mountain West and the border between Texas and Mexico during those years and became fascinated with the interaction between the land and the people who lived on it. More specifically, I focused on how the geography and climate of a place shaped, changed and defined its people even as they were trying to master and wrest a living from it.
I blame my ancestry and my upbringing for this fascination with place. I come from a long line of hillbilly storytellers, mountain folk who lived near Asheville, N.C. My parents, my grandparents and my aunts, uncles and older cousins filled my sister and me with stories about each other and their parents and ancestors and the mountains they called home. Our home.
Didn’t matter that my sister and I grew up outside Philadelphia — we knew who our people were and where home really was. It helped that we lived with my grandfather for three or four years in the house where my father was born and raised and got to know the joys of a wood-burning kitchen stove and a two-hole outhouse. Spent nearly every summer with the country cousins until my mid-teens.
As a result of family tradition, I’ve tried to create a keen sense of place in all three of my hard-boiled crime thrillers that feature a battered but doggedly tough Dallas PI named Ed Earl Burch. While some of the action takes place in Dallas, Houston, and New Orleans, cities I’ve either lived in or know quite well, the sense of place is strongest in the scenes set in West Texas and just a few miles south of the Rio Grande.
I fell in love with this harsh, stark and mountainous desert country when knocking around the border as a journalist. It is an unforgiving country where most everything can bite, sting, cut or kill you. It is the perfect setting for bloody tales of rough justice, revenge, and redemption.
But I’m not in the business of writing a sun-seared travelogue. I’m writing hard-boiled crime thrillers driven by character, dialogue, and action. So there has to be more to my creating a keen sense of West Texas than a lethal backdrop.
I believe there is.
By showing you West Texas through the eyes of my characters, particularly Ed Earl Burch, I wind up telling you a lot about who they are by how they react to that land, how they deal with that harshness, what they feel while looking at all that stark big empty.
Just like the dance between characters and the dialogue between them more sharply defines who they are, so too does the interaction between characters and a well-defined and consequential place. Creating a keen sense of place gives you another means of adding depth and complexity to your characters and the story you’re trying to tell.
But don’t take my word for it. Consider the work of two masters — Raymond Chandler, one of the founders of the hard-boiled detective genre, and James Lee Burke, a modern-day master of detective fiction.
Chandler’s descriptions of Los Angeles — his caustic depictions of its superficial, neon-lit glamour and deep corruption and seediness powerfully define Philip Marlowe and give him a depth dialogue and action by themselves can’t achieve.
Burke’s vivid descriptions of the Cajun country of South Louisiana, its ravaged natural beauty and the poverty and pride of its people, give the same complexity and depth to his main character, Dave Robicheaux, who seems to be constantly at war with the people he blames for ruining the place of his birth and the memories of his childhood.
Let me show you what I mean with a passage from my latest book, The Best Lousy Choice. My main character, Ed Earl Burch, is haunted by nightmares from his last case and self-medicating with whiskey and a half tab of Percodan. As he’s driving on the trail of killers, he’s looking at that harsh West Texas country and those sharp-spined mountains and a transformation takes place.
He almost died in this stark and primal country and he still had those demons lurking in their rocky holes. But as he drove north, he was a hunter unafraid, a cop working his bloody trade and drawn to the grim beauty of these unforgiving mountains and the way they clashed and collided — the Rockies slicing in from the northwest, vestiges of the Ozarks creeping in from the northeast and the Sierra del Carmens knifing out of the southwest and Mexico.
It was as if the gods, ancient, angry and always thirsty for blood, had ripped open the flesh of the earth and exposed its bones. It was a savage country, inhabited by spirits more terrible than the demons of his nightmares.
It was a place where those demons couldn’t hide. If they arose, they’d be out and exposed in the burning sun where Burch could see them — in the blinding light, their hold on him broken by the harsh glare of the land itself. If he lived here, he wouldn’t need the whiskey salvation and the half-a-Percodan sacrament.
Burch is a sojourner in this land, but it still shapes him and gives definition to his passage from fear and reliance on pills and booze to a measure of his old self — a manhunter chasing the bad guys. Looking at that harsh land almost gives him hope and gives him a glimpse of a life free from demons and terror.
That’s why I say creating a keen sense of place is such an essential ingredient in the writing of a novel with depth and dimension, one that reaches beyond the conventions of genre.
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Jim Nesbitt is the author of three hard-boiled Texas crime thrillers that feature battered but dogged Dallas PI Ed Earl Burch — THE LAST SECOND CHANCE, a Silver Falchion finalist; THE RIGHT WRONG NUMBER, an Underground Book Reviews “Top Pick”; and his latest, THE BEST LOUSY CHOICE.
Nesbitt was a journalist for more than 30 years, serving as a reporter, editor and roving national correspondent for newspapers and wire services in Alabama, Florida, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Washington, D.C. He chased hurricanes, earthquakes, plane wrecks, presidential candidates, wildfires, rodeo cowboys, migrant field hands, neo-Nazis and nuns with an eye for the telling detail and an ear for the voice of the people who give life to a story.
His stories have appeared in newspapers across the country and in magazines such as Cigar Aficionado and American Cowboy. He is a lapsed horseman, pilot, hunter and saloon sport with a keen appreciation for old guns, vintage cars and trucks, good cigars, aged whiskey, and a well-told story.
He now lives in Athens, Alabama.
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