I spent a quarter-century as a journalist writing about SEC regulations, mutual funds, tax rules and other glamorous topics before getting a contract for my first novel. The obvious assumption, among my friends and journalism colleagues, was that historical mysteries were a world apart from articles on active vs. passive investing. But now that I look backward, technical articles and novels aren’t so different after all. Some of my work as a financial journalist helped me write about Lady Frances, an aristocratic suffragist solving mysteries in Edwardian England.
Do It On Time
When you write for a magazine, you do it on time. My editor said, “Please submit this article by Friday.” Not when I was inspired. Not when I had time to mull over it. Friday. You had to figure out how to get it done on Friday, because that was your deadline. With a novel, of course, I didn’t have someone breathing down my neck every day, but I told myself I had to get it done. Would Agatha Christie form a tighter plot? Would George Simenon draw more beautiful scenes? Would Rex Stout write livelier dialogue? Don’t waste time worrying about measuring up. I set goals and continued to write, so I’d have a novel in a year, not just a few chapters after a decade. Each evening I just sat down and started typing, following Lady Frances as she traveled through London’s most elegant drawing rooms and lowest taverns. And often, she pleasantly surprised me.
Know Your Audience
I’ve written articles for the most sophisticated financial advisors, for serious investors, for people who barely knew what the stock market was, and everyone in between. If I assumed too much knowledge from my audience, the article wouldn’t be understandable.
It’s easy to say loftily: “My novel is for everyone.” But that’s not true. In Death on the Sapphire, Lady Frances investigates a tragedy whose roots are in the Boer War. I couldn’t assume that modern American readers would know about a war fought more than a century ago between British troops and the descendants of European immigrants in South Africa. And yet, the pain and suffering that came out of the Boer War was central to understanding my characters’ motivations. Without any knowledge of the war, readers would be lost, so I made sure the necessary information was subtly slipped in.
Get It Right
As a journalist, accuracy was the most important aspect of the job. Why should anyone read your publication if you don’t correctly explain a new tax reg? But fiction lets you do whatever you want, right? No, it doesn’t. Even when I write my novels, accuracy is key: What kind of guns were available in turn-of-the-century London? (Characters brandish revolvers, not semi-automatics.) Did they travel in carriages or automobiles back then? (Lady Frances enjoys riding in the first car Mr. Rolls and Mr. Royce produce together.)
Also, I had to look into what kind of education different characters in different classes would have. Lady Frances’ brother, an aristocrat who serves in government, would have gone to Eton and then Oxford. But an old soldier from a rural district, on the other hand, might be barely literate. It’s easy to say, “Oh, only historians would catch any errors,” but in fact, as inconsistencies and anachronisms pile up, the book becomes less cohesive, and the characters less believable.
So I was off to a good start. However, when I first put aside my articles to write my first novel, I found there were some things was a lot I had to learn.
If only writing dialogue were as easy as listening to people talk. (If only jury duty were as interesting as an episode of Law & Order.) I had to make the dialogue streamlined and engaging, and pages of narration with little talking bogged down the action. There was no magic solution here. I had to alternate between rewriting my dialogue again and again, and reading books written by people who were good at dialogue.
Crafting an Effective Plot
Having a story in my head turned out to be very different from getting it on paper. Some parts of the story I wanted to tell just zipped along page after page. Others seemed to drag. The bottom line was that I had to keep readers interested. Did the action move along, and was it in tune with the characters I had created? An editor told me that clues in a mystery had to come from tension in the plot. So on my second draft, a scene that didn’t pass the “tension test” got redlined. But a scene where Frances extracted crucial information from a seriously ill – but still cunning – political powerbroker ratcheted up the tension. I polished it and left it in.
Arthur Conan Doyle couldn’t remember where Watson was wounded. He once even got Watson’s first name wrong. I sympathized. Lady Frances’ shy suitor had green eyes when she met him, and blue eyes when he confessed his love in a chapter I wrote three months later. A telephone in a stately Elizabethan home migrated over several chapters from a closet off the entranceway to the morning room where the lady of the manor held sway. Problems like this are easily manageable in a 4,000-word story, but not an 85,000-word novel. Part of what I do is write little biographies for my characters upfront that I can refer to later, but you don’t catch every error without constant re-reading–which you should be doing anyway!
Thank you for being our guest here on PubCrawl today, R.J., and congrats on your debut! Readers, what do you think about the relationship between business writing and fiction writing? Do you have any thoughts to add? Please share them in the comments!
R.J. KORETO is the author of DEATH ON THE SAPPHIRE (June 14, 2016) and DEATH AMONG RUBIES (October 11, 2016), both from Crooked Lane Books. Like his heroine, Frances Ffolkes, he is a graduate of Vassar College. He has spent most of his career as a financial journalist, holding senior editorial positions at the Journal of Accountancy and Financial Planning magazine, among others. Richard has also been a freelance writer and PR consultant. He is a member of Mystery Writers of America, and his work has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Visit him at https://ladyfrancesffolkes.com