Being Wanda Q

canstockphoto14151823As I work on my outline for my 2nd novel (NaNoWriMo is here soon!), I am pondering how far a writer should go for authenticity. My first novel, Phoenix Rock, is still in play, as I drag myself inch by inch through re-writes. It was a nightmarish soap opera by the end, with a dysfunctional family perpetuating murder and mayhem. It started out as a character study. Obviously I got a little bored with it and felt compelled to kill off a few characters.

I was excited about my second novel – less angst and more fun. Wanda Q and a Spoonful of Justice has all the hallmarks of being an imitative Confederacy of DuncesΒ  – only not as funny or literate. I realized these things, after I started outlining chapters – a theme emerged and I smacked myself in the forehead. I’ve read something like this before. But no worries – without John Kennedy Toole’s talent, persistent mother and tragic end, I will survive to write an unpublished, poorly written wannabe counterfeit.

My first novel dealt with alcoholism, OCD, depression, domestic violence – all subjects woven into my life experience. It’s not autobiographical, but typical of a new writer, not straying too far from personal knowledge.Β  My intent for a second novel was to write the novel I wanted to write, not the one I felt compelled to write.

The theme of vigilante justice has always interested me. And why wouldn’t it? Sometimes in this world, we see little evidence of true justice, true karma in play. Maybe we are just too myopic to see the big picture. Maybe in the end, the score card leans heavily on the side of fairness. I really don’t know. My main character doesn’t see justice at work. She simmers with quiet suburban rage about the daily indignities of modern living, until the proverbial straw that gives birth to a vigilante.

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My new tools of the trade?

The thing is, I don’t know how she’ll do it. She needs skills – many of which I do not have. Will the NSA start tracking me if I keep looking up articles on lock picking, tasers and wiretapping? Would the police show up after I’m spotted trying to pick locks into my own house? Would they list me as a person of interest, if I stopped by the station and started asking about procedures? How far do I need to go for authenticity? Do I go all “Daniel Day Lewis” or do I just read a lot and watch YouTube videos?

To be honest, I’m going for six of one and half a dozen of the other. I’ll try a lock or two and learn the difference between a Taser X2 and X26. Maybe I’ll have a conversation with the community liasion officer. Other than that, I’m going to do what a million writers before me have done – use my imagination. Fortunately, the book will be full of mishaps – then I’ll be writing what I know.

If you’re a writer, how far do you go to make your work authentic?

As a general fiction reader, is the devil in the details?

35 Comments on “Being Wanda Q

  1. No matter how you approach the technical details of what the character does, I bet Wanda will be a lot of fun to read.

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  2. With me it’s mixed, as I write speculative fiction and poetry, so some of it is my bat, my ball, my rules. However it needs to stay true to whatever rules I’ve set up. (J.K. Rowling talks about this in one of her interviews, where she wouldn’t allow the movies to do certain things because they wouldn’t happen in her world.)

    That said, I have been yanked out of a book by the author being a bit out of a field I know well. So I do some research, but I also love Anne Lamott’s advice of just calling up an expert and letting them talk. (She talks about learning the name of the hood on a champagne cork by calling and talking to a monk who made champagne.) I think Writer’s Digest books also has a book out about tools for mayhem.

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    • As I’ve been thinking about this more, I realize that Wanda Q will have all the same problems I would in learning those skills. That makes it somewhat easier. I cringe through book reviews by experts pointing out all the technical errors in a novel, so I will do some research, but to misquote Shakespeare: The story’s the thing. I will overlook some details in a book if the story is compelling enough – except for military or historical books, because well-written ones are educational and not just entertaining. I’d rather not write a “how to” guide for vigilantes!

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  3. As a reader, everything I know about a lot of things comes from books. A writer with confidence, and not many glaring errors (like fire shooting from a gun instead of bullets…unless it’s steampunk), makes up for her own lack of hands-on experience. I love the idea of watching YouTube videos! And isn’t that what a chapped off suburbanite would do to get the skills she needs?

    Rock on!

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    • You’re exactly right – I can use some of my own steps in researching as part of the story. Your comment just planted 50 more ideas into my head. Steampunk….and yes, I’m thinking of how fire might shoot out of a gun realistically. My little ADD brain is going to love trying to get through this novel. 4 hours of YouTube videos later…

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  4. If you take advantage of NaNo’s genre forums, somebody will be happy to answer any question you have. Last year, the forums ranged from the truly bizarre science fiction to everyday ones like incorporating historical medicine accurately into the story. The forum participants are always happy to share their particular expertise.
    πŸ™‚

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  5. I think you know the answers to your questions already…it has to be authentic and yes, it’s in the details. Not so much that I don’t care though (about the details). Your toil researching needn’t be my toil πŸ™‚ — it’s all a fabulous lie and a wink-wink between the two of us. Don’t violate my trust; that’s how far you need to go with the authenticity.

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    • I do, Bill, but I like the discussion that comes from asking the questions. I’ve already learned more, just from the comments. I do think there is a tacit agreement between writer and reader that if the story is told well, we won’t ask why there happened to be a crowbar in the room. If a character does something ridiculous, without motivation and simply to move the story along, that’s when things get tricky.

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  6. There’s biographical authenticity and then there’s psychological authenticity. I can’t help but focus on characters that think like I do but they never live in my actual world. I guess that makes me a disguised narcissist (a/k/a a typical never-to-be-published novelist).

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    • Maybe this will change with experience, but I like to write characters that I’d want to meet. That was a problem with my last book – a little too close to home and not likable characters. I might have been working out a few issues! We’re all narcissistic to some extent or else we wouldn’t feel so compelled to write out loud.

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  7. Love Wanda already! I think the devil is in the details – to a degree. I am not a picky reader in that respect but the story will need to be somewhat believable. Just tonight I saw a review of a best seller where someone wrote that this author described events in a newsroom but it was obvious she had never set her foot in one…so get busy practicing lock picking and let us know how it goes…This will be a great read!

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    • As a reader, it is more important to me that the characters themselves are believable and that the story has a natural pace.

      My lock picking kit is in the mail. I’m hoping it will be a fun romp of a read and am looking forward to writing about Wanda Q’s adventures!

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  8. Yeah, this is something I used to worry about, too. But I found if I just write the damn story, the research holes become self evident. Leap and the Holes will Appear!

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    • Ah, yes, the self-evident crap detection when the story has been told. Still, I’m a little excited about learning how to pick locks. When the apocalypse comes, I’ll know how to steal food and supplies. And if this writing thing doesn’t work out for me, that may be necessary at some point!

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  9. Love the ‘Spoon of Justice’ – it is reminiscent of the watch word cried out by The Tick “Spooooooon!” I did wonder if the title character is a take off of Suzie Q. (Some sort of uber-housewife 1950’s persona, I think.) That Wanda will be a modern-day version who not only gets her whites, whiter than white, but her justice will be equally scoured spic and span!?

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  10. Novel #2 sounds so interesting. I started reading a light read recently that was about a friendly house thief. I started wondering how the author knew so much about lock-picking and burglary. After some emails and online searches, sure enough I found an interview with the author saying how precarious he felt googling things like ‘how to break into a house without being noticed’. Your entry reminded me of this πŸ™‚

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    • I think it’s really difficult, and maybe this is just for novice me, to write certain scenes without having a visceral experience. I can imagine emotions, but sometimes it helps to put yourself in the moment to see what thoughts pop into one’s head. Something as small as lock picking may surprise me – is the adrenalin rush while doing it or once I’m “in”? I’m looking forward to finding out!

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  11. Fun πŸ™‚ I need to do more writing like this. I look perfectly harmless and yet I sleep with a loaded 12 guage and carry a taser EVERYWHERE I go, so it’s not hard to imagine your character having a few tricks up her sleeve. I’m intrigued… following now!

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    • We all look perfectly harmless until that thing that pushes us over the edge happens! I tend to avoid weaponry in real life except in martial arts, but Wanda may have to get creative. Plus, I like the challenge of turning the ordinary into weapons (a broom makes an awesome bow staff!). Thanks for reading and commenting and the follow. I’m slow on the uptake this week due to life circumstances. I usually respond to comments more quickly!

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      • No worries! That makes me think of Krav Maga (hope I spelled that right) where– I think— you are trained to use whatever items are available to you as weapons.

        Broom as a bowstaff, that is great πŸ™‚

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  12. I’m a compulsive reader of the acknowledgements page at the end of novels. I think we can get a sense of how other writers go about their research. The author Sue Grafton, in particular, writes informative acknowledgements. I think the key in seeking authoritative sources is to be totally upfront and honest. For example, it’s bad form for a reporter not to tell an interviewee up front that the reporter is working for a newspaper and the information might end up on the front page. I think an author gets the best results by saying that you’re researching for a possible book. Many sources are flattered by being recognized for their expertise.

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    • The line between nonfiction and fiction writing seems to be a fine one. It’s interesting in the “information age”, how our expectations have risen in terms of realism and research.

      I wonder, too, how we’ve gone so far to be realistic and thorough in details in fiction, that we’ve lost some ground in creativity and imagination. I’m reminded of the old suspenseful Hitchcock movies – no blood and gore, just foreshadowing and suspense. Now we have suspense movies that are extremely detailed in bloody realism with a lot less playing to human emotion.

      All worth thinking about while writing. I’m sure I’ll be posting more on the subject as I wend my way through this next novel. Thanks for reading and commenting, John.

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  13. I’m doing NaNoWriMo again too – your new project sounds fun. I am not too caught up in the technical details of a story when I read – if it’s something I am knowledgeable about I may notice, but other than that the story is what draws me and keeps me reading. Sometimes I think authors add too many details – it can be distracting.

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    • After much delay, I’m finally getting started on my 2nd novel. I have a lot of ground to make up! I think you’re right about too many details. It depends, of course, on the type of story it is and who the target audience might be.

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