Monday, May 09, 2011

This House Holds Secrets

Everyday when I take my kids to school I pass a house. To me it epitomizes the classic American house. Its the kind of house I fantasize coming home to as a child. There is probably always a fresh pot of coffee on and a pie cooling in the window. Crocheted doilies created by a long-dead grandmother cover end tables. Wedding and baby pictures decorate the walls. Its a Norman Rockwell painting come to life.
I think it hides the gates to Hell.
Its not that I'm subversive or have the strong desire to rip off the patina of suburban living to show the rot beneath. I'm not making a social statement; I'm not that deep. But I do love to imagine something dark and dangerous living in the middle of perfection. I like the edge of terror such images evoke. I think it also helps the reader get pulled into the story. If the scene is one they can imagine on their own, have a familiarity with, it brings them into the action quicker than if they have to structure the scene from scratch in their minds.
Sticking with a familiar world helps me with writing. I'm more of an action writer, the hallmark of my writing is usually a scene of violence to open the novel. I like to write action and dialogue. If I have to build a world from scratch I get discouraged. I worked on a steampunk novel and while building a world of airships and fantastical steam gadgets dressed up in Victoriana was interesting and fun, it was work. It felt ponderous for me. It held me back from the strengths of what I like to write.
But world building is necessary. I have abandoned a couple of authors I used to read because they didn't flesh out their world enough and stuck to pure action. Constant action with no tangible scenery becomes confusing and boring. Finding the right balance is tough. So I look to the familiar as a shortcut. Any modern tale I write is going to take place in California. It minimizes the research required. I also have enough familiarity with my home state to create a fictional town which still retains a sense of authenticity. Dean Koontz is good at this. He will create a fictional town but I can immediately get a sense of what and where the town is. I also like suburban settings because most of us have a sense of what suburbia is. It really doesn't matter the state and in some instances, the country.
Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses when they write. There is nothing wrong with finding shortcuts to make your writing easier. Looking to the familiar to find inspiration and even cornerstones to a scene is writing smart. If it helps a writer pull their readers in and give them a connection to the story its all good. So when trying to find where the body is hidden, where the spy hid the flash drive loaded with state secrets or where the gates to Hell are standing, try looking next door.