Tag: writing

Scrabble tilesI really do.  Occasionally one will come to me, such as Camaro Espinoza (link), but that’s generally because my mind is wandering around and I start thinking things like, “You know, Shelby and Camaro both sound like girls’ names, even though they’re the names of muscle cars.”  It’s not because I have some specific use for them.  For the most part the process works like this: I’m outlining something, and I get to the point where I need a name.  Unless something pops into my head immediately, I use a random generator (link) and get what I need.  If a good name doesn’t appear in the first list, I just keep clicking until the generator either comes up with a combination I like, or I see a given name and a surname that go well together.  Name goes in the outline, and then I move on.

Similarly, if I’m writing the day’s pages, and I can’t think of a name to go into a slot, that character becomes XX until such time as I go back and fill it in.  I also tend to drop XX into places where I want to insert a specific piece of research, but don’t want to waste time tracking down at the moment.  Flow is important if you want to write as quickly as I do (link), and there’s simply no time for futzing around trying to figure out where I saw the name of some German dinner dish, or whatever.  There’s always an opportunity later on to find what I need, or name whatever or whomever I need to name.

I’m not saying this is a good technique for you.  It may not be.  I know some writers who can’t work on a piece of fiction unless they’ve created an extensive folio on their characters, specifying them down to the smallest detail.  To be frank, I don’t have the energy for that kind of thing.  As I have said before, people are very much like other people, no matter who they are or where they come from.  What’s important is what makes a character different from the norm, not the boring stuff which could apply to anyone.


A plate, fork and spoon.

Famously quoted on the original, Japanese Iron Chef, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”  I guess I believe that, because food is a thing with me in my writing.

Granted, food is a thing for me in general.  I spent a few years in my early twenties with so little money that eating every day wasn’t always an option.  I never miss a meal now (if you know what I mean).  And my characters rarely miss meals, either.  Also, you may notice when they eat I tend to tell you what’s in those meals, occasionally in detail.

Once I was told by a beta-reader that I had a seeming obsession with chairs.  That’s more of a hangover from a weird piece of advice I got as a young writer.  By contrast, writing about food is a way of making character and situation come to life, and it’s such a simple technique.  Ian Fleming used it in the James Bond novels to show how Bond is particular about what he puts in his body.  Tolkien used it to make a cultural point about how hobbits live.  George RR Martin writes extensively about food because apparently he really likes food.

That’s not a fat joke, by the way.  There’s a Game of Thrones cookbook (link), so clearly he’s a food fan.

Are characters eating a fancy meal?  A plain one?  Is it junk food or something healthy?  A particular ethnic variety?  All of these questions and more reveal things about situation and character.  In Walk Away (link), Camaro Espinoza‘s sister makes a complicated dish in one scene because she has become highly domestic after a lifetime of doing things halfway.  You know that now, and all I had to do was show you how she cooks.

I’m not saying everyone uses food in this way, but the next time a character in a book you’re reading eats, pay attention.



Nahuel HuapiOne of the things for which I was lauded when I wrote the Borderland Trilogy (link) was the authentic flavor of the cities in which the books take place: Ciudad Juárez for The Dead Women of Juárez (link) and Tequila Sunset (link), and Nuevo Laredo for Missing (link).  This is due largely to the fact that I’ve been to these places multiple times, and know the areas well.  Granted, my knowledge of these things is some twenty years out of date, as I don’t recommend anyone go there while the drug war rages, but the fundamental nature of cities and towns generally does not change in a single generation.

Since the Borderland Trilogy, I’ve had to rely on less extensive experience for locations and, in at least one case, I have no firsthand history with the place at all.  See if you can spot which one of the Camaro books (link) features that locale.

As I move ahead with new books in new places, I’ve taken to travel.  Early next year I’m headed off to Montana.  Later in 2019 I’m going to Argentina.  In both cases I’m going to take the opportunity to work in solitude for a week or more — I’m thinking about a whole month in Argentina, given the low cost involved — but the positive secondary effect is taking lots of time to walk/drive around and see people, places and things I can incorporate into my books.

If you can travel as a writer, absolutely do it.  Depending on your genre, you can go to the exact spots, or you can visit some close facsimile.  And even if you don’t do any direct research in your travels, simply pay attention to what makes a location unique.  You’ll find a use for this experience someday, I guarantee it.