Michael Haskins

Thursday, February 12, 2009

SleutFest Panel - Write Great Dialogue

I will be on the “Write Great Dialogue” panel at the Florida chapter of MWA’s SleuthFest 2009 at the Deerfield Beach Hilton, Feb. 26 – March 1 (http://www.mwa.fla.org/), along with Terry Odell – www.terryodell.com; Deborah Shlian - www.shlian.com; Joan Johnston – www.joanjohnston.com, and moderator Gregg Brickman – http://www.greggebrickman.com/, on Friday, Feb. 27, 2:15 p.m. We follow the luncheon where chapter President Jim Born – http://www.jamesoborn.com/ - introduces guest speaker John Hart – www.johnhartfiction.com.

The three-days of panel topics is online and a good event for the writer, the wannabe writer and mystery fans. Check it out.

I am not sure why someone thought to add me to the panel, but I would like to think it had to do with that someone reading my book (Chasin’ the Wind) and being impressed with the dialogue in it. A while back, in my blog, I wrote about hanging out at the Hog’s Breath Saloon and Schooner Wharf Bar, and how it had more to do with noticing how people (especially tourists trying to fit in and have a good time) talked and intermingled, then it did with drinking too much Kalik beer or Jameson. Some people even believed me!

As reading is important to writers as writing, observation of people is important to good, sorry, “great dialogue.” A paragraph or half page of dialogue needs something to make it move and that something is short description of how people talk. I sat and watched a man try to pick up a young woman at the bar and while he talked he absentmindedly pulled at his earlobe every so often. Did he do it on purpose? I doubt it, I think it was a habit he’d had for a long time.

Another time, I sat close to three young women who were having fun drinking their rum-and-cokes and key lime cocktails and talking about the men sitting around the bar and two of the band members. One young lady, with red hair hanging past her shoulders, twirled her fingers through a few lose strands of hair and neither her friends nor she were aware of her doing it. It was a habit of her’s and no one paid attention to it (but me).

Adding these small habits to break up a long paragraph of dialogue helps the reader take a breath and is important.

Observation is important and so is listening. One advantage of hanging out at the Hog and Schooner Wharf and the Green Parrot, is you get to hear all kinds of accents; foreign as well as regional. While too much accent in written dialogue will bore your reader, the right sprinkling of it will get your point across and your character identified.

Going back to junior high school (you know the old red, one-room schoolhouse), I always remember one thing I learned (Okay, so I wasn’t the best student in the room, but I did learn something!) from the teacher and that was that the way someone from a place pronounced its name was the correct way to say it. When you do that in writing, you usually have to spell a word phonetically.

I have friends from the great state of Louisiana and learned from listening to them that they pronounce it ‘Lous-E-anna.’ One evening I was sitting at Schooner Wharf with my friend Bob Pierce and at the table next to us, four young, collage-aged women were having a hell of a good time. One wore a LSU T-shirt. We were smoking cigars and one asked if it was all right for them to smoke cigars. We assured them it was and told them the cigar roller at the bar had small, flavored cigars, but they wanted ‘real’ cigars. Bob walked two of them to the cigar roller and they came back with fresh cigars. We showed them how to cut and light them. Next round of drinks was on them (seems Bob paid for the cigars – you know how those Texas gentlemen can be). I thanked them and asked where in ‘Lous-E-anna’ they were from.

They laughed, not at me, but in amazement, they said, because they’d never heard a Yankee pronounce their state’s name properly.

While I don’t hear my Boston accent, people that meet me for the first time usually catch it, or think I am a New Yorker (God forbid, I’m a Red Sox fan!). While we may all speak English, there are dialects. Talk to an Irishman or a Scotsman just off the boat and you need a translator!

What am I going to bring to the panel? I guess it will be to tell those in the audience that to write great dialogue the writer needs to listen to people, their accents and observe their distinctive gestures while talking, to be able to capture the whole picture. After all, do you want to read pages and pages of straight dialogue? I know I don’t. I want to be able to see the speaker, as he/she uses hand gestures and other body language as the conversation moves forward. It even works in short sentances and helps identify a speaker without repeating his/her name with he said/she said.

What do you think? Please let me know.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Bob Morris & the USA Today Syndrome

My friend and fellow mystery writer Bob Morris – www.bobmorris.net - taught me something about myself recently when he was at Murder on the Beach Bookstore – www.murderonthebeach.com - in Delray Beach to sign his new Zack Chasteen novel, “A Deadly Silver Sea.”

Bob read a printout version of my novel, “Chasin’ the Wind,” and gave me a nice blurb for the cover, long before we had actually met. He did it because he’s a nice guy and, like most mystery writers, remembers what it was like to get that first novel out. That and the fact that I really enjoyed his other Zack Chasteen novels, “Bahamarama,” “Jamaica Me Dead,” and “Bermuda Schwartz,” made my driving almost 200 miles to the bookstore an enjoyable trip. Of course, the fact that Bob also is known for serving a sampling of his famous rum mojitos at his signing was also another reason for the drive.

By 7 p.m., the bookstore was standing room only and I got to see Deb Sharp – www.deborahsharp.com – and talk about first publications and got to discuss my book with some of the guests while we sipped mojitos and waited for Bob to talk.

Bob stood up in front of the crowd, ignoring the overstuffed chair, and began to explain how in the new book he had to go into different voices to make it work. Not to give the plot away, but the story takes place on a luxury cruise ship and the action is nonstop.

One of the things Bob said to me, after reading, “Chasin’ the Wind” was that he liked that my chapters were short and ended with him wanting to turn to the next chapter so he could answer the question or see the solution to the dilemma that ended the previous chapter.

Bob explained the difficulty of writing a book that took place on a cruise ship and how he came about deciding to use different voices in telling the story. Then he talked about why his chapters were short. He explained that he saw his chapters as scenes in a TV show or a movie and went into a little of his background in advertising and entertainment.

I sat there and realized how right he was about chapters being scenes. I had spent most of my wayward youth in Los Angeles working on TV shows and thought maybe that explained why I also wrote short chapters.

Of course, I began with short chapters because of what I call the “U.S.A. Today syndrome.” People are busy today and want to see everything capsulized as U.S.A Today does to the news and as televised news does in its broadcasts.

I don’t really outline my story, but I do make notes on things that should happen and begin giving them chapter numbers. Usually, that goes away because the story begins to write itself and some ideas are tossed aside and others move further up in the storyline and, on occasion I even have to go back and insert something I thought would work further in the story back to an earlier chapter.

I was interviewed on Sun Radio, 95.5 FM, here in Key West, by morning DJ Bill Hoebee and one of the nice things Bill said about my books was that he began it, got hooked on the short chapters and kept wanting to put the book down but needed to know the answer/solution to how the last chapter ended. He said, on air, that by midnight he had to stop reading because he had to be up at 3 a.m. to get to the station. He also mentioned that it was the first novel he’d read since leaving college, because it was an easy read that hooked him. From Hoebee’s lips to readers’ ears!

Not all chapters are short, but most are within the three-to-five page range. I read a lot of news magazines and newspapers and have noticed I usually avoid the “in-depth” pieces unless it’s a subject that really interests me, but I will read many of the shorter pieces. I do this, of course, looking for idea germs and maybe a little something that I can use in background for my novels and short stories.

Short chapters don’t work for everyone, but they seem to work for me, so I have kept it up and am working on my third book, “Car Wash Blues.” I am more aware of chapter length and reread them a little more often than I used to do, because I want to make sure the chapter works, and that I am not just trying to cut them to the bone and leave the reader missing the meat.

Do short chapters work for you? If they do, or don’t, let me know the reason, please.


FEEDJIT Live Traffic Map