My mother she butchered me,
My father he ate me,
My sister, little Ann Marie,
She gathered up the bones of me
And tied them in a silken cloth
To lay under the juniper,
Tweet twee, what a pretty bird am I!
–"The Juniper Tree" by the Grimm brothers
But when I first saw it, I loved it. Immediately. It’s in manga style, with cartoon characters. My amateur sleuth, a seventysomething Japanese American gardener, is grappling with some young man while his tomboyish daughter stands holding a smoking gun.
The cover alerts readers that the book inside may be a fairy tale. No, I silently respond to my mother’s electronic comment, this publisher totally got the book.
Inevitably at some writers conference, book event, or blog, there will be an author who explains that it’s best to write what you know. I always cringe when I hear that remark and double cringe when another writer counters that writing what you know is the most boring thing ever.
You see, readers will look at me and firmly place me in the "writing what you know" camp. After all, my main character in my series is inspired by my father and all the men I wrote about while I was a reporter and then editor for a Japanese American newspaper for more than 10 years. It’s a very quaint and precious behind-the-scenes story but is nowhere close to evoking the oohs and aahs of let’s say, a white guy writing about a geisha in the mid-twentieth century. Because certainly he did the hard lifting, while I must have sat there and documented what was right in front of me, like a teenager with a Super 8 camera (I know, I’m dating myself.)
But writing any kind of fiction is just that — writing lies for entertainment and illumination. Doesn’t matter if the subject matter is close and all around you, or back in the distant past or future or in another country or world. When you sit down at that computer or desk, what you’re doing is creating a new universe — it can be one that is very similar to the one you live in, but it cannot be the exact same reproduction. Characters that are based or inspired by real people cannot be tied down to reality — there will come a time in your manuscript that they will loosen their rope ties or break their metal shackles and go on their own way. It just has to be.
Anyway, what do we really know? Do we totally understand our friends, parents, children, spouse/partner and even ourselves? (If we did, there would be a lot less substance abuse, divorce, child neglect, and family discord, I’d imagine.) Can we imagine what loved ones are feeling, thinking at all times? Have we shocked ourselves at how we’ve reacted during a time of crisis? Those of us who write about familiar characters, settings and locales may be recreating what we THINK we know. But it’s indeed just one interpretation.
For those in the mystery genre, plot also forces us to be universe creators. Whether we write traditional mysteries, thrillers, police procedurals, noir stories, or PI novels, we are actually treading in to the arena of folk tales and fairy tales. Because how in the world can our amateur sleuth — a common baker, p.r. professional, or gardener — keep tripping over those dead bodies? We know your average FBI agent doesn’t have that kind of non-stop exciting life (I’m sure there’s a lot of paperwork that needs to be filled out on antiquated computers). We’ve heard how most crime labs are destitute and to process one DNA test might take the length of a whole season of CSI. And private investigators — talk about mundane work!
Yet in our hands, these people become something else on the page. I’m convinced their stories are our society’s contemporary folk and fairy tales. Just check out Grimm’s fairy tales; they are definitely more noir than fanciful. Some impart lessons; others are just gruesome. Some are light and humorous. All present an alternate reality, where a common villager can transform into something quite extraordinary.
As I’ve mentioned on blogs and speaking engagements, my father, up to this time, hasn’t read any of my books in the series — and now there are three of them. Even though he was born in California and has lived here for most of his life, he feels more comfortable reading Japanese.
I say "up to this time," because things have changed with the Japanese translation.
Instead of waiting for my author’s copies from the Japanese publisher, I run to the local Kinokuniya Bookstore in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo as soon as I hear that Shogakukan’s version of GASA-GASA GIRL has come in.
My first stop afterwards is to my parents’ house. My father grabs the book out of my hand before I’m barely inside. He rushes to the light and examines the front and back covers and goes straight to the end of the book, where there’s a five page essay on me and the series.
"The person writes that she’s hoping for more books on Mas Arai," he reports.
There will be, I say, as I’ve just forged a deal with a new publisher. (This time hardcover, yay!)
He then asks me what’s going to be the heart of the fourth book.
"Drugs," I say in Japanese.
"Drugs?" My father frowns and considers this topic. "This guy’s a gangster," he then proclaims.
I wonder if I’ve insulted my father — perhaps guilt through literary association — but when I look more closely at his bespectacled face, I believe that his eyes are glimmering.
The next time I see him, he has finished the book. "Kora," he says. Hey! "You wrote my story."
But you’ve never been in New York, the setting of the translated book, I tell him.
He doesn’t seem to hear my words. When I leave, he walks onto our cement porch. "Our friends are waiting for the next installment," he says. "They are wondering what will happen next."
WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT CHARACTER AND UNIVERSE BUILDING?
S.J. Rozan and I will be leading a workshop, "Credible Characters, Credible Worlds," at MWA’s inaugural two-day Crime Fiction University during Edgar Week. Our session will be on Tuesday, April 29, at 2 p.m. at Lighthouse International in New York City.