by Jeff Mariotte
It should go without saying—but these days, it seems even the most obvious sentiments need to be expressed or people will assume they’re not felt—that last week’s shootings at Virginia Tech were an abominable act performed by a seriously disturbed person.
What was worrying from a long-range perspective was the amount of attention paid to the shooter’s writings, apparently violent and full of rage. That attention seems to have been eclipsed for the moment by consideration of his multimedia “manifesto,” but I still fear that we’ll return to it in the months to come.
Americans are already living in an environment where a student’s writings about a fictional presidential assassination can trigger a visit form the Secret Service, and where students can be suspended for “violent” writings. We should all remember—and where necessary, remind “the authorities”—that the world of the imagination and the world we live in are two different places. Very seldom does anyone confuse the two, as the VT killer seems to have done. Young people in particular struggle with all kinds of powerful emotions, as their bodies change and their minds are exposed to new information and they try to follow their individual paths toward adulthood. Through writing, they can express some of those emotions, study them, understand them, and to take those writings as literal statements of intent is foolish in the extreme.
Fiction is about conflict. Since the beginnings of literature, that conflict has often been expressed in violent action. I believe that writing about violence has a therapeutic effect in most cases, and is rarely, if ever, a genuine spur toward violence on the part of the writer. Has Thomas Harris, after all, really enjoyed brain sherbet? Has Stephen King mangled victims with laundry equipment? Has Lee Child shot dozens of people?
And on the flip side, this past week also brought the tragic anniversaries of Waco and Oklahoma City and Columbine and the birth of Adolph Hitler. Had the people responsible for those deaths written stories of rage and murder? Not that I’ve heard about. Now, though, the shooter responsible for more deaths than any other was an English major and an amateur writer, so it’s assumed by the media and the so-called experts that his writings, properly examined, could have predicted his future actions.
That’s nonsense, and they should know it, and they should not jump to that conclusion the next time a writer expresses boiling anger on paper, or even tells a story of extreme violence just because it’s what speaks to him at the moment. We’d be better off, I think, to let people work through those issues on paper, and maybe cancel the third week of April altogether, because all those anniversaries piled upon one another bring a terrible psychic weight to bear on us all, and that, more than any story or play, seems destined to lead to more violence.
I wrote, several months ago, about the pleasures of writing about what you want to learn about. Knowing there might be a check at the end of the research makes the time spent on study more enjoyable and worthwhile, and the more a writer knows about his or her topic, the more informed and convincing the final book can be.
These past few months, I’ve experienced both sides of the coin. I wrote two novels based on TV shows, one on the CW series Supernatural and one on the CBS program CSI: Miami. For Supernatural: Witch’s Canyon, my editor suggested that it might be cool for the Winchester brothers to visit someplace they haven’t on the show, like the Grand Canyon. I hadn’t been to the Canyon since moving to Arizona anyway, and love seeing it, so I made the trip, did some research on the region (since the story itself doesn’t take place in the National Park or right at the canyon) and enjoyed every minute of it. The words flowed when I got to the keyboard. I think the book is good, although that’s not something I’m in a position to judge for myself yet.
For CSI: Miami: Right to Die, however, I didn’t get to go to Miami. I’ve been there several times before, and I had books and maps and the internet to help me. Location wasn’t the tricky part in that one, though. As on TV, the science in the book has to be right, even when the application of that science (CSIs investigating murders beginning to end, for instance) is not accurate. And science is not something I have ever been (or will ever be) entirely comfortable with.
The language of science, like the German language, seems to believe that there’s no word that can’t be made better by the introduction of several additional words that may or may not seem related at first blush.
Writing the novel, I not only had to try to understand scientific language, but to translate it into something I could describe in real words. It’s not enough to grasp how cyanoacrylate fuming or tetramethylbenzidine testing works, but in a novel that has to be expressed in sight and sound and smell. Which, if you’re scientifically challenged like me, makes the work much harder. I think it all works, but again, someone else will have to determine that—I’m still too close to it.
Recently I’ve taken on various tasks that pull me away from writing. I’m a judge for this year’s World Fantasy Awards, and behind me in my office are—no, I don’t have time to count them; let’s just say about a hundred books that have arrived in the past couple of months, with more showing up all the time. I’m chairing a subcommittee for the International Thriller Writers, and after having spent yesterday in the mountains there are more than forty emails in my in-box about that work. And I’ve been doing whatever I can to promote my supernatural thriller Missing White Girl, which goes on sale next month. Any of these could easily become full-time work, at least temporarily. None of them come with a check attached, and only the third of those works to my semi-immediate financial benefit. But only after spending plenty of time and money on the process.
Which leads back to time management, and the necessity of saying “no” once in a while. You can bet that’ll be my answer the next few times I’m asked to take part in something above and beyond. It’s too easy for a full-time writer to think, sure, I’ve got an hour I can spare here and there. When those hours grow into days and weeks, they can become a problem. It’s one I’ve managed to avoid, but now, suddenly, I’m in the middle of it. Anybody got a shovel?