Margaret Lucke doesn’t just write novels, she teaches writing for the UC Berkeley extension. I’m so lucky to have her share some thoughts on writing here.
Earlier this month I was the featured author at a book club meeting—via Zoom, of course, because that’s how we’re all getting together these days. It was great fun, a welcome chance to talk with some enthusiastic folks about two of my favorite topics, reading and writing, and chat about my new novel, House of Desire.
One of the participants mentioned an issue that had recently been discussed in lively fashion on a mystery readers’ forum—pedestrian writing. What did I think that meant, and how did I avoid it in my own work?
I’d read some of those forum posts. They were talking about books that left readers dissatisfied despite interesting plots or characters were interesting, because the language was bland or boring.
To me pedestrian writing means that but also something more: it’s prose that doesn’t invite readers to step inside the story.
House of Desire
Wiser minds than mine have pointed out that the purpose of fiction is to give the reader a powerful experience. As a reader my favorite books are the ones that make me feel like I’m right there in the middle of things, participating in the action. They’re the ones that make me to share the characters’ emotions—their fear, anger, love, and joy. As a writer my goal is to create that kind of story for my readers.
In writing House of Desire, I wanted to bring readers into a world in which the boundaries of reality are stretched a little wider than they are in the world where we live our daily lives. My heroine, Claire Scanlan, is struggling to accept a talent she’d rather not have. When she goes into certain places, she perceives spirits and strange energies that no one else can detect.
At a gala fundraiser to save a grand San Francisco Victorian, Claire encounters a mysterious young woman, Roxane, who is invisible to everyone else. Roxane, a “soiled dove” plying her trade in the mansion in 1896, has discovered a secret portal that lets her slip into what she calls the Future House to escape the most brutal of the men who buy her favors.
When the fundraiser’s organizer is murdered, Roxane is the sole witness. Terrified, she flees back to her own time and enlists the only true gentleman she has ever met to help her find justice for the victim.
Claire’s philandering brother-in-law is accused of being the killer. To clear his name she must find the elusive Roxane—which means risking a perilous journey into the past from which she may never return.
The story moves back and forth between the present day, when the three siblings who have inherited the now-empty mansion are squabbling over its future, and 1896, when a parlor house, as an upscale bordello was called back then, operated on the premises.
The challenge resolved
The challenge I faced: To draw you into them into both of these times and environments and make them believable, vivid, and intriguing. Here are some of the techniques I used.
Deep point of view: Claire and Roxane are both POV characters. There are a couple of others too. Each has her own understanding on what’s happening and her own set of stakes in the outcome. By taking you deep into their hearts and minds, I hope to help you think of them as real people you care about.
Carefully chosen details: We connect to the world through our senses and so do these characters. So I constructed my two story worlds using sensory details as the building blocks. When the details are specific and concrete, you can call upon your own experience to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch them just as the characters are doing. At the same time I avoided long passages of description, instead weaving these details into the action to keep the story’s momentum going.
Dynamic scenes: I like scenes because they’re active. They create forward motion by focusing on action and dialogue. They reveal the characters by showing how they interact with each other, how they respond to their environment, and how they deal with the situation of the moment. You become a direct witness to something important that is happening right in front of our eyes.
Voice: I tried to make the voice for each character and time period distinct and appropriate. It’s in the narrative voice that pedestrian writing can creep in—or be kept out. It all goes back to that good advice that all writers hear at some point: Make every word count.
If you want to see some of my other guest posts, check out the archives here.