Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Writers and their Readers


Dorte asked in a recent comment about the ‘contract’ between writer and reader, and this intriguing question prompted me to reflect again on what it is that readers expect writers to deliver. In this post, I’ll focus on my own experience, and field, but there are a good many wider issues that are also well worth discussing, and perhaps a future post will do so.

Most people would agree that ‘rules’ for writers are not a good thing. Way back in the 20s, Ronald Knox devised his Decalogue for detective story writers, a list of rules which should be observed and which has been seen in some ways as a cornerstone of writing in the Golden Age. But even he broke one or two of his own rules in his fiction, and so did many others, very successfully.

There is one important issue in a crime series that occupies my thoughts a lot. If you have loyal readers, who have read your earlier books, you don’t want to bore them with explanation about the characters’ back stories. But new readers need to understand about the people in the story, and not be confused. I believe I owe it to both sets of readers not to irritate them with too much or too little back story, and to deliver information in a pleasing way, without boring anyone. I have come across some series where there is too much or too little repetition of key facts, and the skill required to walk the tightrope is, I think, often under-estimated. I am determined to try to make sure that you can start my series anywhere - with the latest book, or one in the middle, and still enjoy that one, and then - if you do like it - all the others.

I’m also guided by another principle, which not everyone will agree with. I strive in my writing to create a strong impression of realism, but I’m not obsessed with it. I don’t mind changing the topography of Liverpool or the Lakes a little, if it suits the story, and does not jar (at least, does not jar with me!) One reason why this is a good idea, in my opinion, is to avoid distressing people in the real world, or even libelling people or organisations unintentionally. For instance, inevitably I feature the Cumbria Constabulary in my work, but I’ve created a fictional equivalent to the real police force (the real one is, I gather from the statistics, very good, even if it lacks a Hannah Scarlett, let alone a Les Bryant or a Greg Wharf.)

However ‘realistic’ we try to be as writers – and I’m strongly in favour of writers making the attempt to be ‘realistic’ – we have to recognise the real world is different from our make-believe universe. Take the Cumbria shootings, or the Jo Yeates murder, for instance. Those tragic events have a resonance and an impact that is almost impossible to re-create in fiction, even though the best fiction can have enormous impact. Here’s another ‘rule’ that I set myself, then. When challenging readers to think about matters of life and death in fiction, to do so with respect for those living in the real world.

22 comments:

Hannah Dennison said...

Great post! I've only just discovered you - thanks to Ann Cleeves!

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - What a terrific post about what writers owe to their readers, and what readers have a right to expect from writers. I couldn't agree with you more that it's very important for the writer to consider carefully the balance between enough backstory/information to draw in new readers, but not so much as to bore fans. Not an easy thing to do.

As to real life and, sometimes, taking a bit of liberty with it, I think you have quite a valid point. It's far more important to consider the living than it is to make sure that every detail of a story is precisely accurate, especially if it comes to something sensitive such as a police constabulary. That said, though, I think readers want and deserve enough of a sense of realism that they can believe the characters could exist and the events could unfold. At least that's how I view it (although not everyone agrees with me).

Fiona said...

Martin, just for that last sentence alone you command the very highest respect as a writer. I wish all authors thought the same.

Spangle said...

This is a really interesting post. I think getting the balance right, between giving enough information about the characters featured within previous novels, without boring the readers who have followed the series from the beginning, is really difficult one.

Although not strictly a crime writer, Kate Atkinson does this extremely well. You could read any of her 'Jackson Brodie' series and still be able to follow Jackson's journey, without feeling bogged down by information.

harriet said...

Interesting post -- especially your point about how much or how little information to give readers of a series. I've been quite aware of this in my recent reading as I'm particularly fond of detective series. And I must say I think you have done very well in your Lakes books -- just the right balance.

Deb said...

You said--

Here’s another ‘rule’ that I set myself, then. When challenging readers to think about matters of life and death in fiction, to do so with respect for those living in the real world.

--and I couldn't agree more and respect you for it immensely. I was shocked at a recent Elizabeth George mystery obviously based in part on the Jamie Bolger tragedy with just few name changes. A serious lapse of judgment on George's part in my opinion.

As for repeating information for new readers in a series--I have no problem with a brief repeat of action from previous books, especially if I'm new to the series--and, if I'm not, I can always skim over the repeat.

Dorte H said...

Thank you for a great post. And it is good to see via the comments that I am not the only fan of your Lake District series who enjoy these posts about all the considerations behind your work.

Rules can be constricting, but there is a difference between following rules others have set, or setting up some rules for your own series. And when it comes to realism, the police procedural is probably the subgenre where readers have the highest expectations.

Thriller writers don´t seem very concerned about that aspects, and in many cosy mysteries there is an element of humour or parody which is more important than accuracy.

Re Fiona´s comment: I may never have said so, but apart from the excellent crime fiction content of your blog, two things I have come to appreciate very much is your thoughtfulness and respect for others (readers as well as writers).

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I love the way you've stated this, Martin. I've worried over things like setting detail, character backstory, etc. You've created a sort of Golden Rule for writers...I like it! Am tweeting this.

Martin Edwards said...

Hello, Hannah, and welcome to the blog!

Martin Edwards said...

Margot, absolutely. I've read some good but totally implausible stories, but I do tend to prefer those that are somewhat plausible!

Martin Edwards said...

Fiona and Harriet - thank you!

Martin Edwards said...

Spangle, oh, I do agree about Atkinson. I missed the first JB books, but loved the last two! Mind you, I will read the ones I've missed before long...

Martin Edwards said...

Deb, I didn't know EG had covered the Bulger case in fiction. Of course, that terrible case made a huge impact in Merseyside, and still resonates.

Martin Edwards said...

Deb, I didn't know EG had covered the Bulger case in fiction. Of course, that terrible case made a huge impact in Merseyside, and still resonates.

Martin Edwards said...

Dorte, thanks - and thanks to you and your daughter for inspiring this post!

Martin Edwards said...

Elizabeth - thanks very much!!

Deb said...

Martin--George's book is titled THIS BODY OF DEATH. Despite the fact that I find she "pads" her books with unnecessary detail, I usually enjoy George's mysteries, but this one was really difficult to read--especially the parts dealing with the thinly-veiled "Jamie Bolger" tragedy (which, frankly, I skipped over). Perhaps the most depressing part of what I see as George's exploitation of Jamie Bolger was that the entire situation was used as a subplot for a somewhat routine murder-mystery. I did not think this was one of George's best efforts--in part, I think, because of the negative impact of using child abduction & murder in such a way.

John said...

Thanks for your insights. Nice to know there are some writers thinking about their readers. Here's an interesting work-around of the same problem as handled by a writer from back in the "old days":

The writer "Mark Cross" (who also wrote as "Valentine") began an unusual series about a character named Daphne Wrayne and her crime solving group of "Adjustors." The series soon grew faster and more popular than Cross and Ward Lock, his publisher, thought possible. In order to alleviate the problem of re-introducing the group and their purpose to legions of new readers in book after book (the series totale dwell over 30) Cross devised a cheat sheet of sorts that gave the entire background of the characters and the origin of the unique crime fighting outfit they founded.

I wonder why more contemporary writers don't provide character sheets in books that involve series characters. Seems a very handy thing. You read it if you have to, skip it if you're already familiar.

The old Pocket Book reprints of vintage authors like Christie and Stout used to have Dramatic Personae lists in the front of the book as well to help give background as well as keep track of large casts of characters.

aguja said...

Thank you for this enlightening post, Martin. All that you say rings true. It is right to show respect to the real world and those affected by tragedy.

It is also, as you say, a tightrope walk to get the balance between too little and too much information. I am glad that I shall be able to read your new book without having the background of having read the others in the series.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Deb, thanks for that info. I have read some of her books, and enjoyed one or two a lot, the one about my favourite sport of cricket rather less so!

Martin Edwards said...

John, that is really interesting. I've never come across him. Character lists are seen as old fashioned by publishers,but the Rue Morgue reprints include them, and I rather like them. Maybe a topic for another post.

Martin Edwards said...

Aguja, thanks, and I hope your own writing is going well.