By R.E. Donald
I was thrilled when I found out that the fourth novel in my Highway Mysteries series, Sundown on Top of the World, had been selected as a finalist for the 2016 Whistler Independent Book Award in the Crime Fiction Category. I was not only thrilled, but I also felt a great sense of relief.
As many other fiction writers know, confidence in our own work only goes so far. There’s an inexorable, distressing fear that our new novel has fatal flaws which, as the creator, we are just too close to the book to recognize. Releasing a new book, especially as an independent author-publisher doing so without the support of a team of publishing professionals, is taking a leap of faith. We do our best to write a novel that we ourselves would love to read, and trust that it will appeal to other readers with tastes similar to our own. For an actor with stage fright, validation is in the audience’s applause. For writers, that all important validation for our work comes from good reviews and awards.
The Writing Process
Creating a novel is more than just sitting at a keyboard and typing. Sundown on Top of the World took much longer to write than I expected. As a reader, I prefer stories and characters that are realistic and believable. As a writer, I strive to create that realism in my novels. Unfortunately for me, my trucker protagonist does not solve mysteries in my own city, nor in a fictitious city I’ve created, nor even in the current century. He lives on the highways of western North America in the late 1990s. Trying to make the settings of place and time as realistic as possible required many hours of research. I pored over books about Alaska and the Yukon, spent many hours doing online searches, and visited countless blogs, websites and images on Google Earth in my effort to get things right.
Although I’ve visited Alaska and the Yukon several times, it was always during the summer months. Happily, I moved to a ranch in the South Cariboo of British Columbia soon after I started writing Sundown. In the Cariboo, I was able to experience for myself what it’s like living in a place that gets very cold in the winter, where the lakes freeze over for months at a time, and where you can’t see your neighbor’s house but can often see a moose or a bear passing through. It became easier for me to visualize life in the far north. For Sundown, the litmus test of the setting’s credibility was receiving positive reviews from readers who live in Alaska and the Yukon.
Creating Memorable Characters
Fiction works best if characters come alive for the reader, and in order for that to happen, the characters must first be alive for the writer. Each of my characters is usually an amalgamation of traits from two or three people – actual or fictional – that I’ve encountered in my life. I’ll write a short bio of each major character and refer to it as I write, adding pertinent parts of their personality or history in a timeline of their life as such things become relevant to the story, so that the character becomes real to me and hopefully real to readers.
Writing Point of View
I choose to write in the third person with multiple points of view. Novels with multiple viewpoints give the writer and the reader an opportunity to get inside the heads of several characters that play an important role in the story. I love that experience! I loved getting to know Betty Salmon, the old bush woman who has been treated badly by men all her life and now clings to the one person who has loved her, a young woman named Goldie who is ready to leave home and experience life outside of the Alaskan bush. And I loved experiencing Goldie’s excitement and uncertainty as she gets to know a young man from a distant place called California, a place that she’s only seen in movies. I love exploring the bittersweet memories and emotions of my hero when he revisits places he last saw over twenty years ago before tragedy touched his life.
Plotting vs Pantsing
As far as the story goes, my writing process falls somewhere between plotting and ‘pantsing’. (For those not familiar with the term, ‘pantsing’ comes from the expression ‘by the seat of your pants’, meaning you let the story evolve as you write.) Traditional mysteries generally have a murder occurring ‘offstage’, multiple suspects, and a puzzle to solve. Before I start writing, I know who is murdered and who did it, and I choose which characters will be necessary to complicate the investigation or help to resolve it. In spite of the outlined plot, I often let the story change direction as the characters interact with each other and their environment.
Releasing The Finished Product
When the Sundown manuscript was completed after a year and a half of researching, writing, revising and editing, I felt proud of the novel I’d created but when I released the e-book on Kobo there was still that uncertainty about how readers would react. Would readers like it as much as I hoped? Would those who enjoyed my earlier books be disappointed with the new offering?
Thankfully, becoming an award finalist I have been able to breathe a huge sigh of relief. Now a new question arises: will my next novel –still a work in progress – also live up to readers’ expectations? I guess this writer’s form of stage fright never goes away!
R.E. Donald is the author of the Hunter Rayne highway mystery series. Ruth worked in the transportation industry in various capacities from 1972 until 2001, and draws on her own experiences, as well as those of her late husband, Jim Donald, in creating the characters and situations in her novels.
Ruth attended the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C., where she studied languages (Russian, French and German) and creative writing to obtain a Bachelor of Arts degree.
She currently lives on a ranch in Lone Butte, B.C., where she and her partner, Gilbert Roy, enjoy their Canadian Horses (Le Cheval Canadien) and other animals.
This is the most sensible, down to earth, easy to read, lesson on writing that I have yet read. I like that your stories evolve. I have been told many times that I must have the ending in mind. That is like already knowing the ending to my life. Impossible!
I’m happy to hear you found the post useful. I’ve always felt that it made sense for fiction writers to write the kind of books they themselves like to read, so that’s what I try to do. If a story doesn’t feel right to me, chances are it won’t feel right to a reader who likes the same kind of books as I do. Best of luck with your own writing!
Reblogged this on R.E. Donald and commented:
I’m looking forward to the Whistler Writers Festival in October!
Congratulations. Well deserved. I love your books and look forward to the next adventure.
I lived in Northern British Columbia. I taught in a one-room school grades one through eight. We had no electricity or running water. It was 100 miles from Ft St John, mostly on a dirt road. The first thing the school board gave me was a rifle; I said, “you sure take discipline seriously.” They replied , “It’s to keep the children safe from bears and moose.”
By the way, the school is still there and is called The Upper Halfway.
What a great anecdote! I’m sure you have many interesting stories from your time at The Upper Halfway! Thanks for posting.
Hi Ruth–congratulations on making the short list. Best of luck, and have a good time at Whistler. Looks like a great event.